There was standing room only the night of Oct. 7 when museum patrons gathered at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Peoples and Cultures to celebrate Utah County resident John Hinckley for his lasting contributions to archaeological research. The Utah Board of State History honored Hinckley with an Outstanding Achievement Award for his preservation of Fremont archaeological sites on his property near Utah Lake.
Photo caption: John Hinckley (right) receives Outstanding Achievement Award from the state of Utah, standing beside Michael T. Searcy (left) BYU anthropology professor (Photo credit: Quinn Karpowitz)
Hinckley has graciously turned his property into an outdoor classroom where BYU students are mentored in archaeological excavation and research. This tradition was begun by his father, G. Marion Hinckley, who allowed BYU professors to bring students to do field archaeology on the Hinckley land since the 1940s.
During that time, hundreds of students have discovered artifacts and participated in excavations at the Hinckley Mounds, including students from both Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University. During a 2015 field school, Hinckley opened the Fremont sites to the public, and over 600 fourth graders studying Utah history and prehistory made visits. Boy Scout groups also participated in the excavation to earn an archaeology merit badge.
Through his efforts, Hinckley has provided countless opportunities for experiential learning and has inspired the next generation of Utah archaeologists.
One of those students is Sam Jensen, a master’s student in anthropology and research assistant to Michael Searcy, associate professor of anthropology at BYU. Jensen said the experience of working on the Hinckley site has prepared him for a future career as a professor and has helped him have a better appreciation for the archaeological sites close to home.
“When most people think of archaeology, they think of large, grandiose sites like Chichén Itzá, Mesa Verde, the Great Pyramids of Giza, etc.,” Jensen said. “Consequently, most people don’t worry about protecting sites that aren’t big or that don’t draw in millions of tourists every year. Sometimes people don’t even realize that smaller sites exist and that they exist right here in our back yard. These sites represent the lives of people in the past and may still hold important spiritual or cultural significance to living populations.”
Searcy said he and his team discovered an additional part of the site in August. “It’s still yielding,” he said.
Utah State Historic preservation officer Chris Merritt publicly thanked Hinckley for protecting the artifacts during his speech at the Hinckley reception.
“Without more people like you engaging and preserving these sites, we’re going to continue to lose our archaeological heritage as Utah continues to grow and development occurs,” Merritt said. “And in this case, you’ve helped us save this important piece of the past, which has shaped our understanding of the Fremont culture in Utah county and beyond.”
Merrit hopes Hinckley’s example will inspire other landowners to preserve archaeological sites. Jensen expressed the importance of being aware of and protecting sites like the Hinckley Mounds because there are constant dangers that threaten them, such as development, vandalism, and looting.
When receiving his award and throughout the event, Hinckley displayed an attitude of humility despite receiving thunderous applause.
“I have personally worked with Mr. Hinckley for many years and seen his humble, strong support for protecting the past,” BYU research archaeologist Scott M. Ure wrote in support of Hinckley’s nomination. “He is a steward of the past in every sense of the word, and I cannot think of a more deserving recipient for Utah’s Division of State History 2021 Outstanding Achievement Award.”
Hinckley said he enjoys seeing the students’ discoveries. When asked what he would like people to know about the archaeological site on his property, he chuckled. “There’s a surprise under every shovelful of dirt,” he said. After the reception, visitors could view artifacts discovered at the Hinckley Mounds and donated to the Museum of Peoples and Cultures.