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Destruction and discovery walk hand in hand

Energy boom fuels archaeology


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."

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.