We present a detailed geoarchaeological study of landscape processes that affected prehistoric formation and modern preservation of archaeological sites in three areas of the Colorado River corridor in Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA. The methods used in this case study can be applied to any locality containing unaltered, non-pedogenic sediments and, thus, are particularly relevant to geoarchaeology in arid regions. Resolving the interaction of fluvial, aeolian, and local runoff processes in an arid-land river corridor is important because the archaeological record in arid lands tends to be concentrated along river corridors. This study uses sedimentary structures and particle-size distributions to interpret landscape processes; these methods are commonplace in sedimentology but prove also to be valuable, though less utilized, in geoarchaeology and geomorphology. In this bedrock canyon, the proportion of fluvial sediment generally decreases with distance away from the river as aeolian, slope-wash, colluvial, and debris-flow sediments become more dominant. We describe a new facies consisting of 'flood couplets' that include a lower, fine-grained fluvial component and an upper, coarser, unit that reflects subaerial reworking at the land surface between flood events. Grain-size distributions of strata that lack original sedimentary structures are useful within this river corridor to distinguish aeolian deposits from finer-grained fluvial deposits that pre-date the influence of the upstream Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. Identification of past geomorphic settings is critical for understanding the history and preservation of archaeologically significant areas, and for determining the sensitivity of archaeological sites to dam operations. Most archaeological sites in the areas studied were formed on fluvial deposits, with aeolian deposition acting as an important preservation agent during the past millennium. Therefore, the absence of sediment-rich floods in this regulated river, which formerly deposited large fluvial sandbars from which aeolian sediment was derived, has substantially altered processes by which the prehistoric, inhabited landscape formed, and has also reduced the preservation potential of many significant cultural sites.
Additional publication details
Application of sedimentary-structure interpretation to geoarchaeological investigations in the Colorado River Corridor, Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA