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 High Country 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!

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