Rancher Impressed By Ancient Tools

Posted: October 13, 2021 at 10:48 am

Jay Tanner’s discoveries reveal lifestyle eons ago in northern Utah

Story and Photos By Dianna Troyer

For reasons he says he cannot explain, Jay Tanner finds ancient artifacts with little effort on his cattle ranch near Grouse Creek in northern Utah.

Jay Tanner has been collecting stone artifacts for a half century.
Jay Tanner has been collecting stone artifacts for a half century.

“I’ve had a knack for it since I was a kid,” says Jay, 62, the fifth generation to run the family ranch. “I still do.”

One day, he and his wife, Diane, were driving around the ranch. “I told her I could even find them from the truck while driving,” Jay says. “I randomly pointed to a white rock that caught my eye and jokingly told her, ‘Now there’s an arrowhead.’ We stopped and sure enough, it was.”

In glass-covered frames and a specially designed coffee table with a glass top, Jay displays arrowheads, awls, knives, spear points, drills, scrapers, pestles and grinding stones made from obsidian, chert and chalcedony.

Jay says he admires native people’s craftsmanship.

“It’s impressive to think these tools have lasted thousands of years and can still be used,” he says. “The grooves that were chipped into scrapers for cleaning hides fit my thumb and fingers perfectly. I can’t think of anything I could make that would fit that well, last that long, and still be functional. Not much that I do has that kind of longevity.”

Those tools have given Jay and university researchers a glimpse into life eons ago.

Ancient hunters made the tools to harvest wildlife and plants for food and to make clothes. Like Jay, they called the scenic high desert home. Although the vast land appears empty, it provides ample food—big game, grouse, pine nuts and berries—in hidden ravines and valleys, and along creeks and springs.

Jay has collected the stone tools for nearly a half-century. The federal Antiquities Act allows artifacts to be collected on private land, but not on state or federal land.

“My dad told me I should get serious about organizing all the things I’d found and put them in frames,” Jay says. “I’m glad I took his advice.”

As a youngster, questions nagged at Jay when he discovered the stone tools.

An obsidian chunk was chipped and transformed into a tool.
An obsidian chunk was chipped and transformed into a tool.

When were they made? Who left them? What was their ancient lifestyle like before European settlers arrived?

The mysteries were solved when he met researchers from the University of Utah at the local post office. In the 1970s, they had the same questions and were looking for sites to excavate.

Jay led them to springs and rock shelters in the area where he had found the ancient objects. Their research about an earlier lifestyle was described in a 150-page anthropological paper published in 1976. Jay flips through it, pointing out the different styles of stone tools identified from the area.

Jay has a display of countless stone tools made of obsidian, chalcedony and chert.
Jay has a display of countless stone tools made of obsidian, chalcedony and chert.

To coincide with the paper’s publication, researchers invited Jay to display his collection at the Natural History Museum of Utah on the University of Utah campus.

“They said most of the tools I’d collected were made by Archaic hunter-gatherers at about 4500 B.C.,” he says. “Hunting parties came through the valley following wild game. In fire pits, they found bones of grouse, antelope, bison, deer, elk and sheep.”

About 2,000 years ago, nomadic hunters began to farm and were classified as the Fremont Culture. They stored food in granaries throughout northern and eastern Utah.

In the late 1200s, a drought throughout the region forced people to abandon farming and revert to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Eventually, tribes known in modern times—including Northern Shoshone and Goshute—lived in the area.

Along with bows, arrows and spears, native hunters who traveled through the area relied on wooden traps to harvest wildlife.

“You can still see one,” Jay says. “It’s so dry here that it’s still preserved.”

Between Grouse Creek and Park Valley, hunters built a funnel-shaped enclosure using trees and brush.

“It resembled a V-shaped fence,” Jay says. “They drove the antelope into it.”

A scraper fits his thumb and hand perfectly.
A scraper fits his thumb and hand perfectly.

Besides eating wild game, they also collected and roasted nutrient-dense pine nuts. As winter approached, they moved to lower elevations.

“We’re more than a mile high here at our house at 5,300 feet, so they didn’t want to live here during winter,” Jay says. “It’s a little warmer south of here at lower elevations along the Salt Flats and the
Hogup Mountains. Hogup Cave down there has been studied a lot.”

Jay says he remembers Native Americans coming to the ranch when he was young.

“My grandpa traded deer hides for gloves they made,” he says. “My great great-grandpa, Dell Tanner, probably traded with them, too, when he settled here in the 1870s.”

Although stark and seemingly empty, northwestern Utah teems with wildlife and still is a popular destination for modern hunters seeking trophy-sized big game.

“There’s been a human presence here for a long time,” Jay says. “Native people long ago probably appreciated the solitude and wildlife here as much as the people who live and work here now.”