After decades of working with locals and federal agencies in southeast Utah, the Edge of the Cedars State Park & Museum in Blanding has become a premiere institution for collecting, preserving, and interpreting the prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan presence.
So it came as a shock when the Utah State Legislature suggested that Utah’s heritage museums might be closed because of budget woes. One of those museums is Edge of the Cedars.
As a former museum director, I know how hard it is to run a museum--- to pay the utility bills, to hire and train professional staff, to constantly be writing grants, and to host a variety of annual public programs. It’s a job that never ends at 5 p.m.
I have respect for all museum staff in the Four Corners, but particularly for staff at the Edge of the Cedars. Not only do they administer an archaeological site, they have achieved the highest standards possible for a museum in the Southwest—Edge of the Cedars is a repository for federal archaeological collections from public lands.
That’s exactly what we want because for over a century, valuable artifacts from the Southwest left our area and were deposited in basements and storage shelves from the Peabody Museum at Harvard to the Smithsonian Institution. I know because once I searched for prehistoric ceramics from southwest New Mexico.
I found them in a room at the National Museum of Natural History. I had to wear a face mask and sign a health waiver because asbestos fell from the ceiling like loose confetti. The bowls were in wooden cabinets swelled shut because of Washington, D.C.’s humidity. As I tried to open the drawers I could hear thousand-year-old Mimbres bowls scraping each other as I tugged harder on the brass handles.
Here in the Southwest, we are proud of the prehistoric past. Uppity Durango women had Gustaf Nordenskiold arrested for digging seven train car loads of artifacts from Mesa Verde before it became a national park. But a judge determined that Nordenskiold had broken no laws. He was released and his artifact horde went to Finland, where it remains to this day.
Upset and outraged, Americans passed the Antiquities Act in 1906, making it illegal to dig Indian sites on public lands. Yet even after passage of the law, collections routinely left the Southwest to be buried in the bowels of eastern museums. Edge of the Cedars exemplifies how to do it right. Keep collections close to where they are found.
Strongly supported by locals in Blanding and San Juan County, and visited by tourists from around the world, Edge of the Cedars has world-class collections on display and publicly accessible. Where else can you see the only Macaw feather sash ever discovered in the Southwest?
Or how about a unique beaver tail rattle or an ancient Basketmaker necklace made from shiny insect legs? Many of us who hike in the back country have seen petroglyphs of crook-necked canes. Edge of the Cedars has a cane on display along with ancient sandals and turkey feather blankets.
No, you can’t just close a state museum that has pot-hunted collections stolen from BLM lands and recovered by special investigators. By definition a federal repository must have a professional staff, mandatory heating, cooling, humidity controls, fire suppression systems, and tight security procedures. Yes, such a facility has inherent expenses, but Utah’s citizens want Utah artifacts kept close to the canyons where they were found. Why not? Who wouldn’t?
As proof of community support for the Edge of the Cedars Museum, a local family is donating a valuable ceramic collection found on their ranch.
This winter I interviewed Richard Perkins, who explained that the Richard and Eve Lynn Perkins Collection “came from the ranch itself or around the ranch on deeded property.” Heir to a pioneering Mormon family, Perkins said, “in early times a lot was found” and that some of the 80 pieces “washed out of irrigation ditches.”
He explained family members weren’t looking for artifacts, but over the years ceramic pieces worked out of the ground.
“My favorite one is a figure of a man with a bow and arrow and a long bird,” the rancher told me at his home in Blanding. He also likes a rare “flute with a bird on the end, but I never tried to blow a tune.”
Curator Deborah Westfall states, “The collection is significant to Edge of the Cedars Museum in that it enhances the museum’s relatively small collections of late Puebloan pottery, and it contains good examples of ceramics from northwest New Mexico and northeast Arizona.” Those items must have been traded into Montezuma Creek during the Pueblo III phase, A.D. 1150-1250. A few items date to Pueblo IV or A.D. 1324-1600.
“The family carefully collected the pieces from their property over several generations,” explains Museum Director Teri Paul who adds, “This is a wonderful addition to the museum. They recognized the value of the collection to the public and wished to make it available so that it could be enjoyed by everyone.”
Richard Perkins confirmed his family’s intentions. He told me, “I’m getting older and I just decided the museum could have it because they’ve got better facilities to take care of it. I wanted the collection kept in the county.”
What’s important from a museum perspective is that the collection is intact with strong provenience or the knowledge of exactly where the pieces came from. “I never did sell or trade any of the bowls,” Perkins stated. “I never wanted them to go that way.”
So yes, it’s a tight time financially. Some Utah State Park employees may be furloughed and budgets may be reduced. But storing and exhibiting prehistoric collections is a sacred trust that must transcend temporary financial troubles. We owe that much to the Ancestral Puebloans and their descendants. Our children need to know the prehistory of this special place we call home.
Thank you, Richard and Eve Lynn Perkins for your generous donation. I can’t wait to see those whimsical puebloan ceramics on display. And thanks to the Utah State Legislature for recognizing your obligation to keep open the Edge of the Cedars. .
(Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him firstname.lastname@example.org