Western Digs’ Top 5 Archaeology Stories of 2014

They were made at sites ranging from Hawaii to Colorado.

They date back to the dawn of agriculture in the Southwest and to the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago.

Hundreds of thousands of people joined you in exploring the discoveries that framed the most popular archaeology stories that Western Digs reported on in 2014.

Taken together, these finds teach us about many distant and different cultures, and describe radically divergent facets of human history in the West — from the achievements of some of its earliest settlements to the atrocities committed during the most difficult times.

So, take some time to explore the year in Western archaeology — and thousands of years of Western history.

And thanks to all of you who have stopped by Western Digs in the past year and made this list what it is.


#5. Utah Cave Full of Children’s Moccasins Sheds Light on Little-Known Ancient Culture

Two typical Promontory moccasins recovered in may 2013, with the bottom row showing their patched soles.
Two typical Promontory moccasins recovered in may 2013, with the bottom row showing their patched soles.

Tens of thousands of readers followed our exclusive coverage of an archaeological mystery 700 years in the making — a cave on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake that was found to contain hundreds of children’s moccasins.

This wealth of artifacts may go a long way in demystifying the distinctive, little-researched populations often referred to as the Promontory Culture.

Dr. Jack Ives and his colleagues studied the moccasins to gauge the size and makeup of their population.

And they also analyzed their style of construction, to garner some clues about where the caves’ inhabitants came from, and whom their modern descendants might be.

Read on to find out what the team concluded, and what it might mean about one of the greatest human migrations in the continent’s history.

#4. Monster Surf Exposes Rare Petroglyphs in Hawaii

Tweets and tumblr posts from beachcombers in Hawaii tipped us off to what would become our fourth most popular story of the year: ancient petroglyphs carved in volcanic rock that were revealed by winter storms.Oahu petroglyph

Unusually strong seasonal surf washed away the sand at Pupukea Beach, just east of the big-surf mecca of Waimea, to reveal more than 70 large carvings — mostly of humans and dogs — in a bench of lava rock.

Because they’re seen so rarely, the petroglyphs haven’t been studied thoroughly.

They were reportedly first documented by archaeologists in 1970, and new ones have been identified as recently as 1983.

As a result, even the most basic aspects of the images — like their age and purpose — remain unclear.

Read on to see some of the glyphs, and learn what the experts think they might mean.

#3. Evidence of Hobbling, Torture Discovered at Ancient Massacre Site in Colorado

A lot of debate and argument surrounded one of our most-read stories of the summer: a report about new evidence of torture practiced among the Ancestral Puebloans some 1,200 years ago.

First excavated in 2005, the site known as Sacred Ridge in southwestern Colorado revealed two pithouses filled with more than 15,000 fragments of human bone that had been butchered and burned.

And according to new research, many of the foot bones turned out to bear signs of hobbling — the practice of immobilizing a victim’s feet, in this case by breaking the ankles — as well as severe beating on the soles, an act whose only purpose could have been to cause pain.

Read on to explore the evidence for yourself, learn more about Sacred Ridge, and follow the discussion in the comments about history and the role of violence in human nature.

#2. 11,000-Year-Old Seafaring Indian Sites Discovered on California Island

One of our most popular articles was, fittingly, about one of the year’s biggest archaeological discoveries: the identification of one of the oldest sites of human occupation on the Pacific Coast.

Chert crescent tool from San Miguel Island
Distinctive crescent-shaped stone tools, like this from neighboring San Miguel Island, are among the Paleocoastal artifacts that have been identified. (University of Oregon)

On Santa Rosa Island, one of California’s Channel Islands, nearly 20 sites were found that reveal signs of prehistoric human activity, from massive middens of abalone shells to distinctive stone points and tool-making debris.

At least nine of the sites have what archaeologists said is “definitive evidence” of ancient Paleoindian occupation, about half of them having been dated to 11,000 to 12,000 years ago — making their inhabitants some of the earliest known settlers of North America’s West Coast.

Read on to see the sites, study the tools left behind, and learn what this discovery might tell us about human life in the West at the end of the last ice age.

#1. Twin 1,300-Year-Old Villages Discovered in Arizona Sand Dunes

Our most-read story of the year garnered so much traffic that it actually broke the counter on our “Popular” tab.

Archaeologists surveying land acquired by Petrified Forest National Park have found traces of two ancient villages. The flags mark a site where pottery was found.
Archaeologists surveying land acquired by Petrified Forest National Park have found traces of two ancient villages. The flags mark a site where pottery was found.

More than 80,000 people read our exclusive coverage of the discovery of two “matching” villages that date back some 1,300 years in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park.

In addition to the distinctive sandstone architecture, both sites turned up fragments of brown ceramics and stone points that are indicative of the late Basketmaker period, a cultural phase that prefigured the Ancestral Puebloans who went on to build the monuments of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.

And the two newfound villages date back to a key phase in the Basketmakers’ transition, from nomadic foraging to a more sedentary, agricultural, and complex society.

Our coverage spent several days at the top of Reddit History and on the front page of Real Clear Science and was later picked up by the Reuters news service.

Read on to explore the site for yourself, and don’t worry, you won’t break anything this time!

I’d like to offer a very sincere thank you to everyone who has passed through Western Digs this past year, whether you just read one story, or you became a member of our growing community.

I read the latest research, interview scientists and write up their findings all in my spare time, because I’m passionate about exploring science, history, and the American West, and I’m glad there are others out there who are as fascinated by it as I am.

If you have any questions, comments or ideas of what you’d like WD to cover, let me know in the contact form, or in the comments below.

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  1. Archaeology travel

    There are still things waiting for us to discover them for sure. Good top.