Archaeologists are the last line of defense against destruction

You never know what you’ll find with a ‘detective of the land.’


Kevin T. Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. He lives in Salt Lake City.

My friends have left me behind. We are in Utah, headed for the canyon rim overlooking the Fremont River, just outside of Capitol Reef National Park.

We set out with a sense of purpose, each step carrying us closer to our goal — a dramatic view of a spectacular landscape. I fall behind when a glimmer in the sandy soil catches my eye. I bend down to look and see that it’s a flake, a bit of chert discarded untold years ago during the manufacture of a stone tool. There’s still more, and then a piece of a broken tool. I’ve found an archaeological site.

A weathered gray pottery sherd tells me that this site is related to the Fremont Culture, ancient farmers who inhabited this region around a thousand years ago. I look up and see my friends disappear around the tip of a ridge, far ahead of me. My eyes turn back down at the ground and keep searching.

I can’t help myself: I’m an archaeologist, trained to look and then look again.

Archaeologists find and record archaeological sites, most often working for or with a government agency to examine areas that are slated for potentially damaging or downright destructive development. We survey the area by walking and looking, usually in a grid or transect pattern. There’s no need to examine every square meter of the ground, but we don’t want to skip too many. Our greatest fear is that we will miss something important, because whatever we miss will likely be destroyed.

The Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona, is rich in settlement sites built by the Sinagua, Cohonina and Kayenta Anasazi people.

Sometimes I get the feeling that, as a field archaeologist, I am an undertaker for wild places, for I might be one of the last people to see a place before it is chained, leveled, mined, trenched or burned. The thought of what comes next has at times saddened me to the point of tears, because “progress” brings change, and change often means that valuable remnants of history must be destroyed.

This sense of being the last line of defense for special places sets archaeologists apart and makes most of us passionate about the resources we love. Our work puts us at odds with developers and construction companies, and it often irritates our managers. We know that if we miss something, there are stories that will never be told, histories that will be forever extinguished when a blade or scoop or plow rips through them.

So we look. We scan. We examine. In a way, we’re detectives seeking clues to events that might have taken place thousands of years ago. We try to think about the landscape as a hunter-gatherer might, or as a settler, miner, rancher or ancient farmer would have. We try to see beyond appearances, to interpret the ways the present-day tableau reveals hidden tales of the past.

I am drawn to a rock outcrop just a few meters above the trail. Yes, sure enough, it contains a petroglyph. No, several — mountain sheep, a spiral, and a series of dots. From above, I see what could be a slight depression in the flats below — a pithouse? I head down to investigate.

Archaeologists scrutinize the contour of the ground surface for subtle swales, mounds or depressions, anything that might reveal a buried feature. And we love erosion. Though erosion destroys archaeological sites, it can also reveal them. The stark sides of an arroyo cut can be as revealing to an archaeologist as an X-ray is to a physician. We get to see a cross-section of the layered stratigraphy, a record of the distant past ordered and in sequence, a ledger that can be read like a book. We can get giddy reading such books, and, like a reader, can become absorbed, oblivious to what is going on around us.

On my hands and knees, I crawl through the shallow, dished-out area I spotted from above. I’m sure it is a pithouse, and pause to study the evenly arrayed pebbles covering an anthill, looking for tiny flakes, or even beads.

Engrossed in my search, trying not to incite the defensive red ants, I’m jolted back to reality by the sound of a pant leg brushing against sagebrush, followed by my friend’s kind-of-irritated voice.

“Where’ve you been? Are you OK?” I look up, and there are my friends, standing all in a row, looking down at me.

Sorry! I have to tell them. And I really am. I didn’t want to hold up the hike. But I can’t help adding, “Come look at what I’ve found!

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • available in Gothic, CO for 2019 summer season - Manager, Lead Cooks, Prep-Cooks, Dishwasher - at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). The Dining Hall...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.
  • More information: Search 96076
  • Friends of the Verde River is looking for someone to join our team who has a keen investigative mind and is an excellent communicator and...
  • - Thriving Indie bookstore in Durango, CO. 1800 sf of busy retail space in a 3100 sf historic building. Long term lease or option to...
  • The Deep Springs College Kitchen Manager is responsible for the overall operations and budget of a small commercial kitchen and serves as teacher to students...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit
  • The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is seeking a technical partner to develop a land management plan for the 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears Landscape in southeastern...
  • Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • on 3 acres near Moxon. 3 bd/1.5 bath, apt. Views/access to hiking, fishing, wildlife.1-207-593-6312. $165,900.
  • Senior position responsible for the development of all marketing and fundraising strategies to grow the base of philanthropic support and awareness of GSEP.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research.
  • near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] (Country Homes).
  • Colorado Farm to Table is looking for a full-time energetic, creative Executive Director to lead our team in Salida.