On a hot afternoon in Moab, Utah, Venue stopped by the museum collection storage facility for the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks, to visit a small collection of objects and historical artifacts found within or associated with what are now Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.
We spent several hours in the company of curator Vicki Webster, who generously, patiently, and enthusiastically showed us through the collection, from 20th-century Park maps to ancient stone knives, from the eye-popping "bat drawer" and exquisite herbaria to corncob sandals, dinosaur bones, and pieces of pottery collected from the sites of southeast Utah's extraordinary National Parks.
Having just spent the previous week exploring these sites on our own, hiking various trails, visiting Newspaper Rock, and seeing as many of southern Utah's parks as we could, we were already intensely curious about what it takes to administer the natural landscape and the interpretive infrastructure of a National Park, seen from the perspective of collecting, cataloging, and preserving the outdoors.
How are these practices changing over time, we wondered, and what should a collection of artifacts from the nation's most historically and naturally significant landscapes include? How are these objects narratively explained and physically maintained for future generations? Further, how do even the trails themselves function as a kind of museum without walls—and what goes into designing and documenting them?
Finally, how might archival practices oriented toward immersive experiences of outdoor landscapes differ from, for instance, the organizational techniques of a librarian, as Venue explored in our behind-the-scenes tour of the Denver Public Library with Wendel Cox?
Webster—a dream guide to this material, as curious about and excited by the collections as we were—told us countless stories of the region's parks. Many of these tales appear below, in the following edited transcript of our day spent behind the scenes of our nation's outdoor heritage, including the surprise natural gas pipeline that runs through Arches National Park and the possible future history of Blue John Canyon where hiker Aron Ralson infamously became trapped for 127 hours.
We were joined by a student named Malia, who was shadowing Vicki Webster for the day in order to learn more about the National Park Service.
Geoff Manaugh: Could you tell us briefly about the room we’re now standing in? At first glance, it seems to be more of an office archive or a storeroom, rather than a museum.
Vicki Webster: And it’s a very full storeroom! [laughs] You can see behind you that these shelves are just full of historic photos—so are these [gestures at shelves]—and they have all now been catalogued. We’ve also got three archival racks that are just about full now. These mobile racks are also almost full. I have a little space left in here, but not much.
The herbarium cabinets are right here, as well; then these specimen cabinets are where most of the archaeological and historical objects are. The archives are in these racks, and some other racks in the room on the other side of that wall. Then we also have map cabinets for oversized documents, drawings, and maps. We’re getting to where it’s pretty close-quarters.
In addition, we have some archival collections stored at the Western Archaeological Center in Tucson and at the Heritage Center in Dolores. We do have a lot—but, twenty years ago, there was really nothing catalogued, in terms of archives.
Nicola Twilley: In terms of the broad categories of collections that are stored here, I guess there would be natural history…
Webster: That’s exactly what I was going to start with, to give you an idea of the different disciplines. I pulled out some samples from each. If you look just behind you here, on this shelf, this is a single sauropod vertebra. When I show this to people I always say: take one hand and put it on your own spinal column, and feel the size of a single vertebra. Now look at this again—this thing is huge. And there’s another one there, and then there are some smaller ones.
A lot of people get really excited about archaeological things that are 800 to 1,200 years old—but these are millions of years old. This is a sign of life millions of years ago. To me, that’s much more fascinating and cool.
We do have these kind of paleontological resources in the collection, all found within the park boundaries. They were brought in from the field precisely because we didn’t want them to be stolen or damaged out there. In fact, we just recently finished a paleontological survey of Arches National Park, so the Utah state geologists have gone out there to a number of sites.
Twilley: Is that the oldest thing in the collection?
Webster: I would definitely say that our paleontological resources are among the oldest things in the collection. As to which one’s the oldest? Is it this particular vertebra? I don’t know. I’d have to look at these with someone.
But that’s really a large part of what I do: managing data. That data management function is critical, even more than having personal familiarity with the collection, so that other people can access the collection as a resource.
A lot of people associate the word curator with a subject-matter specialist, and, certainly, in a lot of museum work, you would have a subject-matter specialist as the curator. But, really, much of the time in National Park Service areas, the museum curator is a manager of the objects and the archives and the data about those objects, much more than a subject-matter specialist.
In some of the historic areas, a place like Gettysburg or the Civil War parks or Independence Hall, you’re more likely to have a historian dealing with the collections. But, in your big national parks, you’re going to have somebody who’s more of a manager than a specialist.
Also, I should say my background is in biology. Everyone thinks that if you’re the curator, you must be an archaeologist, but no—I’m not an archaeologist. I always like to make that little disclaimer, because, otherwise, I get asked a lot of questions where I have to say, “I don’t know, ask the archaeologist!”
Now, back to our discussion of different disciplines. We do have geologic specimens, as well, but not really here in our storage area. Geologists who come to the park to do research will generally take their specimens back to their respective institutions with them. What I do, in that case, is administer loan agreements with them; we retain that documentation and they retain the specimens.
Twilley: Is that a common occurrence? In other words, are there a lot of rock samples out there that came from Canyonlands and Arches, but are now distributed around the country or even the world?
Webster: Well, a lot is a relative term. In terms of Canyonlands, there’s consistent interest in places like Upheaval Dome—a geological formation that’s fairly mysterious. There’s been some speculation that it was formed as a salt uprising, as well as some speculation that it’s the result of a meteorite impact. A lot of geologists have come here over the years to study that specific controversy. This year, we even have some geologists looking at the possibility that it’s the result of a combination of both of those factors—that perhaps it was both a meteorite impact and a salt upheaval—and they’re trying to look at whether that could be the case, and what the sequence of events might have been.
[points at map] There—that’s the Upheaval Dome. You can see, to a geologist, that this would just jump out at you. You’d say, “Hey, this is something strange and weird. What is this? We don’t normally see circular formations like that.” That’s something for which we write research permits almost every year, and some long-term studies have also been done on it.
Twilley: When they take the rocks and you put together a loan agreement for them, do they actually show up with a truck full of rocks that you have to sort through for each loan agreement or can they just take the rocks and go? Do you actually see what they take?
Webster: Well, collecting rocks is illegal unless made by permit—and the permits severely restrict the quantity of material to be collected. It can only be a very small amount.
In terms of your question, I don’t always see it, because they don’t always physically come into the office and bring the samples here, but it is documented and it is catalogued. Each sample is assigned a unique catalog number in our system, and they send me the data. I can then say that you have rock number so-and-so, and here’s how big it is and here’s what it looks like and here’s all the data about it. Because I’m not a geologist, I don’t always understand all the technical data, but I always insist they give it to me for our records.
Twilley: So there’s an inventory here of rocks that have been moved elsewhere.
Webster: Yes. If I want a list of all the geologic specimens that have been collected from Canyonlands and are on loan elsewhere, I can spit that out from my database. Absolutely. Once in a while, the samples will even come back to us—somebody will retire or whatever, and their collection will be returned.
For example, there’s a box right there that’s full of rocks. [turns to box on shelf] These are geologic specimens that were collected from Upheaval Dome. These are called shatter cones and they were collected by one of the researchers who had been finding evidence of meteorite impact. You can see that these are labeled; they have numbers on them. To a geologist, this looks very different from other rocks. In fact, even to a layperson it looks like there’s some impact evidence.
While we’re talking about natural resources, back in the day—this is back in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s—we used to slaughter park wildlife in order to study it. That means that we have a number of bird and rodent specimens and things like that in the collection, as well. We don’t do that so much anymore, as there are many other—and better—ways of studying wildlife without killing it.
But I do like to pull out the bat drawer to show it to people, because the bats are really fascinating to me. [pulls out the bat drawer]
Manaugh: Oh my god.
Webster: We have a variety of bat species in the park. When you’re out camping, and it’s evening, and the bugs are out, the bats start to fly around and catch things, but they all kind of look the same to me as they fly by. I think, “Oh—bat.” But they’re really very different.
We have big-eared bats, Mexican free-tailed bats, little bitty pipistrelles—there have been some pretty thorough bat surveys done here, too. We had an interpreter here years ago who did a great campfire program on bats. She was amazing. She’s one of these really creative, artistic interpreters. She would take a black, plastic garbage bag and get a visitor to stand up in front of everybody at the campground amphitheater, and she would attach the garbage bag to their little fingers and pull it all the way down to their waist, and then she would have the person demonstrate how a bat catches mosquitoes by scooping around and bending over and picking them up and eating them—because they trap the bugs in their wings. That’s what they do. It’s very cool.
We also have an herbarium for each of the four parks. In fact, I don’t know if I explained that there are four National Park Service sites that are served out of this office? This office is called the Southeast Utah group of parks, so we have Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments. Hovenweep and Bridges are to the south of us.
Manaugh: We just went through Bridges yesterday, actually.
Webster: Oh, isn’t it wonderful? What a gem. I just love that spot.
So we do have an herbarium for each of the four parks. And, although we do not have a voucher specimen for every known species—these are called voucher specimens [gestures at cabinets]—we do have a lot, and we’re working on completing the herbarium collection. When our staff is out in the field, they know which species are suspected to grow here and, if they should find one of those, they will collect a voucher specimen.
I don’t know how familiar you are with herbarium collections, but I pulled out a sample for you. A lot of people don’t realize that an herbarium collection is actually useful for a lot of things other than just the identification of plant species. Things like blooming dates can be very important. A few years ago, for instance, I was lucky enough to go to the Smithsonian for a curatorial workshop, and one of the things we got to do was play—it was work, of course, but for me it was play—in the herbarium at the Smithsonian. It was so much fun. For an old botany major like myself, I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
They showed us a study that had demonstrated how blooming dates are now about three weeks earlier than they were, I think, fifty years ago, or whatever specific date they’d been using. They have specimens from year after year over the decades, and the blooming dates are getting earlier because of climate change. So the herbarium specimens are going to be the evidence, another fifty years from now, for how species began migrating in elevation because of climate change. There’s actually a lot of information in an herbarium collection.
Twilley: Are you responsible for mounting them and putting together the display?
Webster: Some of the time. It depends.
We had an ecologist here for a number of years who would press his own specimens and then hand them over to me, newspaper and all, and I would mount all his stuff and label it. Right now we have a person working here who is really good at doing beautiful mounting. She loves to do it. She delivers these gorgeous specimens to me, all ready to go. All I have to do is enter the data.
When I do it, I actually work from a reference book about herbarium specimens, including how to handle them and how to mount them, even how to create a little envelope for the seeds or cones. A lot of it is about making sure what’s visible are the critical parts for identification purposes. Of course, that starts at the moment of collection and at the moment of pressing, but also at mounting time. Some specimens are more challenging than others. Cacti are particularly challenging, as are really long grasses because of their size.
Manaugh: You mentioned that the herbariums would be finished at a certain point. What’s the actual finish line, and how do you judge completion?
Webster: Well, I used the word complete, but I meant complete in the sense of species representation. We have a list. In fact, one of the things I have to do as collections manager is to write a “Scope of Collections” statement that says what is appropriate for us to accession into the collection. That statement includes an appendix that lists all the various plant species that are believed to grow in the park, but for which we don’t yet have a voucher specimen. So, presumably—I don’t know if I’ll live long enough—but, presumably, the day will come when that list will pretty much be checked off.
Twilley: Would you include invasive species on that list, as well?
Webster: Oh, absolutely. We have a large invasive species program here. We actually have an active set of employees whose job is to locate, identify, and get rid of invasive species.
Manaugh: This touches on the border between natural history and cultural history, but I’m curious where things like indigenous but cultivated plants would fit into this. In other words, how do you catalog a plant that is actually an agricultural remnant from an earlier culture, but that now appears to be “natural” to the region?
Webster: That’s a good question. In the mid 70s, there was a group of people from San Jose State University who did a huge research project at Hovenweep. It used to be that the Mesa Verde staff managed Hovenweep, but there was an administrative change and now it’s ours; so we’ve been receiving the Hovenweep collection here in fits and starts over the years.
As it started to trickle in, I was amazed that the herbarium seemed to be collected by the same guy at the same time in the mid 70s, and at first I thought this was really strange. Then, finally, I got enough information about their cultural collections to realize that this massive study done by San Jose State was actually about agriculture, which is why there were so many plant species.
So, yes, in the Hovenweep collection there are such things, definitely. At Canyonlands, there’s a spot where we found gourds that we think were being cultivated, so we have some specimens from there. But the intersection of natural and cultural resources is a fascinating topic.
Every once in a while I think I’ve got to write a book! I’ve got to make notes on all the collections here, because, yes, it’s very interesting.
You know, that’s another thing. Last spring, I hit a landmark birthday and became eligible to retire, so I’m starting to think about the fact that I’m not going to be here forever. This has a lot of repercussions. I’ve had this job for 20 years and, when I walk out the door, a lot of institutional memory is going to go with me. My biggest goal is to make that moment unimportant, from the perspective of the collection—to make it so, when I walk out the door, everything is documented and there are people here who know how to access the documentation, where to find it, and to ensure that it’s not all lost.
Manaugh: Back in the 90s, I interned at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in D.C. It was right at the end of Joe Hickerson’s tenure there; he had been there, I think, since the archive’s founding several decades earlier, and he knew absolutely everything about the place. He knew the contents of random boxes, and even where, on specific audio recordings, you could find specific snippets of old songs—all these things about the collection that were unique to his own memory and experience of the place, including things that really weren’t written down anywhere. But you could tell that some of the staff were in a state of low-grade anxiety as they prepared for his retirement. The institutional memory that goes with that—that goes with just one person’s retirement—can be hard to duplicate.
Webster: It’s true. And, unfortunately, that’s where this place is going to be some time in the next two to three years. I haven’t decided when yet. But, you know, it’s a good feeling to be eligible to retire before you’re ready. Some people have the unfortunate experience of being ready long before they’re eligible—and I’m so thankful not to be there!
Anyway, I also pulled out a drawer from our entomology collection. I pulled this one out because these are underwing moths from Arches and Canyonlands. The entomologist who did this study actually discovered a subspecies of underwing moth that lives only in Arches; as far as we know, he hasn’t found it anywhere else. So, this is an example of a fairly recent study, done in the last decade, under permit in one of the parks, that resulted in new scientific findings and specimens.
Let’s move onto the cultural things. Malia actually asked me earlier if we have any cowboy stuff, because one of the parts of the cultural history around here is from the cattle ranching and grazing era—and, of course, grazing occurred inside Arches and Canyonlands National Parks until the 1970s. That’s not all that long ago.
Manaugh: It’s actually incredible how young some of the parks out here are.
Webster: Especially Canyonlands. We’re still a year and a half away from the fiftieth anniversary. Bridges, though, just had their 100th anniversary in 2008, and Zion just had theirs. In fact, because there were so many parks established around the time of the antiquities act, we’re starting to have a little rash of centennials. Rocky Mountain has got their centennial coming up, I think, and Crater Lake had theirs in ’02.
In any case, when Canyonlands was established—September 12, 1964, is the official date—there were active ranching operations going on and the grazing was phased out over time. That means there were still cowboy camps, because, when the cowboys left, they didn’t take everything with them. They just left it there. Actually, these things here came out of the Cave Spring cowboy camps—so if you were to go down to the Needles, you can actually drive over, park, and walk about one hundred yards over to the cowboy camp, and, even today, there’s still a lot of horse tack and empty coffee cans and stuff like that. There are tables and chairs, and an old stove. This [pointing at object in collection] is just a little bowl that was in the cowboy camp.
Twilley: And how is it that you have this bowl here, but there are still coffee cans out in the field? Why did you collect one and not the other?
Webster: Good question. Back in the 70s or 80s, somebody decided that some of the objects there ought to be called museum property, so they accessioned them into the collection, and they catalogued them, but then they physically left them out there. So, I’ll confess, I used to use that as my excuse to go out in the park once a year to check on them, because I didn’t really join the park service to spend all day indoors. But, then, finally, we had a collections management plan written, and one of the issues it addressed was what exactly we should do with this stuff. After all, when it’s outdoors, we can’t provide appropriate climate control and the objects are vulnerable to theft.
We finally decided that the thing to do was deaccession things that we had documented, and that really could just stay out there in the park, because it’s a place that visitors go to learn about the cattle-ranching era. That means it has value as an interpretive display. For example, there are always a ton of baking powder cans at these places—they seemed to use a lot of baking powder. I think they made a lot of biscuits. Then, some of the objects that did seem a little more valuable, and a little more vulnerable, were brought in. I have a few glass bottles and this bowl.
Manaugh: When you deaccession an object, does that mean it just stays out in the field or do you actually take it out of the archive and return it to the outdoor setting?
Webster: It stays in the field. It was already out there; it had never come in; and, really, it was probably an error of judgment that it had been documented as a museum object at all. If you’re going to call it a museum object, then bring it in and store it properly—or don’t call it a museum object.
Twilley: Can you just document it, but not accession it?
Webster: That’s something our cultural resources people do, but then it’s not part of the museum. It’s documented as a cultural site. It’s monitored. They go out there and photograph it and make notes and make sure it’s not being impacted and so on and so forth. But that’s a whole different function than the museum collection.
Manaugh: I’m curious, if some of those cowboy camps from the 1960s are now considered historic, what’s the timeline for, say, somebody’s climbing equipment or a Nalgene bottle left behind by a hiker in 2010—when would something like that become eligible for accession as an historical object?
Webster: You mean, when does trash become historic? Fifty years.
Manaugh: Fifty years? Is that just a rule of thumb or is there a genuine policy?
Webster: I think it’s in the National Historic Preservation Act—but, yes, fifty years is the cutoff point after which something can be considered historic. I had a little identity crisis when I turned fifty. [laughter] I was like no, no, no. I’m historic.
Manaugh: This is sort of a goofy question, but it seems as though every person we’ve sat next to at a restaurant or coffeeshop around here for the last week has mentioned, at some point, the movie 127 Hours. That took place not far from Moab. As far as “sites” like that go—I mean the slot canyon where Aron Ralston was trapped, and that was documented in the film—is there any sense that a location like that, that people all over the world now know about, should be preserved or marked somehow? In fifty years, perhaps? It’s like the Donner Pass, in a sense—it’s a cultural site where an historic event occurred.
Webster: That’s a good question. [pauses] That canyon is actually right outside park boundaries—it’s not inside the park—so our staff wouldn’t actually be addressing that question. But let’s pretend it is inside park grounds: would it be managed as a cultural site? You know… Certainly, over time, it would become part of the park’s history. But would we mark it, or preserve it?
One of the things I do here is put documentation into the archives. The 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City took place not very long after September 11, 2001. The Olympic torch made its debut in the state of Utah under Delicate Arch at dawn in February, where it was very, very, very cold, and the logistics and the planning and the security for that event were absolutely phenomenal because it was so soon after 9/11. So, while that was going on, I was very much in touch with the people who were organizing it, and I was constantly saying: “Remember, I’m going to want the documentation. When this is over, give me your files.” Now, I have a really great little collection about all the planning and the photographs of that day. Even though it was a current event, I knew it was going to become part of the park’s history.
When something’s happening, you need to grab the documentation now. If you let it sit around for ten years, it might just disappear. You know, “Oh well, the guy who did this has been transferred, and he took his files with him,” or “the guy who did that has retired, and he doesn’t remember anything.” That sort of thing happens all the time.
Now, in the case of Aron Ralston’s story, there were park rangers involved in it, because, when he was rescued, our staff was just about to go out and start looking for him. They had been mobilized as part of the search effort. That means that it would be the sort of incident that would show up in the documentation that rangers create, and that might eventually make its way into our archives—or not.
So it’s an interesting question. Would Blue John Canyon, where Ralston was trapped, become considered a cultural site…? Maybe not until a few more decades have gone by.
Ultimately, that’s the sort of decision that the cultural resources program manager makes. Actually, here’s an interesting thing: we’re working on trying to get the site out at Arches where Edward Abbey’s trailer was listed on the national register. You wouldn’t have done that in 1957, when he was living there, but certainly, now, it seems appropriate. It seems historic. By the same token, then, right now Aron Ralston getting himself in a bit of a pickle is an interesting news story—but, twenty years from now, will it be a culturally significant site? I think it’s about how things change over time.
In any case, Canyonlands is about to have its fiftieth anniversary, in September 2014, and I hope that will spur a fair amount of historical research and interest in the park.
Twilley: It was funny to hear you say that you used checking on those camp sites as an excuse to get out in the park. How often do you get a chance to get out in the park, and to what extent are you involved with things like trailside displays or other outdoor interpretive infrastructure?
Webster: I started my career in the Park Service as a park ranger/naturalist and as an interpreter. But, after a long story that I won’t tell, I ended up in curation—so I don’t get out in the field nearly as much as I would choose to, if I had a choice.
There are museum objects on display in several of our visitor centers. For instance, the Needles Visitor center, which is south of us, was built—and the exhibits all designed and installed—in the early 1990s. Maybe ’92 to ’94. When they did that, they did everything right. They had architects design a beautiful building in harmony with the landscape. It’s fabulous. They had our exhibit specialists scour the museum collections for appropriate objects to tell the story that they wanted to tell, and the visitor center incorporated those objects and stories into the exhibits. They had the specialists build mounts and everything. It’s just very well done. I manage those; to the extent that they need any attention, they are my responsibility.
Subsequently, in the twenty years I’ve been here, the Park Service has rebuilt every visitor center except for the little trailer that they use at the Maze. That’s the only one that hasn’t been rebuilt. Every time, they have said, “Oh, we don’t want museum objects on display, because then we have to do climate control and fire and security requirements, and we just don’t want to do that.” Then, every time they’ve finished the building, they’ve said, “Well, we would like that one thing…”
For instance, at Arches there is a meteorite on display that is a museum object. It’s the only museum object in that practically new visitor center. That visitor center is five years old, or six, at the most. It’s a really new facility, but it only has one museum object in it—and that’s a meteorite.
Now, the light levels and the climate control—all that stuff—is not up to museum standards. It is in a secure case, and we do monitor the temperature and the humidity, but the building wasn’t built to the specs that you would have for displaying museum objects today.
Twilley: Working with such a wide range of artifacts, of such different materials and ages, means the environmental conditions must be difficult to manage.
Webster: Right. It’s always a compromise. In this storage room, we try to keep it at 65 degrees and approximately 35 percent humidity—but we have metal objects that would be happier if it were drier, and we have paper objects that would be happier if it were right at 35 percent. But we have to compromise, because we have so many different materials. In a place that’s just archives or just ceramics, though, you can tailor things.
We do have a wide variety of really interesting archaeological materials. I thought I would show them to you in order of material type. Here, we have a lot of lithics—mostly projectile points and stone knives. I pulled out this knife, in particular, because it’s so beautiful. It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of stone. When you look at these, you have to think: it can’t just have been utilitarian. They had to have been thinking about the aesthetics of the object, as well.
Twilley: Is that dated?
Webster: It could be. I’d have to look it up. But these two objects are dated simply in the sense that we know what type they are.
I actually know some archaeology here, and I’m going to show it off! These are both Clovis points. Clovis is the oldest-known culture in this region, at 10,000 to 12,000 years old. This one was found out in the Maze District of Canyonlands and this one at the Island in the Sky district.
The way you can tell a Clovis point from some other projectile point is through what’s called a fluke. At the base of the point, you can see an indentation; it almost looks like a thumb depression. That’s diagnostic of a Clovis point. If you’re outside, walking around, and you see one of these, call the nearest archaeologist. They will be very excited.
So these are actually very special, and the only thing from the Clovis culture that’s been found in this area. There could be other stuff; logically, there should be. If there’s anything, then there should be more. But who knows?
Twilley: Is that the kind of thing where people will go back to the site where it was found and mount a full-scale archaeological excavation?
Webster: I think, in both of these cases, that they had already assessed the area and found that these were just isolated finds that had been dropped. There was no real site associated with either one of those.
Now, we also have a number of vegetal objects—for instance, this is a fire stick, so you could drill and make a fire—and we have some sandals in our collection. One thing I’ve learned from the archaeologists is that this very tight, fine weave [showing us a pair of sandals] is older than the looser material. The looser, sloppier material seen in other sandals is actually more recent—and I figure this is a comment on the deterioration of civilization over time. Back in the day they had time to be very careful—and now we have flip-flops. [laughter]
Twilley: Are these shoelaces? [points at what appear to be threads visible on the outside of the sandals] These are pretty great shoes!
Webster: This is just some reed—and these are actually corncobs. Archaeologists will actually study the corncobs and count how many rows they have, because corn evolved and changed its form over time, so the number of rows, and the form of the corncob, can tell you something about the age of the corn.
Finally, I always pull this object out, because it’s fascinating. It’s made from a knucklebone, probably from a deer or a sheep, and it’s been carved into a Bighorn sheep effigy. If you look at it, you can see the hole; that had a string through it. Someone could have worn it, or hung it on something, or attached it to a ceramic object or stick. This was actually found near some rock art that showed Bighorn sheep, interestingly enough.
Ceramics, of course, are another thing we collect across the parks. This is an example of what’s called black and white Mesa Verdean. That would be the later Anasazi pottery, from the era of about 1100 to 1300. The painted pot—which is hiding back there on a shelf—could have been a kiva jar. It’s very fragile. There was probably a lip on it, like this one, and it was possibly found in a kiva. Actually, I’ll show you the shape of it; it’s quite lovely. The corrugated pots were used more for utilitarian things, like cooking. You know, I put it way back there, and now I can’t even reach it to pull it out where you can see it!
Twilley: Oh, I think I can see it. There’s a small soil sample next to it?
Webster: Yes, that would be what was found inside the pot. They pull things like that out and then they can check it for pollen, which can be dated.
Now, I pulled out this little pot so that I can tell you a story about it. This is a Hopi pot from about 1500. I have to look at it first; it always makes me nervous to pick it up. This pot was found with a couple of others—they’re similarly painted, from the same era and site—and those have been down in our conservation center being treated. One of them was full of salt. We have an archaeologist doing a study right now to source the salt and see where it came from, because we had thought that this was the farthest north that Hopi pots have been found. However, her research shows that, actually, there have been two or three sites even further north where Hopi pots have been discovered.
Well, the story of how we ended up with this pot is quite unusual. Back in the 1960s, there were a couple of families who worked at Arches National Park, who were out exploring in the area that we now call the Needles. They were taking a break somewhere, and they looked up and saw this big alcove with a rock slab across it. One of the women said, “You guys can rest, but I’m not that tired, and I’m going to run up there and take a look.” So she scrambles up there, looks behind this big slab of rock, and just starts screaming, “Pots! I found pots!”
There were two big, corrugated pots, three of these painted pots, and a bunch of gourds, along with some juniper bark and some shards—a big collection of stuff. It was just amazing to her. So they all went up there, and they looked at it, and they took pictures, but then they had to decide what they were going to do about it.
Of course, these were Park Service employees and, because of the Antiquities Act of 1908, they knew that they weren’t allowed to collect them. However, it’s the early 60s. The Glen Canyon Dam was being built, and Lake Powell was filling up; as it was filling, it drowned over 2,000 archaeological sites. There were archaeologists swarming all over the area trying to mitigate whatever they could before the lake came up and drowned those sites. There was even a widely believed but unfounded rumor that archaeologists had started breaking the pots they found so that they could ship them out easier and fit them into storage back at their universities.
Archaeologists exploring lands soon to be flooded by Lake Powell, summer 1958, courtesy of the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society.
So you have to picture being these people, sitting up in this alcove with this amazing cache of stunningly beautiful Hopi pots, and believing in your heart of hearts that if you were to tell those “rotten archaeologists” about it, they would take a hammer to it all and just ship them off to a university store room somewhere. What would you do?
Well, they decided that the best thing for them to do was take the pots. Of course, the best thing to do actually would have been to leave them there—but they took them. They took photographs of the pots in place. They also had a map, and they marked where they had found them. And one of the people on the trip was keeping a diary, so she also described in detail the whole day and the whole event and everything that happened.
An unrelated shot of archaeologists documenting petroglyphs in Desolation Canyon, Utah, courtesy of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance.
Then they packed the pots out, and took them to their respective homes.
Twilley: They took them home?
Webster: They took them home. The woman who initially found the cache, of course, took most of the pots herself.
But, now, fast-forward about 40 years. Her husband has now passed away, she has remarried, to a lovely man; and they’re living in a suburb of Denver. The woman has taken ill, and she knows she’s not going to be around much longer, so she tells her husband: she says, “There’s one thing I want you to promise me. You’ve got to get those pots back to the park.”
So, out of the blue, unbeknownst to us—we had no clue that any of this had ever happened—the phone rings one day and it’s this gentleman. His wife had passed away, and he had something he would like to bring back to the park. He asked if he could deliver these pots she had taken. We said, “Oh, yeah, that would be fine.” We had no idea what they were.
So he wraps them up in some old quilts; he sticks them in the trunk of his car; and he drives all the way over from Denver. He shows up here in Moab, and he takes us out to the parking lot. He opens the trunk of his car—and there are these beautiful pots.
Twilley: Goodness me.
Webster: He very ceremoniously gave them back to the Park, including some of the documentation, which he had brought along with him, and that meant we knew who the other people had been, where they had found these pots, and that we could get in touch with them to find even more maps and photographs. These are actually very well documented—and now we’re able to study them.
So that’s a great little story of how something could have gone horribly wrong, but, eventually, if you wait long enough, decades later it can all come back.
Manaugh: How often does it happen that people feel guilty and actually return things that they’ve taken?
Webster: You know, almost never. But that example was unique—in fact, that whole story is quite unique. Of course, people do pick up flakes or cherts or rocks and stick them in their pockets. But then they go home and they have a car wreck or they break their leg or their house burns down—and occasionally they’ll send the stuff back, saying, “It must be bad juju—I’m sorry I took it.” Of course, what are we doing to do with it? We can’t put it back; we don’t know exactly where it came from. It’s just a sad story all around when people take things out of the park.
Now, sometimes we do use those returned objects for interpretive purposes, because the park interpreters can then say that, when you’re out in the field, if you find something like this, just leave it there. Please! If you really want to touch one, touch this one, which is one that has already, in effect, been ruined. But leave anything else in place. So returned objects do have an interpretive function, but it’s really not a scientific function anymore—because, once the context is gone, it’s gone. It’s been destroyed.
I have one more little story to tell you—and that’s about the object in these boxes. As you leave, and as you’re heading down the hall, look to your right and you’ll see an enormous poster that’s all about this next object I’m going to show you. You’ll see the pictures and you’ll say, “Oh, I just saw that!” and be very excited. This only happened about six or seven years ago.
Some visitors were over in the Horseshoe Canyon Unit of the park, where the Great Gallery rock art panel is. It’s a very famous rock art panel. There’s a sand dune at the base of it—and this object was just sticking out of the sand dune. It had eroded out. Fortunately, that day we had a ranger in the canyon. We don’t always have somebody in the right place at the right time, but that day we did. They were able to report it to the archaeologist, and it was brought in appropriately.
It’s a bag made from an antelope leg. See the stitching here? You can see that it was tied off to create separate little compartments. You can also see that there’s fresh rodent chew—in other words, tooth marks from rodents. That means it eroded out of the sand dune and, probably that same night, mice found it, thinking it was a free meal; and the next day, it was discovered by humans. Otherwise, the mice would have been back that night—and we’d never have found this object.
Twilley: That’s incredible.
Webster: What was in the portion that was chewed on by the mice is these little seeds. [we peer inside pouch] These seeds are marsh elder, one of those plants that we have not yet found inside park boundaries, but that we do know grows right outside park boundaries. So those seeds were all stuffed inside that softball-shaped portion of the bag.
Twilley: This whole thing is made from an antelope leg, you said?
Webster: Yes. We had an archaeologist from Flagstaff analyze this, and he determined that it’s an antelope leg. I don’t know how he determined that, but he did. [laughter] If you think about it, though, it makes sense: if you want to make a bag, you start with something that’s already close to the shape you’re looking for.
These three little bags were in this portion here. This stone was lying right on top. All three of these were just cram-packed into that compartment. And these two bags—this one and that one—were empty. This one, though, was very obviously full of something. As luck would have it, shortly after this came in, a woman from the University of Utah who is a specialist in fibers was here to look at our sandals and do some other work for us. So we said, “Gosh, while you’re here, would you open that bag for us?” Because nobody here is technically trained to do that sort of thing. So she was happy to play Indiana Jones for us. It was almost painful to watch her do this, but she very carefully sketched and photographed the knot before she ever touched it. Then she pulled one string—and she sketched and photographed the knot again. Then she pulled another string—and she made another sketch and took a photograph. Then another string… I mean, this went on interminably. We’re all standing there, just salivating. Is she ever going to open it? I don’t remember how long it took; I just remember we all thought it would never end.
Finally, she gets the bag open and we discover that inside are these forty-two little rock chips. Forty of them are a pink chert, which we know comes from an area just north of town—just north of the airport—called the Dubinky Well area. It’s a fairly unusual type of rock, so we sourced it to that location. But the other two were different—one’s brown and one’s clear—and we don’t really know where they came from. All forty-two of these little stone chips were cram-packed into this bag, as well as this little piece of antler.
The archaeologist who analyzed this describes it basically as a toolkit. You have your raw material—your flakes—and you’ve got the cobblestone here to use as a hard work surface. Using that, you could press your flake to make a projectile point, so that you could go catch dinner. If all that failed—if you didn’t catch dinner—here, you’ve got your handy dandy granola to survive on.
Twilley: Those seeds were their trail mix?
Webster: Basically. And this whole thing was their projectile point-making kit.
This object is unusual, partly because it’s so complete and partly because it tells the story of the activities of an individual. Normally, when archaeologists are out in the field studying sites, they’re looking at big-picture stuff: they’re looking at communities, at cultural groups, at community activities, at habitation sites, at entire ways of life. It’s rare that they find an object that tells the story of what one individual might have done. So it’s a fascinating little object.
That’s a kind of the top-of-the-pops smattering of representative objects that we have here in storage at the museum.
Manaugh: Before we leave the room, I have to ask, as something of a map obsessive: is there anything in particular in your map collection that might be cool to see before we go?
Webster: Let me think. The oldest maps we have are probably from the 1950s and 60s. Of course, we have more recently generated maps depicting boundary changes for the park. But, the best map? [pauses] If you’ll follow me—just help me rotate this rack out of the way, because it’s blocking access to the map cabinet—let’s see. Let me find my favorite map. We have a map that shows the original idea of what Canyonlands National Park should have been. We call it the Million-Acre Map. That’s much more acreage than what we actually set aside.
In fact, the story of the establishment of Canyonlands is pretty interesting. It was very controversial. I mean, it was the 1960s. What wasn’t controversial in the 60s, you know? [laughs] Oh, here it is. I knew it was close. The dotted line you see here is the hoped-for million acres.
The original idea for Canyonlands—Bates Wilson and Stewart Udall’s concept of what the park should be—is that it should preserve an entire ecosystem. It should be rim to rim for that ecosystem. But, because of the strong feelings of state and local people, including the fact that they wanted to retain lands available for mineral extraction and grazing, the park was reduced. It’s the same battle we fight today. Just how much do you set aside for recreation and preservation? How much do you set aside to be drilled and grazed? It’s the how much question.
Manaugh: While we’re on the subject, one thing that interests about this region is the relationship between the parks and the extraction industry. I’m curious about what sort of relationship you might have with companies involved in prospecting for uranium or other natural resources, and whether, or how often, they donate things they find to you at the Park Service.
Webster: To be honest, that type of prospecting or exploration doesn’t happen inside park boundaries. When it happens outside park boundaries, it’s viewed more as a potential threat—but your question is interesting, because it comes from a different premise—that extraction could be a benefit, that they could find things.
Right now, our experience is that if there’s oil or gas leasing on or near our boundaries, then there’s a concern about the viewshed and the impact on the park.
Malia: You also have to look at it from the point of view of what’s already been done to the park, and what’s going to continue being done to the park, as well. There are a lot of uranium trails that have gone through Canyonlands that you can’t see anymore, unless you know what to look for. White Mesa was a uranium trail, and now it’s used as the White Rim Trail. And there’s a pipeline that goes through Arches. We don’t tell visitors about it, but it is still maintained by the oil company. We let them come through.
Manaugh: Is it underground?
Webster: Parts of it are underground. Actually, the pipeline has an interesting history. It was built in 1955 and, if you were to look at a map of Arches in 1955, the park was shaped almost like an hourglass. There’s a big area, a skinny area, and a big area, and the pipeline crossed the skinny area. In 1955, they got permission to cross the park because it was only a mile or so across park property.
Of course, now the park has expanded, so it goes through quite a lot of the park. As they do with any gas pipeline, the company will fly over it and look for weaknesses, and, if they detect a weakness, they have to go in with heavy equipment and dig it up and repair it. There’s a huge amount of impact to the local resources. The vegetation is destroyed; there’s soil disturbance; you’re going to have tumbleweed coming in where, before, you didn’t. It has a big impact on the park.
Manaugh: Having read Cato Institute reports, for instance, about how we might privatize the National Park Service, there’s definitely an interest in—
Webster: I have a gut reaction to that. I’ve had conversations with people who honestly believe that a park that doesn’t take in enough money and entrance fees to keep itself operating should simply be closed. I fear that that’s a growing attitude, because of the whole philosophy that the market should drive everything. That’s a philosophy that’s becoming more and more prevalent in our culture, even when it comes to National Parks.
But it makes me nervous, because the parks will only exist as long as people allow them to exist. These are valuable parts of America’s natural and cultural heritage that we, as a society, have decided are worth protecting and saving whether they would survive in a commercial marketplace or not. In my personal opinion, privatizing the function of the NPS—making it profit-motivated, rather than preservation-motivated—could mean losing valuable parts of our heritage as Americans.
Manaugh: I just have one more question, if you don’t mind. I’m curious about the trail itself as a pedagogic experience. There’s the trail as an athletic experience—designed so that you can really get your heartrate up—as well as the trail as an aesthetic experience, featuring the best views and scenery, but then there’s the interpretive trail, where you visit a certain site for historical or even narrative reasons. That kind of trail is really a kind of outdoor museum. As a curator, does trail design, as a form of spatial data management, cross your radar at all—and is there a trail that you think would be particularly great for the park but that doesn’t yet exist?
Twilley: For example, it could be fascinating to have an alternative trail system that actually did take you past the pipeline. I feel that, often, trails are carefully curated to give you what seems like a natural experience, yet the story the trail is telling is inherently artificial.
Webster: That’s interesting—though I haven’t dealt very much with that sort of thing. When I think of trail design in these parks, I think of the trail to Delicate Arch. It’s a fabulous trail, because it was designed by a landscape architect in the 1940s, and I even have his file, which is how I know all this. When you hike up there, you don’t see your destination until you’re really there. It’s designed in such a way that you come around the bend—and, wham, Delicate Arch is right there, in your face, and it is just shockingly magnificent. You can’t prepare yourself for it, and I think he designed the trail that way. In fact, I know he did, because I’ve read his file. It’s very intentional. It’s a beautifully designed hiking experience.
But I know that, once in a while, an interpreter will do a program about the human side of National Parks: the maintenance side or recycling, as we’re really trying to green the parks and get people to recycle. We’ll have occasional programs—but we haven’t dedicated trail space to it. It would be interesting to think about how that might change the park.
Twilley: It might help make people aware that this is a choice we’ve made—that these parks are the way they are because we maintain them like this. They are something that we’ve built—not just something that exists, like putting a fence around a pretty part of nature.
Malia: If you ever go to the Windows section of the park, you’ll see the designated trail—but you’ll also see lots of different trails, running all over. Those are interesting.
Webster: That’s right—the social trails. But it’s pretty rare, now, that new official trails are built. Trail creation is something that tends to happen early on in the life of a park, and not as much as time goes forward. For the most part, people don’t seem to want to mess with the landscape after the park’s been established.
Twilley: Finally, you’ve worked at other parks, right?
Webster: Yeah. I’ve been here for 20 years but, before that, I worked in a bunch of other parks. I was recently travelling with some other old parkies and I was number two for number of parks worked at. I’ve worked at 15 parks total. I worked at the Everglades one winter, and at the Apostle Islands for about two and a half years. That’s in northern Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Superior. But I’ve also worked at Yosemite, Saguaro, Colorado National…
Manaugh: Where are you originally from?
Webster: Well, I’m half Texan and half Californian. I’m an old, fourth generation native-born Texan, but we left when I was 10 years old. I did most of my growing up in the Sacramento Valley, in Davis, California.
I worked in interpretation for a long time. I was the chief interpreter at Whiskeytown in the early 80s, which is also in northern California. Every park has collections that somebody has to take care of—but most of those people are not curators. A lot of the time, it falls on someone in the interpretive division. But I did a lot of museum work. When I was working at Apostle Islands, the park was only 10 years old; I established a museum program and hired people to start cataloguing the fishery, lighthouse, and brownstone quarrying materials. And the same thing at Whiskeytown: I was responsible for the collections there. I worked on the collections at Saguaro, and I did a little in Colorado, as well.
I’ve worked at a lot of parks!