Destruction and discovery walk hand in hand

Energy boom fuels archaeology

  • Some of the more than 1 million artifacts gathered by archaeologists

    Courtesy Southern Illinois University Carbondale: HCN File Photo
  • Before the draglines started work at Black Mesa Mine in 1966

    Courtesy Southern Illinois University Carbondale: HCN File Photo
  • Archaeologist David Phillips holds an 800-year-old mountain sheep effigy pot, excavated before a natural gas pipeline went in

    Wes Naman

Just 40 years ago, Navajo families descended from Arizona’s Black Mesa in horse-drawn wagons. English was rarely heard, and traditional culture remained largely intact. Then, in the mid-1960s, a dragline chewed a 60-foot-wide road across Black Mesa. Peabody Coal Company had come for the vast coal deposits, bringing with it the modern world.

The dragline operators weren’t the only invaders. Ahead of the engineers, miners and machinery, archaeologists came, to survey, excavate and document the remains of nearly 10,000 years of civilization. David Phillips was a college student when he joined the crews on Black Mesa in 1971. "We were exploring ruins no archaeologists had ever seen before," he says.

Between 1966 and 1983, archaeologists on Black Mesa discovered thousands of prehistoric hunting camps, agricultural fields and Puebloan villages, and historic Navajo settlements. They gathered over a million artifacts, excavated 225 sites, and gained new understanding of how centuries- and millennia-old cultures had lived and died. And all this knowledge came courtesy of the coal mine: Thanks to new federal laws requiring industry to pay to investigate archaeological sites in the path of development on public land, Peabody Coal ended up footing the bill for the country’s largest archaeological project.

Projects such as the Black Mesa Mine have exposed resources that would otherwise have remained unknown and unexcavated, and they have provided much of the knowledge archaeologists have of the Southwest’s past.

Today, another energy boom is on, with gas wells popping up all over the West. As in the past, the energy industry has poured cash into the archaeology business in order to comply with historic preservation laws. But the piecemeal nature of much of today’s development — in the form of one-acre well pads instead of 64,000-acre strip mines — tends to unearth fewer archaeological treasures.

Down in southeastern New Mexico, however, federal agencies are working on an innovative new approach to the relationship between energy and archaeology. They plan to use technology to steer energy development away from cultural sites, and to guide the energy industry’s money toward excavating pristine archaeological remnants. If the approach works, it could streamline energy development, fuel archaeological research, and preserve ancient sites, all at once.

"Archaeology thrives on death and destruction. Our basic subject matter is whatever people leave behind when they die," says Phillips, who worked as a contract archaeologist for 22 years and is now a museum curator. "And these days, archaeology’s biggest source of funding is when traces of ancient destruction are about to be erased by modern destruction. It’s a fascinating field, but sometimes you feel like a vulture."

In 1950, the sometimes challenging partnership between energy and archaeology was born. El Paso Natural Gas planned to build a series of pipelines across New Mexico and Arizona, mostly on the Navajo Reservation, to ship its gas to California. Jesse Nusbaum, an archaeologist for the National Park Service, knew the project would destroy hundreds of historic and prehistoric sites, since laws to protect such resources were rarely enforced at the time. Nusbaum tried to get the Park Service and Interior Department to stop the deal, but failed. So he appealed to a friend on the Navajo Tribal Council, who invited Nusbaum to a meeting with El Paso officials.

He ended up catching a ride to the meeting with the company’s vice president, and during the 26-mile drive from Gallup to Window Rock, the two hatched a plan: Nusbaum would drop his opposition to the pipeline, and El Paso would hire five archaeologists to excavate sites ahead of construction. The company would pay a daily stipend and provide equipment and Navajo laborers. Bulldozers cleared the pipeline’s path at a rate of five miles per day; archaeologists could work far enough ahead to have "at least a few days" for salvaging the sites. "Contract archaeology" had come to the Southwest.

"It was a historic compromise," says Phillips. "And that was the deal: Archaeologists didn’t try to preserve anything — they didn’t think they could. They were given a little bit of money to run ahead of the pipeline."

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