Irreversible Damage Caused at Fort Pearce Puebloan Site

A historically rich area, Utah has had a long history of vandalism and theft across archaeological and paleontological sites. Newly added to this list is the digging of a 2-foot wide and 15-foot-deep trench at a one-of-a-kind 1,000-year-old archaeological site, with the perpetrator appearing to be hunting for treasure. The irreparable damage was performed by 51-year-old man in the Fort Pearce Wash Area, situated 12 miles east of St. George, in Washington County.

Confessions of a Vandal: Archaeological Land Housing Petroglyphs

The perpetrator, Mr Seoane said he dug the trench while prospecting for minerals, according to Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration special investigator Brent Kasza. On November 7, 2023, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office received a tip regarding unauthorized activities disturbing a site of archaeological significance in the aforementioned area. Subsequently, during an interview with law enforcement on December 14, Seoane confessed to digging the hole, as documented in a probable cause statement.

“I found nothing during my investigation to confirm the suspect was prospecting for silver or any kind of valuable metal,” said Kasza in a statement. “I was able to uncover that the suspect belongs to several treasure hunting groups.”

The Washington County Attorney’s Office has filed a second-degree felony charge against Seoane for conducting illegal activities on trust lands, where the incurred damage is valued at or exceeds $5,000. This charge was officially filed on Tuesday. Seoane is presently awaiting the establishment of a date for his initial appearance in Utah’s 5th District Court. According to law enforcement, the preliminary estimate for the cost of filling the hole is $18,769.

The parcel of land where Seoane allegedly excavated the tunnel is safeguarded by the Trust Lands Administration due to its status as a site of archaeological significance. Its renowned for its compilation of over 100 petroglyphsbelieved by archaeologists to trace their origins back to 500 years ago or even earlier.

petroglyphs 5

Two of the many petroglyphs scattered around the Fort Pearce protected area. (GJ Hikes)

No Going Back: How the Site is Damaged Forever, Chronologically and Otherwise

In an interview with KSLBoomgarden explained that Seoane stands accused of digging directly beneath a petroglyph, maybe having misconstrued the petroglyph as a map or a signal, a not uncommon occurrence in such cases, leading to the illicit excavation. Seoane seemed to have been working on the hole for at least a week before authorities apprehended him. The authorities reported discovering Seoane actively digging the hole with a combination of power tools and hand tools.

Expressing concern, Boomgarden also emphasized that the illegal excavation has likely disrupted crucial archaeological evidence, as he was digging in what was the site’s ‘prehistoric trash dump’.

“As you can imagine, as with any trash dump, there’s a lot of information in the trash” Boomgraden said, explaining that the illegal excavation potentially severely disrupted archaeologists’ ability to collect data and artifacts from the site, hindering efforts to fully understand the historical human occupancy of the region, reports Fox 59.

“It’s almost impossible to calculate the damage caused by this guy,” Trust Lands Administration lead archaeologist Joel Boomgarden said in the press release. “It is important for people to remember that the archaeological record of Utah is a finite resource. Nobody is making 1,000-year-old ancestral Puebloan sites anymore. Once they are gone, there is no going back.”

Unauthorized Random Digging of a 500-year-old Site

Rock excavations conducted for testing revealed indications of primary occupation between 1440 and 1660 AD, a timeframe commonly referred to as the Post-Pueblo Period. Certain tests suggested that the area might have witnessed human occupation as early as 1,000 BC, encompassing both the Archaic and Far West Pueblo periods.

To make matters worse, this area contains valuable information about the diet, art, pottery, and tool-making practices of prehistoric people, but is now at risk of permanent loss. The sedimentary layers have been disturbed due to the excavation, jeopardizing details such as what prehistoric people ate, the appearance of their art and pottery, and the materials used in crafting their tools.

Boomgarden lamented the alleged actions of Seoane, stating that the accused had essentially disrupted the chronological order of the trash dump, making it challenging to collect useful chronological information. “All the information is sort of out of context now,” he ruefully concluded, noting the near impossibility of reconstructing the pieces to regain a comprehensive understanding.

Top image: Fort Pearce protected heritage site Sign. Source: Jacqueline Russell/BLM Utah/ Public Domain

By Sahir Pandey

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