Mysterious Wendover caves yield relics from the past

Posted at 10:28 PM, May 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-20 00:28:04-04

WENDOVER, Utah -- On the outskirts of Wendover, Utah, two caves can be seen in the foothills of a rather dry and rocky mountain range.

But those who climb to the caves soon find the entrances are blocked by heavy bars. After all, there is treasure inside.

"These are actually classified as Federal Research Institutions -- these are protected archeological sites. We have to bar them unfortunately, because not everybody is a great steward of our natural resources," said Justina Bernstein, coordinator for Heritage Resources for the Utah State Parks.

Heritage Resources for the Utah State Parks manages the property where the caves are found.

Justina knows the caves well, and is excited about sharing them with the public when the rare occasion allows it.

"We're going to go through a little hobbit-y door, and it's like entering middle earth," Bernstein said.

Once inside, the caves do not disappoint. Both have small entrances, and open up into caverns of similar size, roughly 40 feet wide, extending about 100 feet into the mountainside. Both caves are very dry. There are no stalactites, stalagmites or pools of standing water.

But underneath layers of dust and dirt, brought into the caves one speck at a time over the course of thousands of years, are artifacts.

Archeologist Elmer Smith was among the first to document items in the 1930s. He was followed by Jesse Jennings of the University of Utah, who was among the first to use radio carbon dating.

Some baskets, fabrics, and animal bones from Danger Cave date back 12,000 years.

Hundreds of such items are now stored at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

"Mainly its projectile points, stone tools, grindstones, things they would use to process plants and animals," said Lisbeth Louderback, Curator of Archeology.

A few remnants are more curious, like the long smooth sticks, with delicately painted rings around them, labeled "gaming sticks."

"We just got a date, literally two days ago, from these objects and they're 5,000 years old," Lisbeth said of the sticks.

So far, Jukebox Cave hasn't yielded the same quantity or quality of items. It's apparently a touch more humid than Danger Cave, which has generally deteriorated its contents, more so than its neighbor.

Still, a tightly woven basket found within Jukebox Cave is among the items on display in an exhibit at the Utah Museum of Natural History featuring Utah's early inhabitants.

Jukebox Cave currently contains a few treasures that cannot be moved: pictographs. One small panel appears to show a hunting party on horseback in pursuit of a mountain goat.

Jukebox Cave also has a much more modern feature in the form of a concrete dance floor that was installed in the late 1930s or early 1940s, by airmen stationed at the Wendover Air Base during World War II. Among other missions, the base trained the crew of the famous' Enola Gay.'

The cave is quiet now, but the time will come when archeologist will return to both Jukebox and Danger caves, to look for more pieces of the past.

"There's a lot more to be discovered, a lot more research to do, and so many opportunities,” Louderback said.