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BLANDING - Poised at the edge of a lonely dirt road, the crew of searchers spaced themselves out at 33-foot intervals.

A word from crew chief Ben Bellorado prompted his four crew members to begin picking their way through the brush-covered desert terrain on Comb Wash earlier this week.

The formation resembled a rescue party searching for a missing hiker, but this team scoured the dusty ground for hints of desert dwellers now long gone.

Archaeology teams are in their second year of surveying parts of Comb and Butler washes on Bureau of Land Management property near Blanding to record what is left of ancient cultures that once thrived in this inhospitable region.

"There's a particular need to get the stuff inventoried before it disappears any more than it already has," said Winston Hurst, a private archaeologist in charge of the BLM-funded survey work. "A huge amount of it has disappeared."

Pre-puebloan people, better known as the Anasazi, once populated this parched stretch of southern Utah. It was probably a tough place to live, but the region's natural beauty today attracts hundreds of visitors each spring and summer.

As more hikers pass through this desolate terrain, bits of the past walk away, too.

Hurst said most people are not intentionally erasing the past, but some visitors pocket a colorful pottery shard or an arrowhead. These pieces of the past, which could tell of the desert's former inhabitants, now are hopelessly out of context, decorating desks and bookshelves.

"We are frantically trying to document what is left while it's left," Hurst explained.

A scattering of rock chips, which the average person would ignore, scream of past occupation to archaeologists.

"After a while, they just pop out at you," said Sandra Coambs, an archaeology technician, of the artifacts she spies while quickly walking her part of the search pattern.

Knowing what kind of rocks should be in the desert help crew members recognize what material previous people brought to the area. What looks like a pebble turns out to be a flake of rock broken off as an ancient toolmaker formed a stone knife or a projectile point.

Though these flakes cover the ground, they say little to archaeologists. It is the pottery shards and arrowheads that tell the story.

Coambs and other team members, who carry yellow quivers filled with colored flags to mark objects and features, have found hundreds of sites. The lack of distinctive artifacts makes their work more difficult. Scattered stone flakes from an ancient work site are now just a glorified trash pit.

Hurst said distinctive pottery pieces and projectiles are known as diagnostic artifacts.

"They're the artifacts that when we're out doing the surface survey that allow us to plug a site into a culture and a time," he said.

During his search at Comb Wash, Hurst bent down to retrieve a piece of painted pottery.

"I guess I should mark it since it is diagnostic," Hurst said as he hurled a flag into the ground, "and there are so damn few left."

The survey work focuses on nondestructive ways of studying the land. While much of archaeology picks places to dig to uncover ancient structures and artifacts, Hurst prefers to walk the land to learn about its history.

"The different artifacts and features are part of a puzzle," said Hugh Robinson, one of Hurst's crew chiefs.

Robinson, who was working a slice of Butler Wash, said the location of artifacts tells about how ancient people settled the land.

Not all artifacts carry equal scientific value.

"Oh look, an old pair of underwear," mused Coambs as she walked by a heap of gray fabric near some bullet-ridden Budweiser beer cans in Comb Wash.

Some members of the team jokingly refer to such not-so-ancient finds as belonging to Utah Garbagemaker, the group that has roamed the area since the mid-20th century.

It is these recent nomadic visitors that concern the BLM. During an archaeology conference in Bluff a few years ago, a BLM official targeted the well-visited Comb and Butler washes for survey work. BLM officials contracted with the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Colorado school, with archaeologist Cathy Cameron as the principal investigator, hired Hurst to conduct the field work.

Cameron, who has been involved in Colorado Plateau archaeology for years, said the work will help determine how best to manage the land.

"Because this area gets so much impact, you can't really protect sites until you know they're out there," she said.

Hurst and company are responsible for covering about 48,000 acres, but they will not walk every acre. The team split the area into 500-by-500-meter boxes, with each square receiving a number. A random number generator determines which grid number to investigate.

Hurst, who runs Abajo Archaeology in Bluff, said there is no guarantee the BLM will make money available from year to year. Ideally, in the fifth year of the contract, Hurst will produce a report for the BLM.

For now, Hurst and his team of archaeologists will continue their race against recreation seekers to document the past.

"This is the primary record of the human experience around the world," Hurst said of artifacts, as most ancient cultures lacked a writing system.

Each pottery shard that walks away is another hole in the story.