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New Dating Method Lets Archaeologist Better Track the Elusive Fremont

Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018

Archaeologist Judson Finley

Archaeologist Judson Finley, an assistant professor of anthropology, is taking a multidisciplinary approach to determine how climate changes forced the Fremont, early Utah denizens, to alter their lifestyles.

Judson Finley (center) and his team at a Fremont house site

Judson Finley (center) and his team record a Fremont house site in Dinosaur National Monument's Cub Creek area.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Fremont Indians hunted, farmed corn and scooped out underground homes, all under the blazing blue skies of what’s now northeastern Utah.

But they remain something of a puzzle.

Instead of the illuminated Bibles created by their contemporaries across the ocean, the Fremont left us enigmatic, uncaptioned rock murals. Unlike swords from the age of chivalry, now found in museums throughout Europe, these pre-Americans left perishable and snatchable corn cobs, bone ornaments and large charcoal stains.

What’s more, says archaeologist Judson Finley, the Fremont people lived from about AD 300 to 1450 — a time marked by dramatic and frequent climate change that remapped the course of rivers and tossed familiar landscapes like so much dust in the wind.

Now, Finley, an assistant professor of archaeology, has been awarded a seed grant to refine a novel method that promises to reveal new details about the history of these early Utah residents. The grant is the first step in seeking much more substantial funding from the National Science Foundation to allow Finley to explore a combination of radiocarbon dating and tree-ring reconstruction that is “unprecedented for Fremont archeology,” according to grant documents.

The amorphous Fremont are defined less by ethnicity and more by the culture, behavior and archaeological record shared by numerous groups of forager-farmers, said Finley.

Under that Fremont label, however, there’s a range of diversity. As explanation, Finley shares an observation by fellow archaeologist Steven Simms.  “You could almost think about it like there are many kinds of Catholics, they represent many different culture and languages,” he said.

Finley’s work focuses on the remains of early Fremont “pit-house hamlets” in what’s now Dinosaur National Monument. Much of the archaeologist’s years-long research has taken place in the monument park, located in northeastern Utah about 20 miles from Vernal. His efforts there have been largely funded by the National Park Service – as of 2016, for instance, he and Andrew McAllister of the Cain College of the Arts Production Services have inventoried Fremont petroglyphs on the Utah side of the monument that are at risk of being damaged by human meddling or pollution.

Now, he’s identified nearly 90 archaeological sites in the Cub Creek area about nine miles from Dinosaur National Monument’s famous Quarry Exhibit Hall. There’s been no new information about these habitants since the early 1960s when the last and only excavations were undertaken.

Finley’s method combines radiocarbon dating of material culture — think pottery chunks, spear points and charcoal — with a tree-ring reconstruction going back some 2,000 years. The tree-ring record was developed by Justin DeRose, a dendrochronologist — yes, there is a term specifically for tree-ring scientists — who works with Finley in the Wasatch Dendroclimatology Research Group, which has a USU-based laboratory.

Finley seeks to track the behavior of Fremont people as they adapted to climate change.  Theirs, he adds, was a period of “high-frequency, high-magnitude climate variation where they went from a decade of warm and dry conditions to a decade of really moist conditions.”

Radiocarbon dating alone has its limits. The process fixes an object to a place in time, but with a standard deviation of about 60 years. The resulting 120 years, explained Finley, is a long, unwieldy stretch of time in which to pin down the forager-farmers who likely stayed in one place less than a decade. To resolve question, Finley works with Erick Robinson, a University of Wyoming archaeologist and radiocarbon-dating specialist.

Partnering radiocarbon dating with a tree-ring record fills in the missing years, said Finley, and allows the scientists to “create two independent records to correlate — a more viable archaeological record and a  more highly resolved paleoecological record —  so we can essentially examine shifts in how people used farming in their lifestyle in relation to climatic variations.”

Interestingly and unexpectedly, the Fremont seem to have turned to farming in more perilous dry times and returned to their hunter-gatherer ways when rainfall was plentiful. The early residents in Finley’s research arrived in Cub Creek about AD 400, just in time to endure a parched era that Finley describes as “one of the largest droughts of the last 2,000 years.”

Later, says Finley, the climate settled into a period when moisture levels were above the historical average.  “That’s when those villages were abandoned and people shifted their lifestyles, which is contradictory to what you’d expect,” he said. “You’d think that during better times people would be like, ‘This is awesome! We can grow corn.’ But I think it didn’t necessarily work out that way.”

The tree-ring reconstruction provides the scientists with a decade-by-decade model of climate trends, which may answer “this question of the environment conditions in which people will become farmers,” he said.

The Cub Creek farmers remained for some 800 years before disappearing — for a reason Finley’s hoping to pin down. Climate fluctuations “can be difficult for people to figure out how to adjust to,” he said. “So on a bigger picture level, we’re trying to understand how people solved problems of unpredictable climate in terms of their settlement, social organization, material culture -- the whole nine yards.”

He anticipates that the Cub Creek research will result in a viable and valuable case study for Fremont scholars, adding, “We’re hoping to develop a method that hasn’t been applied to the Fremont archaeological record before.”

He also expects the case study to help Dinosaur National Monument personnel better understand and manage the park’s archaeological history. Some sites, he notes, are in road-side stretches that could by obliterated in minutes by a road grader.

“What we’re finding,” he adds, “is there just hasn’t been a lot of archaeological research in Dinosaur. It’s a really pretty incredible spot.”

Oh, and for those wondering about the tree that revealed some 2,000 years of history under De Rose’s microscope? Sorry, it’s not just one tree. Cores and cross-sections of about 70 Douglas firs in Cub Creek took the scientists back about 800 years. More ancient data, dating back two millennial, came from bristle cone pines in the Fishlake National Forest in south-central Utah.

Finley is also the co-director of the graduate program and coordinator of the Native American Studies minor. Read more about him at

Contact and writer: Janelle Hyatt,, 435-797-0289.

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