Exploring the Archeological Significance of the Ancestral Load Basket

By: Tara Beresh, Curatorial and Collections Manager

If you’re local to Moab or a longtime visitor to the Moab Museum, you may be aware of the renowned “burden” basket—an extraordinary ancestral relic, iconic to the area and sacred to proximate Native groups. The cone-shaped basket is styled to be worn like a backpack, is woven from willow and yucca, and was discovered in 1990 in the canyons south of Moab. Today, in adherence with an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management, and a renewed commitment to professional object care, the Moab Museum is funding conservation treatment for the basket before its return to the Museum in March, 2022. We are eager for the basket to be viewable to the public once again, this time in an archival capacity. The new display case for the basket was custom designed to be air tight, moisture prohibitive, and monitored for temperature fluctuations.

We know this basket is extraordinary… extraordinarily old, rare, and very local… but what else can it tell us from an archaeological perspective?

In 1999, Archaeologist Sharyl A. Kinnear-Ferris conducted a research project on woven perishables (artifacts woven or sewn from plant fibers, animal fur, hair, or feathers) as part of her master’s fulfillment at Regis University in Denver, CO. Ferris’ research examined 153 specimens from the Canyonlands region and acquired radiocarbon dates for ten of these specimens, including the Moab load basket. Her results primarily indicate that the Colorado River did not serve as a clear boundary between Formative Fremont and Ancestral Pueblo cultures in the Canyonlands region, as was previously hypothesized. In the Glen Canyon Region, there is a prevalence of different basketry construction techniques from the north (one rod and bundle) and south (two rod and bundle) sides of the Colorado river, lending to the former theory.

The results of Ferris’ study find Fremont basketry (1 rod and bundle) on both north and south sides of the river, and Ancestral Pueblo basketry (2 rod and bundle) on the south side of the river, except for one. The mixture of techniques north and south of the river in the Canyonlands area suggest that one group may have influenced the other, or that groups traded, interacted, or integrated over time. Another explanation may be found in the topographical differences between the Glen Canyon and Moab area and ease of travel. While Glen Canyon provides much less opportunity for casual travel, the Moab Valley allowed for more cultural contact and mixing of populations. “The Colorado River near Moab has served as a crossing point historically. The Old Spanish Trail passed through the area and crossed the river at Moab since it is one of only a few sites in the Canyonlands region where the river can be readily reached and crossed. Prehistorically, the river crossing at Moab may have allowed easy movement of peoples and ideas” (Kinnear-Ferris, 1990).

In addition, Ferris’ study reveals that the basket exhibits construction styles characteristic of the earlier Basketmaker II time, yet radiocarbon dating of the base of the basket indicates a later Pueblo II time, posing further questions. The contradiction may suggest a relationship between occupants of the Canyonlands region and those inhabiting other regions to the south, or that different portions of the baskets were woven at different times or by different weavers.

The load basket is more than simply evidence of people in the Moab area as early as A.D. 855 (as characterized by its two-rod-and-bundle construction); it also provides insights into prehispanic lifeways and cultural-social relationships over time. Efforts to preserve invaluable artifacts such as the Moab load basket are crucial toward deepening our understanding of history in the Canyonlands region.

An Analysis of Canyonlands Region Woven Perishables and a Comparison with Those of Surrounding Regions: A Research Project Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirement for the Degree Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at Regis University, Denver, Colorado. By: Sharyl A. Kinnear-Ferris, 1999