While at the @universityofutah, Jesse Jennings established the first—and still used—archaeological site recording system for the state, was one of the first archaeologists in the country to make use of Willard Libby’s radiocarbon dating technique, excavated several of Utah’s most famous dry caves—including Danger and Hogup caves—and helped establish the antiquity of humans in the Great Basin. “He truly believed that the ultimate limits on archaeological interpretations came from the precision (or lack thereof) of the excavations on which the interpretations were based,” said Duncan Metcalfe, NHMU’s current curator of anthropology. “If he didn’t consider you a good ‘dirt’ archaeologist, you didn’t exist.” According to Metcalfe, there were two accomplishments of which Jennings was most proud.
The first was the completion of the Glen Canyon Salvage Project that identified more than 2,000 archaeological sites in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona between 1957 and 1962. Jennings spent seven of his own summers helping manage what was considered a logistical nightmare, yet he succeeded thanks in part to his military background and experience with the National Park Service.
Of Glen Canyon, Jennings wrote, “The vastness, the isolation, the stillness, the overwhelming beauty of the land, even the heat, the still starlight nights, the blue or brassy midday sky, all combined to make me constantly aware of my good fortune. To be sure, I never forgot that it was a dangerous land and that poor judgment or forgetting the water could bring disaster.” The second accomplishment Jennings took great pride in was the establishment of the Utah Museum of Natural History in 1969, now known as the Natural History Museum of Utah. That’s right, Jesse Jennings was the founder and founding director of this spectacular Museum housed in the Rio Tinto Center.
To learn more about Jesse Jennings’ career, check out his autobiography, Accidental Archaeologist.