Utah caves offer ‘unmatched’ insights about past

By Sharon Haddock
Danger Cave State Park, Utah (AP) June 2011


Utah’s Danger and Jukebox caves are remarkable archaeological sites for several reasons.

Both provided shelter for ancient groups of people as far back as 12,000 years ago and have clues hidden in the strata that tell valuable stories to research teams.

Danger Cave – once known as Hands and Knees Cave because the curious had to crawl in to access it – is considered the cornerstone of archaeological research in the Great Basin.

Jukebox Cave – Indian Cave or Picture Cave – contains rock artwork of hunters on horses armed with spears and bows and arrows that is fascinating and unique. Today it also has a concrete dance floor that once lent itself to parties for soldiers and their dates.

And remarkably, the two hillside caves remain intact enough to warrant further study and protection despite periodic years of abandonment during which looters and relic hunters paraded through the precious sites with abandon.

Retired state archaeologist David Madsen, along with current state archaeologist Kevin T. Jones and assistant state archaeologist Ron Rood, led groups of private citizens through the caves May 14 as part of the annual Archaeology Week activities – an event well attended by a fortunate few.

“We get such an overwhelming response every time we offer tours,” Rood said, “just to go see a big hole in the ground.”

“If you meet any archaeologist anywhere and tell them you’ve worked at Danger Cave, they will fall on their knees in awe because it’s such a very famous archaeological site,” Madsen said. “It’s one of the most important sites in the United States. What it’s taught us of antiquity is unmatched.”

Danger Cave is so named because a large section of the outer rock face broke off and fell to the ground minutes after a research team had broken for lunch and cleared the area in 1941. The rocks remain today as mute evidence that ultimately, Mother Nature has say over what happens to these natural formations.

The cave itself is a good-sized opening in the rocky hillside in the Great Basin area a few miles from Wendover, big enough to explore with ease and, at the time of discovery, almost filled with cultural debris.

University of Utah field researchers under the direction of Jesse D. Jennings spent between 1949 and 1953 clearing out and studying the debris. They found an amazing array of artifacts, even perishable items like bits of basketry, leather and wood that survived only because the cave is dry.

They discovered layers of pickleweed seeds, pine nuts and salt brush, antelope hair and rock and ash from the hearths of people who probably used the caves as winter camp sites.

“(Jenning’s) work is what we know,” Madsen said. “He excavated stratographically, peeling back the layers that recorded the history.”

After World War II, Danger Cave became tied to the advent of radio-carbon dating, which opened up another world for researchers.

The caves, left after the vast Lake Bonneville receded and waves washed in and out of the hillside holes, were first visited by Robert Heizer in the 1930s and tested in the early 1940s by Elmer Smith.

In 1943, soldiers from Wendover Air Base leveled part of the rear Jukebox Cave and put in a concrete slab for dancing.

“We came back in the late `60s,” Madsen said. “We found the ground in the caves had just been churned up by the locals.”

Excavation went on for about a week in 1968. The caves were then deemed “empty” of findable material and abandoned for another 20 years.

Researchers returned in 1986, dug trenches and found 130 artifacts in a single rock column near the cave mouth, so they brought in a Bobcat and leveled the floor. They dug deeper and found more artifacts such as coprolites (fossilized dung) and quids (chewed bits of fibrous food) along with arrowheads, bone tools, grinding stones and bits of twine baskets.

Protective iron bar gates were put up in 1998.

The research has given historians a rough timeline of the occupants: Paleoindian (8,000-12,000 years ago), Desert Archaic people (2,000-8,000 years ago) and the Fremont and Anasazi Indians (700-2,000 years ago), followed by the late prehistoric tribes, the Spanish explorers and finally pioneer settlers in 1847.

Madsen, Rood and Jones figure there’s still plenty of information to be gathered. “We assumed the looters had taken everything there was to take,” Madsen said. “But there’s so much deep down.”

And now, DNA experts can examine the quids and determine which tribal people occupied the caves, where the people came from and their migration patterns.

“We’re never done with what we find,” Madsen said.

Rood said some of the most valuable information comes from ““unlovely specimens” like the coprolites and the quids. There are tens of thousands of such items in Danger Cave alone.

Inside Jukebox Cave, there’s an environmental record that is just as important as Danger Cave’s archaeological record.

“It’s so valuable,” Madsen said. “Because it has got not just one ecosystem recorded but a whole array, including the marshland that used to exist outside the mouth, the desert, the mountain terrain.”

Eventually, he and Jones expect funds will become available to pay for thoroughly excavating Jukebox Cave, a task for a future generation of researchers.

Members of the Utah Statewide Archaeological Society have adopted the caves as part of the Utah Site Stewardship Program. Trained stewards visit the sites several times a year to monitor erosion, site condition and vandalism.

Danger Cave has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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