Wildhorse Canyon Supplied Obsidian

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, June 1996

In Utah’s Mineral Mountains, overlooking the west desert, is the entrance to Wildhorse Canyon. Here the terrain is rough, blanketed with pinyon and juniper forest underlain by sagebrush, cacti, and grasses. The canyon has no year-round stream.

Above its mouth, Wildhorse forks into a small side channel and the main canyon. Lying between the tines is a short ridge. On this ridge, mixed with tuff, perlite and basalt stone, are three obsidian flows with a total thickness of 65 feet.

Archaeological and scientific studies suggest this site has served as a major obsidian quarry and manufacturing station for this part of the Great Basin for not hundreds but thousands of years. Several observations led to this conclusion.

First, extensive piles of tailings lie along the foot of the ridge. The depth and content of tailings, including obsidian fragments and hand-hewn castoffs, indicate much more than a few generations of use.

Second, chipping or manufacturing camps have been found along the nearby Mineral foothills. In neither the tailings nor these camps have large chunks of obsidian been discovered, suggesting that the knapping (breaking and shaping of the stone) was performed at or near the quarry. The finished or nearly finished products were then transported elsewhere, perhaps to distant users.

Third, some 45 miles south of the quarry stand the remains of four Fremont Indian villages. Archaeological exploration of these villages has uncovered artifacts made of three types of obsidian: True obsidian, which is transparent with closely-spaced, horizontal black bands; pitchstone, actually a dense, opaque, black volcanic glass; brown obsidian, streaked with flowing bands of brown, red, and black. All three obsidians have been found at the Wildhorse Canyon quarry.

Fourth, no other quarry with all three types of obsidian has been discovered in Utah. The prehistoric Indians who frequented Hogup and Danger Caves 8,000 to 10,000 years ago did not use Wildhorse obsidian.

Fifth, the Fremont villages were active between A.D. 900 and 1300. While sizeable, their populations could not in so few centuries have performed the amount of quarrying nor produced the quantity of detritus seen at the Wildhorse site.

Thus Wildhorse Canyon was probably a source of raw obsidian and perhaps finished obsidian goods for a considerably larger area and longer time span than represented by the Fremont villages. A good guess is that it served as western Utah’s major obsidian quarry for several thousand years.

Source: Wildhorse Canyon Obsidian Quarry Nomination Form, National Register of Historic Places, Preservation Office files, Utah Division of State History; Michael S. Berry, The Evans Site (Salt Lake City: Department of Anthropology, University of Utah Special Report, 1972).