Human skeletal remains unearthed in Moab decades ago, and estimated to be 800 to 1,200 years old, have been in limbo as state and local museum officials try to find a final resting place for them.
Travis Schenck, director of the Dan O’Laurie Museum of Moab, said the remains were discovered in the late 1950s and early ’60s during excavation work near 400 East. They are believed to be of Fremont or Ancestral Puebloan heritage.
Archaeologists were called in and removed six or seven skeletons, some of which were incomplete, Schenck said. They were stored in the Moab museum but not displayed.
A federal ruling in the 1990s required that such remains be returned to the appropriate Native American tribes, he said. Local museum officials returned them to the Bureau of Land Management so that could happen.
“As a rule, a lot of these exhibits were going to the Utah Museum of National History,” Schenck said.
Things took an unexpected turn in 2011 when he got a call from the Museum of Natural History, informing him the remains would be coming back to Moab.
“We have no idea why the process wasn’t done,” he said, referring to the federal requirement to return the remains to tribes. Schenck said he assumed it had been done.
But returning the remains to Moab presented a problem for the small, private museum. Because of its limited budget, there was no way to indentify the remains as to tribe nor was money available to transport them even if the origin was determined, Schenck said.
When budget cuts eliminated the office of the state archaeologist, Schenck said he was notified that a forensics anthropologist would contact him. She took possession of the remains about two weeks ago.
In the meantime, representatives of seven Utah tribes asked to be notified if the remains were found to be theirs. The difficulty in identifying the bones, Schenck said, is because no pottery, clothing or other clues were found.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that some tribes haven’t established protocol about how to rebury remains.
“We’re not the only museum in the state dealing with this,” Schenck said.
He noted that the remains previously housed in Moab have been unburied for about six decades. While they were protected from decline as much as possible, Schenck said climate control equipment available today wasn’t on the scene 30 and 40 years ago.
The museum director believes it’s only a matter of time until more remains are discovered locally. That’s because Moab had up to 15,000 Native residents between 1,000 to 2,000 years ago – a significantly higher population than exists in Grand County today.
“Anytime you dig in an area it’s likely you’ll find something,” Schenck said, adding that is especially true near Mill Creek. “We know more will be found in our community.”
He’s concerned that many remains will not receive a proper final burial, although efforts are being made by state museum officials to build such a site. Remains are currently being kept in a temporary “bone vault,” Schenck said.
“If we can’t preserve our history here, where can we preserve it?” he asked.