In 1972, two archaeologists began a project on Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. The project combined their interests in settlement patterns and statistical applications to archaeology based on probabilistic sampling theory. Little could the two archaeologists know that the project would lead to a 50-year collaboration that resulted in numerous significant contributions to the field of southwestern archaeology, or that Cedar Mesa itself would become involved in a contemporary fight for Indigenous control of ancestral lands as part of Bears Ears National Monument.

Bill Lipe brought the Cedar Mesa project to Washington State University when he joined the faculty in 1976. By the time he arrived on the Palouse, Lipe had been researching the ways in which Ancestral Puebloan societies lived on the landscape of the Southwest since 1958, when he was a crew chief on the Glen Canyon Archaeological Project. His research partner, R.G. Matson, had joined the University of British Columbia in 1972. Together, the two men assembled a wealth of data from Cedar Mesa over four decades that detailed the development of a cultural landscape from a natural landscape.

The approach of considering the landscape as the unit for analysis was rare in archaeology at the time. In addition to the collected artifacts from 995 sites, WSU’s Museum of Anthropology curates the maps from the 800 square-kilometers surveyed during the Cedar Mesa project. Limited excavations occurred in a small number of sites, but the majority of the Cedar Mesa Project results have been based on systematically documenting surface artifacts, a process called archaeological survey.

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