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Paragonah • Tucked between houses on a rural street in the small southern Utah town of Paragonah lies an archaeological gem once nearly forgotten.

The 12-acre plot is covered with golden grasses, backed by faraway red, sage-dotted cliffs. At first glance, the land looks uneven, the soil pinched in mounds far too small to be called hills.

The mounds aren't so random. Instead they're arranged in a kind of semi-circle, and a careful eye reveals not all the rocks are just stones.

A few are shards of sophisticated, thin-walled pottery created by the ancient Fremont people.

James McDonald, an anthropologist and dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Southern Utah University, carefully brushed earth off a gray shard painted with black lines. "Isn't that pretty?" he asked.

The Snake Valley style was used for trading by native people who lived in Utah more than a thousand years ago. Another piece looks like it was part of the lip of a pot, while a third shows a distinct triangle relief pattern.

"This is one of the last, if not the last, pristine mound sites in the state," McDonald said.

Last month, the nonprofit, Albuquerque-based Archaeology Conservancy bought the site from SUU to preserve and manage it.

The conservancy will improve the fencing around the property and recruit volunteer stewards to watch over it, including neighbors and members of the state's American Indian tribes.

The $120,000 purchase price was provided by the Utah Transit Authority, which was required to set aside $250,000 for archaeological preservation after workers building a commuter line in Draper dumped fill dirt on part of the site of a 3,000-year-old American Indian village in 2010.

The agency had previously caused an uproar when officials proposed building on top of the site; the station was moved north after Gov. Gary Herbert decided to preserve the village.

Meanwhile, SUU had all but forgotten about the Paragonah site. Donated in 1958 for agricultural education at the southern Utah branch of Utah State University, the property fell off the radar as the school became independent and shifted focus from farming.

"I was completely blown away we owned this piece of land," McDonald said in a statement. "In the last 40 years the site hid under everyone's nose."

But at Brigham Young University, Rich Talbot hadn't forgotten. The site has been excavated before, starting with the pioneering archeologist Neil Judd in 1915. Talbot, the director of BYU's Office of Public Archaeology, had been studying data from excavations done in the 1950s and '60s as part of a student-training program by SUU and the University of California, Los Angeles.

"It's one of the most important Fremont sites in Utah, and it's certainly well up on the list of the most important sites generally in Utah," Talbot said.

He put the conservancy in touch with SUU, and, following a negotiation that included the Goshute and Paiute tribes, they struck a deal. The money SUU received from the purchase will fund its archeology work and scholarships for under­represented groups, especially American Indian students.

"This is a pretty amazing site," said Jim Walker, southwest regional director for the conservancy. "There are not that many intact [Fremont] sites left."

The Paragonah site dates from 700 A.D. to 1300 A.D., part of a much larger village that likely started in a canyon about a mile away, close to a river.

One of the first records of the area comes from Brigham Young in 1851. He described it as having about 120 buildings, "composed apparently of dirt lodges, the earthen roofs having been supported by timbers, which ... had fallen in, the remains thus forming mounds of an oval shape and sunken at the tip."

One of the structures he described covered about an acre and appeared to have been a temple or council hall. The first official survey, about 20 years later, recorded 400 to 500 structures. That number is down to about 30.

The Fremont people remain somewhat mysterious to archeologists. Thought to have been several similar groups rather than one tribe, they lived all over Utah, as well as parts of Idaho, Nevada and Colorado, starting in about 500 A.D.

They were farmers farthest north in the Western U.S., growing corn and beans and rounding out their diets with food they hunted and gathered. They lived in pit houses, which are buildings with a foundation dug into the earth and built up. One of their largest villages in Utah was on the Paragonah site, which housed 400 to 600 people.

"To us, that doesn't sound big, but it was very large for the time," said Talbot.

The mounds were created when the houses collapsed in upon themselves, and they are layered with years of pottery shards, animal bones and stone tools.

"These are very, very complex sites that evolved over a significant period of time," McDonald said. And many of the mounds remain undisturbed — likely because there are neighbors around to see and stop any potential looters.

"The fact that it's urban has saved it," McDonald said.

Many Fremont sites have already been made into farmland, part of the reason why the body of knowledge on the people is small. Though there aren't any new excavations planned on the Paragonah site yet, the site may eventually expand what's known about the Fremont.

"We know very little about them, and the potential is huge to learn so much more," Talbot said. "We like to think the pioneers were the first ones to come and farm, but there were farmers here 1,000 years before. ... These were the first farmers."

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

The UTA connection

The Utah Transit Authority funded the $120,000 purchase of the Paragonah Fremont site by The Archaeological Conservancy.

The agency was required to set aside $250,000 for archaeological conservation after workers building a commuter line in 2010 dumped fill dirt on part of a 3,000-year-old American Indian village site in Draper.

The money is part of a mitigation agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Goshute tribe and Utah Open Lands. The deal includes new signs along the Jordan River Parkway about the area's history, said Mary DeLoretto, senior program manager for UTA.

The agency contracted with the Conservancy to find appropriate properties for conservation. The nonprofit is in the process of buying a second site, related to the Chaco Anasazi culture.