By Steven D. Decker
While many historical accounts of Parowan begin with, or proximate to, its settlement on Januray13, 1851, it is undeniable that the Parowan Valley had a rich cultural heritage centuries prior to that time. Native American Parowan Fremont and Anasazi artifacts date back to 750 CE (Seegmiller). In fact, the early culture of the Parowan Valley has been sought after, dug up, discussed, debated, and researched for over a century.
Several area sites have been excavated by several academic institutions and facilities over the past century. However, as Abraham Arnett acknowledged, few reports are published. In fact, as of 1998, when Arnett wrote, “one report of investigations at Paragonah and a brief article detailing the activities at the Evans Mound [Summit] constitute the only published materials pertaining to these excavations.” Yet dig sites have been identified at Paragonah, Parowan, Summit (or Evans Mound), Mortonson (sic., a dig on the Vern Mortensen property), Median Village (near Summit), and the Adams-Hyatt mound (Arnett 69, 71).
Neil M. Judd, of the Smithsonian Institute who began work on the Paragonah site in 1915, notes the observations of even earlier researchers like Dr. H. C. Yarrow (1872) that over 400 mounds were observable at Paragonah. Henry Montgomery, University of Utah, and Don Maquire, “of Ogden, Utah” conducted excavations in 1893 and report about 100 mounds. Less than half of these remained when Judd worked the site (Judd 1).
Judd, having arrived only 43 years after Yarrow’s observation posits that Yarrow’s estimate of 400 mounds might have been exaggerated. However, University of Utah’s Clement W. Meighan seems to verify the possibility of Yarrow’s figures. He forwards the notion that, “From surveys, and talks with local residents, we are fairly certain that our portion of the site (the last undisturbed patch) represents only about 10 per cent of the original area. This gives us a minimal figure of 320 mounds. As there are outliers scattered within a half mile of the main concentration of mounds, the original figure of 400 proposed by Yarrow probably is not far in error.” Based on further extrapolations, including the time span of the sight, the average life of the adobe structures (20 years), and an average family size of five persons, Meighan estimates the permanent population of the Paragonah site could have been 400, about the size of the community of Paragonah when Meighan was excavating (Meighan et al., 3-4).
Where did the community come from and where did it go? These are question that remain unanswered. Judd addressed it thus: “Here was a people who came from some distant, undetermined region—a people that established a compact community, with a definite social organization, and then passed on to a new locality where another cycle in their tribal history was unfolded” (Judd 2).
But while they were here, they built marvelous structures. One mound, the “big mound,” had a diameter of 225 feet and was some 10 feet high (Judd 3). The walls averaged 10” in thickness and, while no fully intact wall was excavated they were judged to be 4.5’ to 5’ tall, based on other excavations of the Southwest. Yet, Judd included a caution to his readers. He did not want them believing that the height of the walls were an indication of the height of the inhabitants but, rather, to understand that the structures were used, primarily, for storage and sleeping.
In addition the lower profile made them easier to build and “afforded greater protection from the elements” (Judd 5). Structures were roofed by large wooden beams spaced about a foot apart, with small poles placed at right angles to the beams and overlaid with brush, grass, and clay. “The resulting cover was fairly tight, but extremely heavy.” Stone disks, estimated at 75 to 80 pounds, were used to cover a roof-hole, the only entry to the structure, added even more weight. In time the weight and the elements would collapse the structure. They were not fully rebuilt but were probably scavenged to building new structures (Judd 6).
The pit houses were described by Frank D. Davis as being an estimated six feet high. They were constructed by digging down about two feet then placing upright, “crotched” supports three-and-a-half feet inside the excavated corners toward the center of the pit house. These crotched supports were sturdy beams, averaging nine inches in diameter. Smaller uprights (five inches in diameter) were placed near the large ones, presumably to add weight bearing stability. Cross beams were then laid on this superstructure and covered with reeds and grass and, finally, a covering of packed clay up to six inches thick.
In the center of the pit house a fire pit was excavated. The pit was 24 inches in diameter and was ringed by a clay rim 3 inches high and 6 inches wide. Above the fire pit was an opening in the roof of the structure that allowed smoke to escape. It also allowed for ingress and egress of inhabitants. The opening could be closed by sliding a flat stone over it. Holes in the floor were observed, presumably for ladder rests (Meighan et al., 60-63). Arnett’s synopsis of others’ writings notes these “hearths” as “extraordinary” and comments on the “cleanliness about which they were constructed and used” (Arnett 73).
Most notably, the mound Davis describes, while it contained certain expected debris, also contained a human remains burial site. Davis is quick to point out “the clear evidence that the house was abandoned on the death of this person” (Meighan et al., 60).
Arnett, too, chimes in on death and burial. The Parowan site uncovered four bodies: two adults and two children. Interestingly, the adults were inhumed in pit houses. The children were found amidst the midden deposits, the refuse piles. This find begs questions related to social status of adults vs. children. Was the child mortality rate so high, or was child death so common that infant bodies were simple considered refuse? Were children so discounted for some reason so as to negate their worth as people when compared to adults?
Incidentally, while grave offerings were found at Paragonah, no such offerings were found in Parowan (Arnett 73).
More recent research into the ancient inhabitants of the Parowan valley comes from Garth Norman and Nal Morris who have studied the Parowan Gap for its archaeo-astronomical significance. Though the work done by these researchers is fascinating, I must take exception with Norman’s choice of wording when he posits, “Long regarded as undecipherable doodling, this fascinating pictographic ‘writing’ can now be recognized as a rich archive of the ancient history and beliefs of Utah’s early inhabitants going back at least 5,000 years” (Norman, vii).
I believe that few have regarded the rock art at the Gap to be mere doodling. Indeed, Morris states that when Mormon Pioneers spoke to Wakara, the Paiute Chief, in 1849, he referred to the Parowan Gap as a temple of sorts – “God’s own house” (Morris).
Thereafter, Norman produces a compelling argument that the Gap is a calendar. The placement or cairns (piles of rocks) seem to indicate seasons and times of year. That is, by observing the sun from these cairns in relation to the Gap, events like solstice and equinox may be accurately determined. In other words, stand at the correct cairn on June 21 (summer solstice) or December 21 (winter solstice) and the sun sets exactly in the “V” of the Gap (Norman 22-23). Other dates produce equally accurate results. Both solar and lunar panels exist at the Gap (Morris).
Outside of archaeological excavations and anthropological findings, the area has its legends; its stories. Those are saved for other treatises or, if not that formally addressed, at least other discussion. Local collectors of stories like Alva Matheson, William R. Palmer and Jean Hendrickson spent lifetimes collecting and attempting to preserve these stories and legends. Some are lost or stored in such a manner as to make them as good as lost – unpreserved and undocumented. Others have been preserved with great jealousy and care.
The point of this brief section of history is to assure that the culture and civilization that existed in the Parowan Valley, long before the present one, is not forgotten. It is too, to guard against the pretentiousness of discounting the possibility of even earlier civilizations. Perhaps we simply need to dig deeper.