So far, skull provides few clues
The person, probably a man, might have been part of the legions of brawny miners who descended on Park City during the city’s silver-mining heyday, when they lived in the neighborhood that would later be known as Old Town.
Or, maybe, he was an American Indian, living and foraging in the mountains, teeming with wildlife, using the canyon where Old Town was built decades or centuries later as his hunting grounds.
Archeologists at the end of the week had not determined the origin of a skull and skull fragments that a construction crew unearthed in upper Old Town on Monday. The discovery launched a brief police investigation to determine whether the person had been slain and caused a scuttlebutt during a week that otherwise was dominated by news from Election Day.
"We don’t know where it came from, exactly. Without that context, there’s not a lot that could be done," says Ron Rood, the assistant state archeologist who helped recover the skull.
Rood says investigators found through a preliminary analysis that the person was a man but he says they could not determine how old the person was when he died. Other bones are usually needed to confirm the person’s gender and to figure out how tall the person stood, he says.
He expects that a forensics investigation could stretch for a few months. He says he could determine the age of the skull if he uses radiocarbon-dating methods but, with those procedures being costly, he is unsure whether the state will order the radiocarbon testing.
The discovery is perplexing nonetheless. Human bones are rarely found in Park City. Longtime City Hall officials say they have not heard of any being found since at least the mid-1970s. That discovery, purported to be in Thaynes Canyon, is remembered only through passed-down stories.
"I think it’s grandpa and they might not have had much money and they buried grandpa out back," says John Whiteley, the excavator at the site, where crews are building two houses on land between the 1200 blocks of Empire and Norfolk avenues.
Rood says his office is called about once each month with reports of skeletal remains somewhere in Utah. Lots of times it is a construction crew that finds the bones.
In Summit County, he says, lots of the bones belong to people who died during the mining era, which stretched roughly over 100 years starting in the mid-19th century. He knows of prehistoric finds in the area as well.
"People have lived here in Utah for 11,000 years," he says.
It is in Old Town, though, where construction crews are most often surprised when they dig. There, the more than 125 years of the city’s history is recorded. Telltale evidence of devastating fires, the remnants of long-forgotten roads and sidewalks and the skeletons of discarded animals are revealed underneath the ground.
Ron Ivie, City Hall’s chief building official, recalls crews in the 1980s finding pieces of a log horse stable when they started excavating the China Bridge garage in Swede Alley. That site is situated in an area that once was where Chinese immigrants settled. A metal cabinet believed to be for keeping opium was also found there, he says.
Across Park City, when a gazebo was built in the Park City Cemetery on Kearns Boulevard in the early 1990s, dynamite from another era was discovered, Ivie remembers.
He says most artifacts are found in Old Town and people digging there, once they reach a depth of between two and three feet, sometimes discover evidence of an infamous 1898 fire that destroyed much of the city. The fire is part of Park City’s lore.
Eric DeHaan, the Park City engineer, meanwhile, tells of workers finding the bones of a horse in the 1980s or early 1990s as utility lines were installed in Swede Alley and on King Road. A coffin was found just outside the Park City Cemetery as a water line was being installed in the early 1980s, he says, stopping the work until a new route for the line was found.
"They always dig up different things but this is the first time in 20-something years I’ve seen this," says Rick Ryan, a Police Department lieutenant.
The Police Department was summoned at about 2:30 p.m. on Monday after receiving a report that the skull was discovered. Ryan says officers initially treated the find as a crime scene.
"We didn’t know if we had a homicide, an old homicide, just exactly what we had," Ryan says.
Officers determined that the skull was old and requested that Alan Siddoway, the Summit County medical examiner, investigate the discovery. An hour after the authorities were called, Ryan says the Police Department contacted the state investigators.
While the police and archeologists probed the site, set off with crime-scene tape, neighbors watched the work as television-news crews arrived.
Kristin Parkin, who lives in an Empire Avenue condominium next to the site, says she is somewhat superstitious.
"It’s pretty creepy to me. If there’s something right there, where else are things buried," she says. "When they build this house, they’re definitely going to have a ghost or spirits."
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Buses, trains and gondolas doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but they make up the transit alternatives for the mountain transportation system the Central Wasatch Commission is trying to create, mostly in the Cottonwood canyons.