SALT LAKE CITY -- For more than 50 years, rancher Waldo Wilcox kept most outsiders off his land and the secret under wraps: a string of ancient Indian settlements so remarkably well-preserved that arrowheads and beads are still lying out in the open.
Archaeologists are calling it one of the most spectacular finds in the West.
Hidden deep inside Utah's nearly inaccessible Book Cliffs region, 130 miles from Salt Lake City, the prehistoric villages run for 12 miles and include hundreds of rock art panels, cliffside granaries, stone houses built halfway underground, rock shelters, and the mummified remains of long-ago inhabitants.
The site was occupied for at least 3,000 years until it was abandoned more than 1,000 years ago, when the Fremont people mysteriously vanished.
What sets this ancient site apart from other, better-known ones in Utah, Arizona or Colorado is that it has been left virtually untouched by looters, with the ground still littered with arrowheads, arrow shafts, beads and pottery shards in places.
"It was just like walking into a different world," said Utah state archaeologist Kevin Jones, who was overcome on his first visit in 2002.
Wilcox, 74, said: "It's like being the first white man in there, the way I kept it. There's no place like it left."
The secret is only now coming to light, after the federal and state governments paid Wilcox $2.5 million for the 4,200-acre ranch, which is surrounded by wilderness study lands. The state took ownership earlier this year but has not decided yet how to control public access.
"It's a national treasure. There may not be another place like it in the continental 48 states," Duncan Metcalfe, a curator with the Utah Museum of Natural History, said Thursday by satellite phone from the site.
Metcalfe said a team of researchers has documented about 200 pristine sites occupied as many as 4,500 years ago, "and we've only looked in a few places."
Wilcox said some skeletons have been exposed by shifting winds under dry ledges. "They were little people, the ones I've seen dug up. They were wrapped like Egyptians, in strips of beaver skin and cedar board, preserved as perfect," he said.
The Fremont, a collection of hunter-gatherers and farmers, preceded more modern American Indian tribes on the Colorado Plateau.
"I didn't let people go in there to destroy it," said Wilcox, whose parents bought the ranch in 1951 and threw up a gate to the rugged canyon. "The less people know about this, the better."
Over the years, Wilcox occasionally welcomed archaeologists to inspect part of the canyon, "but we'd watch 'em." When one Kent State researcher used a pick ax to take a pigment sample from a pictograph, Wilcox "took the pick from him and took him out of the gate."
Although the University of Utah hired a seasonal caretaker and students from three Utah schools are working the sites this summer, Wilcox worries about looting.
He said he gave up the land on a promise of protection from the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, which transferred the ranch to public ownership.
The promise barely assured Wilcox, but he said he knew one thing: "I'm getting old and couldn't take care of it." He said he asked $4 million for the ranch but settled for $2.5 million, moved to Green River and retired.
It was not until 2002 that archaeologists realized the full significance of Range Creek.
While many structures are still standing or visible, others could be buried. Archaeologists have not done any excavations yet, simply because "we have too big a task just to document" sites in plain view, Jones said.