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
  • Borderlands Restoration, L3c is the founding organization of the Borderlands Restoration Network. Borderlands Restoration Network (BRN) is both an independent public charity and a collaborative...
  • Assistant Editor, NewTowncarShare News, Telecommute. Edit, write and help shape digital strategy for one of the best magazines in the country. Committed to inclusivity....
  • Associate Editor, West-north Desk, NewTowncarShare News, Telecommute. Dream job. Write, edit and contribute to the vision and strategy of one of the best magazines...
  • Take over the reins of a dynamic grassroots social justice group that protects Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - Winter Wildlands Alliance seeks an experienced and highly motivated individual to lead and manage the organization as Executive Director. Visit https://winterwildlands.org/executive-director-search/ for...
  • Background: The Birds of Prey NCA Partnership is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization based in Boise, Idaho, which was established in 2015 after in-depth stakeholder input...
  • Southwest Borderlands Initiative Professor of Native Americans and the News Media The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University is...
  • AWF seeks an energetic Marketing and Communications Director. Please see the full job description at https://azwildlife.org/jobs
  • The Southwest Communications Director will be responsible for working with field staff in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to develop and execute detailed communication plans...
  • An intentional community designed for aging in place. Green built with Pumice-crete construction (R32), bamboo flooring, pine doors, T&G ceiling with fans, and maintenance free...
  • (CFROG) is a Ventura County, CA based watch-dog and advocacy non-profit organization. cfrog.org
  • Take your journalism skills to the next level and deepen your understanding of environmental issues by applying for the 2019-2020 Ted Scripps Fellowships in Environmental...
  • The San Juan Mountains Association is seeking a visionary leader to spearhead its public lands stewardship program in southwest Colorado. For a detailed job description...
  • The Cascade Forest Conservancy seeks a passionate ED to lead our forest protection, conservation, education, and advocacy programs.
  • Mountain Pursuit is a new, bold, innovative, western states, hunting advocacy nonprofit headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming. We need a courageous, hard working, passionate Executive Director...
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for the Willis McDonald, IV...
  • Couple seeks quiet, private, off-grid acreage in area with no/low cell phone service and no/low snowfall. Conservation/bordering public lands a plus. CA, OR, WA, ID,...
  • Former northern Sierra winery, with 2208 sq.ft. commercial building, big lot, room to expand.
  • The dZi Foundation is seeking a FT Communications Associate with a passion for Nepal to join our team in Ridgway, Colorado. Visit dzi.org/careers.
  • Available now for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojaidigital.net.