Digging into the Past


Uncovering clues to life in a pioneer Mormon village

A shovelful of dirt, a cloud of dust, and a hearty yell when an interesting object is uncovered is the daily fare of a group of young people working on an archaeological dig near Goshen, Utah. Digging into their cultural past literally means digging. Assigned the shovel, wheelbarrow, and whisk broom of true archaeologists, the group is working at uncovering the remains of a structure in what was once a Mormon pioneer settlement. Now referred to as Lower Goshen, this Mormon community existed in that location for eight years, from 1860 to 1868.

The dig is part of a historical archaeology project organized by Brigham Young University. Each summer junior high and high school students interested in discovering something about the past sign up to help in the two weeks of archaeological field work. All that’s left of the settlement are some stone foundations, but each layer of dirt reveals clues about those pioneers’ way of life.

“We knew that they must have lived self-sufficient lives,” says Dale Berge, professor at BYU in charge of the summer dig, “but now we have the proof. We find pieces of leather used to make shoes, pieces of earthenware they made and fired themselves, and buttons and other items they obtained by trading with the soldiers at nearby Camp Floyd. Even traces of pollen can tell us all about which plants were native to the area and which were introduced by the settlers.”

“We get excited about garbage,” says Kelly Horrocks, a BYU archaeology student helping with the project, “even though its old garbage.”

From the items that are uncovered at the dig site, the group is able to recreate the history of the area. In fact, the location of the settlement itself was discovered by reading old journals and interviewing residents of the present town of Goshen about the memories and stories told to them as children. Historical archaeology is a way of completing and complementing the oral and written histories.

Those who work on the Lower Goshen site gain an appreciation for what the settlers 120 years ago had to face. The temperatures on the site are often 110° F. in the sun and 100° F. under the tarps. It’s dry—dust swirls with every stiff breeze—and the flies are big and aggressive.

On one particularly hot day, the group was relieved to see some black rain clouds building on the horizon. They were looking forward to being cooled off and having the rain settle the dust. Just as the storm approached, it split and went on either side of them. “When the rain missed us, I felt something of the disappointments the pioneers must have felt,” says Kelly. “They depended on the rain as well as irrigation to help their gardens. It must have been a hard life.”

The town of Lower Goshen had 120 homesites in its heyday. The impressions of the streets forming square, orderly blocks are only visible from the air. In fact, aerial photographs were one way the BYU Archaeology Department discovered the location of the abandoned town.

Lower Goshen was dedicated by Phineas Cook and a group of men originally living in Payson, Utah. They tried several locations with names such as Fort Sodom, Sandtown (abandoned because of blowing sand), and Mechanicsville. The spot these intrepid pioneers chose for their new town was on clay soil, and all the rocks for foundations and wood for wall supports had to be brought in. The clay turned out to be of good quality for making earthenware.

As in most Utah settlements, everyone built their homes in town and had their fields and herds away from the settlement. Each family planted a large garden not only to feed themselves but also for produce to use in trade with the soldiers at Camp Floyd. Their garden stuffs were used for barter instead of cash. When the plants in their gardens started turning yellow from the alkali, the Lower Goshen residents started looking for another place to move. Their final move was to what is now the present town of Goshen.

The work at the dig is physically demanding, yet the kids get into it with enthusiasm. Strings on pegs measure off an oblong of ground where each layer of dirt is loosened, shoveled, and brushed. The soil is loaded into wheelbarrows and carried to the sifting screens. There the dirt clods are broken up and sifted to find traces left behind by the human occupants. “It’s interesting fun, not fun fun,” says Brian Arnette, 16, of Grand Junction, Colorado. “It’s not anything like the stereotypes of archaeology you see in the movies.”

With her hair pulled back and her clothes covered with a light layer of dust, Stephanie Thomas, 15, of Hollywood, Florida, says, “It’s interesting to find things people used a hundred years ago.”

Stephanie and her partner, Katherine Lind, 16, of Sandy, Utah, had just dug down to the occupation level of the site. They were watching keenly for fragments left behind by the settlers. “I want to find a button,” says Stephanie. “We’ve found glass and pieces of pearlware so far,” says Katherine, referring to the shards collected and stored in paper bags and plastic vials and the carefully recorded notes of her journal.

Each student is introduced to every area of archaeology field work including processing artifacts and notetaking. Even small items can offer clues to fill in the details of everyday life in this Mormon village. For example, some small pieces of broken china have been found with tiny holes drilled on either side of the crack. The settlers didn’t have glue to repair broken china, so the archaeologists are speculating that if the piece was not badly damaged, the settlers drilled the small holes and tied the broken section back in place with string.

The dig site is three miles south of the present town of Goshen, Utah, in the middle of a large section of sagebrush. The site is ideal for archaeological excavation because it has been virtually undisturbed for 120 years. Valerie Krouth, 16, of Mt. Pleasant, Utah, wants to be an archaeologist for her career. In describing the site, she says, “If the wind doesn’t blow, the bugs get us. And if it does blow, then there’s dust in our eyes.” But Valerie recognizes the importance of what she is doing. “It’s a lot of hard work,” she says, “but every little thing is important. It’s all a part of history.”

Scott Havens, 13, of Tempe, Arizona, got interested in coming to help on the dig after taking an ancient history class in school. When asked if he would like to have lived in Lower Goshen long ago, he grins through a dust-covered face and shakes his head with a definite no.

“Those people really worked hard,” says Renee Fagan, 15, of Salt Lake City, Utah, “and they had a lot of problems. I could stand it for a week or so, then I’d like to go back to my blow dryer.”

The group at the dig has gained a great appreciation for those who chose that area in which to build their town. “After the young people work with us on a dig,” says Dale Berge, “they have a greater respect for their heritage. They learn that seemingly harmless vandalism of old Indian mounds or pioneer homesteads make them useless for scientific investigation.”

“We have a good time,” says Allan Overstreet, the crew chief at the dig. “When things get a little too hot, someone starts a waterfight. And everybody must enjoy it because they are always back to work even before their lunch hour is up.”

To the untrained eye, the old Mormon community of Lower Goshen seems to be completely gone. But to one group of young people, it’s a town that lived, a place where people raised families. They have discovered their heritage firsthand.

[photos] Photos by Janet Thomas

[photo] Dust and heat could discourage some, but for a group of high school students attending a BYU archaeology workshop, it’s a great way to spend a summer vacation.

[photos] A spade, whisk broom, and wheelbarrow are the archaeologist’s basic tools, and the wheelbarrow doubles as a comfortable makeshift seat for the afternoon break. Prime sites for learning about the past, such as this one in Goshen, Utah, have been untouched since being abandoned more than a hundred years ago. With canopies set up to supply some relief from the intense desert sun, students carefully uncover, layer by layer, clues to how pioneers really lived.

Every square inch of dirt is shoveled, sifted, and brushed to make sure no artifact, no matter how small, is overlooked. As each layer is uncovered, students keep journals where they record their discoveries and impressions. Pottery shards are often all that’s left of the unique stoneware made by pioneers from local clay.