How can you protect archaeological sites?

Posted On
Oct 01, 2022
Southern Utah
Central Utah


You Have the Power to Protect the Past

By Elizabeth Hora

Public Archaeologist at the Utah State Historic Preservation Office

Archaeological sites — places where past people lived — are all around us here in Utah. Maybe you have even visited a few like McConkie Ranch or Nine Mile Canyon. Did you know that many of the ruins and artifacts here in Utah are more than 1,000 years old? And some are even older than that!

These cool places are still here because people like you protected them! Archaeological sites are important to people in a lot of different ways. Some people like to visit them because they are fun and interesting, while others come to some sites for religious or traditional reasons. Ruins and artifacts can connect people to the past in deep ways, and we can be a force for good by keeping them safe as we visit.


There are three simple ways that we protect sites: take nothing, leave nothing, and watch your step.


-Take Nothing

Leaving things where you found them is the most important thing to remember when you visit a site. It’s ok to pick up an artifact to examine it, but be sure to put it back exactly where you found it. Moving or piling artifacts to create “museum rocks” (Figure 3) or taking things home destroys the site. Even making “repairs” like rebuilding a rock wall that is falling down can damage the site. It’s ok that things fall apart after a thousand years! Take a picture and feel honored to have seen it.

-Leave Nothing

You already know that maps, water bottles, food wrappers, carvings, or even human or pet poop should ever be left on a site! But even just our presence leaves behind more than just litter. Did you know that you leave a little bit of yourself on everything you touch? We leave our oils and bacteria behind on surfaces we touch with our bare hands. A lot of us use lotion, ChapStick, and fabric softeners, all of which can add artificial chemicals to the oils and dirt we deposit on surfaces. These chemicals and dirt can damage the site in microscopic ways that over time lead to big problems! In order to prevent this, be mindful of what you touch, grab, or rub against. Especially try not to touch surfaces that you suspect may draw the attention of others, such as rock imagery panels or stone walls.

-Watch Your Step

The natural world records your steps in ways that may surprise you. Walking off trail can disturb the fragile desert sands and mountain soils that contain underground archaeological sites. So what can you do? Bring a pair of binoculars! Stay in slickrock wherever possible. Being mindful of where you walk across a site doesn’t limit your ability to learn from it, in fact it can open more opportunities for you to go deeper in your experience. Take a look around at what people long ago saw when they walked out their front doors. Think about the scents on the breeze and the sounds of the natural world. Does being in this place help you to understand more about what life was like long ago? Do you think you would have liked to live at this site? All of these questions can be answered from the trail, and I promise you will experience the site in a new way!


How can you protect archaeological sites?

It’s easy! Take nothing, leave nothing, and be careful where you step. AND… you can learn more about Utah’s past peoples and their archaeology when you go online to Pledge to Protect the Past. This is a six-week email-based program that has lots of videos and webpages to help you understand who came here before us, and how we can protect their legacy.