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WSU, BYU students doing 'study abroad' program in our own backyard this summer

Weber State University students Alex Willie, left, and Abigail Cohen sort pottery shards and artifacts found at an ancestral Puebloan homestead site during Archeological Field School in southeastern Utah Thursday.

Weber State University students Alex Willie, left, and Abigail Cohen sort pottery shards and artifacts found at an ancestral Puebloan homestead site during Archeological Field School in southeastern Utah Thursday. (Benjamin Zack, Weber State University)



SALT LAKE CITY — This summer, students from Weber State University, Brigham Young University and the University of New Mexico are performing archeology work at an ancestral Puebloan habitation center in southeast Utah as part of WSU's Study Abroad program.

The university has hosted a trip each summer for more than 30 years before the pandemic began. COVID-19 canceled last year's trip, and "the group is excited to continue their work this year" — even if in their own backyard rather than overseas, school officials said in a news release.

The students are studying Coal Bed Village, which is located 10 miles east of Blanding and is believed to have been inhabited 1,000 years ago. Students and instructors started July 5 and will excavate and analyze the site until July 31.

Students spend most of each day digging on-site and then operate a temporary lab in the evening at a nearby campground.

"This is where you learn how to put the procedures and tactics you're taught in the classroom to use," said Shawn McGrath, an anthropology major with an emphasis in archaeology, in the news release.

"It takes a lot of patience, especially when you're digging artifacts out from the site, but it helps us build a historical record of what may have taken place. It really ties everything together," he said.

Coal Bed Village was first documented in 1875. It is now threatened by erosion triggered by a gully with fast-flowing water cutting from Montezuma Creek, prompting more attention from archaeologists, according to WSU research published in the Digital Archaeological Record.

The university has been taking students to work at the site for the past few years, and they have recovered thousands of artifacts found at the site including pot shards, stone tools and animal bones. This year, they are excavating a ceremonial room called a kiva. Students camp near the site during the week and then return home on the weekends.

"Southeast Utah is a beautiful location with thousands of years of prehistory," said David Yoder, WSU anthropology professor. "The area has a high density of unique and amazing archaeological sites.

"This trip is a great opportunity to train and educate students in archaeological field techniques while performing excavation and research," he said.

After the group uncovers as many artifacts as it can and records information, the site will be backfilled. University officials believe these expeditions are the only times the site will be explored.

"So much can be lost in the past, so it's important to document these places while we still can," McGrath said. "Every little bit we discover helps contribute to the bigger story. It pulls everything together and helps us understand what these ancient cultures were like."

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