During that same era, in the 1950s and early ’60s, the federal government funded highway and reservoir salvage excavations. With minimal budgets, universities and museums excavated sites that would have otherwise been destroyed, chopped up by bulldozers or inundated by floodwaters. For the most part, researchers simply warehoused the artifacts, then moved on to the next project; they rarely had enough funding to write up their finds. Then, in 1966, the year the Black Mesa project began, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act. In 1970, President Nixon authorized funding for federal agencies to comply with the act — and the boom was on. "The network of laws and regulations finally coalesced," says Dick Chapman, director of the University of New Mexico’s Office of Contract Archaeology, "and there was the economic need to have archaeologists going out and doing the business of compliance."

Thirty-five years after David Phillips launched his career on Black Mesa, he still nods his head with a wide-eyed smile when he talks about fieldwork. At first, he says, he figured he’d do archaeology for five, maybe 10 years, before he had to get a real job. "Now archaeology is a real job," he says. Today, there are about 10,000 people working as contract archaeologists in the United States, and they account for somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of professionals in the field. In the Southwest alone, more than 80 companies do contract work. But the work involves more than just digging up sites and storing artifacts. Today’s contract archaeologists usually spend more time writing reports in the office than squatting with a trowel over an excavation unit.

With a few exceptions, big archaeological bonanzas like Black Mesa are a thing of the past. By and large, today’s contract archaeologists investigate plots for new post offices, cell phone towers and one-acre oil and gas wells. Often these small projects can be shifted to avoid obvious cultural sites, obviating the need for more in-depth excavations. Energy companies still pay archaeologists to look at their drill pads and roads, but important new discoveries are few and far between.

In southeastern New Mexico, where oil and gas fields are taking over vast tracts of desert and energy development is expected to quadruple in the next two years, the industry sinks millions of dollars into cultural resources management to meet its obligations under the National Historic Preservation Act. Usually, however, archaeologists simply survey well pad sites that have been moved so as to avoid historic or prehistoric sites. Meanwhile, rich cultural sites nearby often go unstudied and unexcavated.

With a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, SRI Foundation, a nonprofit historic preservation organization, is determined to make things better for archaeologists as well as the energy industry. The foundation has come up with a predictive model to help guide well pads to areas with little likelihood of harboring cultural resources; energy companies can then develop them without doing any archaeological work. The energy companies would still pay the same amount they would have under the old system, but that money would be used to fund research on more promising sites nearby that are perhaps unthreatened by energy development.

Bureau of Land Management officials, using funds from the 2005 Energy Policy Act, are trying a similar approach. They’ve conducted a large block survey near Carlsbad to get a big-picture view of a potential gas field, rather than making the usual acre-by-acre approach. Using the information they’ve gathered, they can better plan where the gas wells should go, and where the archaeologists ought to dig. James Smith, an archaeologist with the BLM in Carlsbad, is excited about the new approach. "In Carlsbad, we are in the opening pages of an epic journey that most of the other cultural areas in the Southwest have already trekked," Smith writes in an e-mail. "We know so little about the archaeology of southeastern New Mexico that any new information is significant." Smith is optimistic that the sites he finds exciting — scatters of stone chips and chunks of burned rock strewn across sand sheets — may finally get the attention they deserve.

If these two programs — currently only in their test stages — are implemented on a broad scale, they might bring new life to the old relationship between the energy industry and archaeologists. And they could revive a bit of the excitement that people like David Phillips felt as they uncovered Black Mesa’s past more than three decades ago.

 

The author writes from Albuquerque.