A Day in the Life of a Nevada CRM Archaeologist: Monitoring

So, I spent the “Day of Archaeology” monitoring a seismic crew as they worked a few thousand acres near a mine northeast of Winnemucca, Nevada.  This was actually on July 26th since I didn’t work on the 29th.  Our schedule is 8-on, 6-off and.  I’ll start by describing, as best I can, what seismic is.

Then come in all sizes and styles for different types of terrain. This is similar to the ones we work with.

The seismic crew consists of about twenty ground workers, a few truck drivers, a recorder, and a geologist.  The ground people lay out cable that stretches from north to south across the project area, a distance of up to five kilometers.  The truck drivers drive east/west across the project area and vibrate the ground in prescribed intervals.  The vibrations cause shockwaves that penetrate the ground hundreds of meters deep which then bounce back to the geophones that are running north/south.  We are told that the goal is to determine the geological structures that exist beneath the ground so the mine can decide whether they want to excavate that area or use it for waste rock.  I spoke to someone this weekend that works in the business and he says they are looking for oil and that eastern Nevada is sitting on a huge, very deep, oil field.  I’m not too sure about that.

As monitors, we were assigned with the care and protection of the cultural resources across the project area.  The survey was recently completed and the report has not yet been approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO).  Since the sites remain unevaluated, none of them are cleared for construction.  As a consequence, no vehicle traffic whatsoever was allowed across the sites and all foot traffic had to be observed by an archaeologist.  We watched for disturbance of artifacts and features by foot traffic and by the electrical cords that the crews were laying out.  We also watched to make sure that the seismic crew didn’t disturb any artifacts.  People like projectile points (arrowheads) and usually don’t see anything wrong with putting them in their pockets.

Nevada High Desert

A lot of monitoring involves a lot of sitting around for hours waiting for something to happen and then working furiously for a little while.  This was no different.  When you are monitoring you are on the schedule and time frame of the construction crew you are working with.  That’s why we were putting in about 13 hours a day.  When you are sitting you tend to feel like you should be doing something.  I usually read or listen to podcasts.  For the seismic monitoring I couldn’t even be away from my truck for very long.  A call could come over the radio at any time and you have to be where you are supposed to be as quick a you can.

While monitoring, you have to get over the “high and mighty” feeling that some people tend to get.  You are typically working with people that, at most, graduated high school and went right into the construction field.  They usually see us as highly paid scientists.  It’s likely that they are getting paid more than you are!  They just don’t know it.  When I’m conversing with construction workers I certainly don’t try to minimize my field or the education requirements but I don’t try to make it sound like more than it is either.  No one responds well to that.

I wish I had something more exciting to talk about for the Day of Archaeology event but the reality of cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology is that many of your days will be like this.  Sometimes you go weeks or months without finding an artifact.  You may go an entire season without finding a feature.  This work needs to be done, however.  A project area that doesn’t turn up any artifacts or other interesting finds still tells us valuable information.

Follow more of my experiences as a CRM archaeologist at my blog, Random Acts of Science.  See you in the field!

Written in Monroe, Washington.

Boreal CRM Archaeology in Northern Canada

I work for a small consulting firm which conducts cultural resource field surveys of proposed oil and gas developments in the fields, forests, mountains and boreal muskeg of northeastern British Columbia. Each working day, we load up our big 4×4 trucks with ATV’s or skidoos and head out to play with the moose and bears in Canada’s great backyard. We are assigned specific project areas to inspect, such as pipelines and oil or gas leases, which take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to fully investigate. We are generally looking for areas which might have been favourable camping locations, such as creek banks or elevated terrain features with a bit of a view. Once we find one of these areas within our projects, we check surface exposure – if any – for cultural material (generally lithics in this neck of the woods – pre-contact ceramic technology didn’t catch on this far north and the acidic soils quickly deteriorate unburnt bone and wood) and then we conduct a little subsurface inspection through shovel testing. If we are able to find any flakes or tools, we then try to establish the boundaries of the cultural area through more shovel testing and then return with this information to our clients, oil and gas exploration firms. In the vast majority of cases, they will choose to alter their development to avoid the terrain feature upon which the site rests; if not, we will be asked to conduct an excavation to fully investigate the site area and record all associated features and remove all the cultural material. Today, July 29, 2011, was in the middle of just such an excavation for us.

Earlier this week our team of four drove two hours further north along the Alaska Highway and signed ourselves in to the remote camp north of the Sikanni Chief River which would be our base for the next two weeks. Then we drove another hour along a very rough dirt road to where we unloaded our ATV’s and then ‘quadded’ (as we say) a further 11 kilometres into the forest along steep and very challenging seismic line trails that are used by everyone up here as accesses into the bush. We arrived at the site, established a 10 m by 15 m grid (had to cut down a few spruce trees for this) over the cluster of shovel tests that contained cultural material, took some photos, drew up a plan and began to dig.

Peter and Dean excavate the site


So far this week, we’ve excavated about half of the site area and found several suspected hearth-features, about 150 flakes and half a dozen stone tools. Projectile points are the real glory finds for any pre-contact excavation but everyone – myself included – loves to hold the scrapers. It’s always a thrill to find anything that has been hidden for so long and not only are they lovely to look at but they fit so comfortably in the hand, as the tool-maker has often thoughtfully included some kind of groove for the thumb – unlike arrows and spearheads, these are objects that were meant to be held, and they convey a quiet, homely domestic atmosphere to the site.

Black chert scraper

We will continue the dig for another week or so, until we are satisfied that we have removed all the cultural material from in front of the bulldozers which will be coming in after us, and then we’ll de-camp back to our home base to finish up our reports and any cataloging. The artifacts will eventually wind up in the local museum system and we will head back out into the wild to check new locations.

Of Discovery and Avoidance

Let me begin by saying that it is a pleasure contribute, and I am honored to be a part of this effort to celebrate and share archaeology through social media.  I first learned of this Day of Archaeology thanks to social media. Indeed, it would seem that archaeologists have taken to the Internet recently, especially since the launch of Google+ some weeks ago. It is exciting to think that the advent of new technologies has made archaeological study more cooperative, immediate and accessible.

Okay, so onto the matter at hand.

I am a Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeologist and consultant working for an environmental services company in Oklahoma. I work with an inter-disciplinary team of biologists and environmental scientists. Most of the clients we work with have interests that are related to energy development, oil and natural gas chief among them. Our charge is two-fold:

1. Discover, document and avoid natural or cultural resources that could be adversely affected by a given project.

2. Obtain permits from state and federal agencies so that a given project can proceed without running foul of the law.

These laws, or rather congressional acts, often  include compliance with the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). All this sound a bit like “alphabet soup” but, it is the essential legal basis that holds companies accountable and drives a large portion of CRM survey work in the US.  It also provides me with a pay check so that I can dutifully pay back my student-loans (coughs sarcastically).

My work alternates between survey in the field and reporting in the office. Over the course of a year it balances out to about 50%/50%. Unfortunately for you, the reader, today is a rather typical in the office. My team and I are gearing up for a week of field survey in Louisiana next week. That means  today we are gathering equipment, producing maps, updating our GPS data-loggers, booking hotel reservations and arguing over which Cajun restaurant has the best red beans and rice (for my money it’s the Blind Tiger in Shreveport).

In addition to sorting out the logistics for this upcoming project, I have a keep other projects simmering on the stove-top, so to speak. Today, I am performing “desktop-based” studies on proposed projects in Oklahoma, Montana and Texas. Basically, I am using GIS databases and archives to located any known archaeological sites or historic locations that may have been recorded within or near a given project area. When finished, I will compile the information into a report for our clients advising them of the potential for encountering these resources. I will also provide them suggestions for a path forward through the regulatory process. More often than not, these desktop studies will develop into actual field surveys. Occasionally, they will include deep testing regimes or partial excavations. The name of the game is avoidance. Unfortunately for me (read as: the recalcitrant academic), clients would rather go around a site than wait to excavate it.

My other duties today include: completion of archaeological site forms for two prehistoric Paleo-Indian Period sites (ca. 12,000 – 8,000 years ago) for submission to the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey (OAS) and the Texas Historical Commission (THC). I also have to purchase flagging and fencing in order to demarcate the boundaries of a historic homestead property (ca. 1898) in southeastern Oklahoma.

There you have it,  a snap-shot of my work on this Day of Archaeology. In the world of cultural resource management, it is not often that we get to delve deep into site analysis through testing and excavation. I am envious of my friends any colleagues who get to ask the “big” questions and are able to spend considerable time researching particular topics in ways that enlighten and inform us about our prehistoric past. However, unlike them,  I am able to travel often and encounter scores of  sites in order to document and protect them for other researchers to examine more closely in the future.  Most days, that is alright by me.

Keep Digging & Cheers,

R. Doyle Bowman