A Day in the Life of Contract Archaeology in Nevada & Utah

I am a staff archaeologist for a small private archaeology firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, but given the economic and development climate almost all of our contracts are in Nevada. Today’s work settles us in south-central Utah, Cedar City, with our project area located nearly one and a half hours to the west on the Utah/Nevada border. Why so far away? Well, the distinct lack of hotels closer to the project area is the primary cause!

The day starts as usual with a 7am rise and shine, with everyone meeting at the rig, archaeological parlance for abused and smelly vehicle. This is day 9 of a 10-day field session, so close to the end we can taste it…and smell it…oh nope that is the rig. We are down to two folks, a eager go-getter with a Bachelor’s from the University of Utah and a straw hat that would put Huckleberry Finn to shame, and myself, a Historical Archaeologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Montana, with a field hat that has seen too many years of sweat and soil and is an old friend now. Regardless of our educational status, age, or even field hat coolness, we both need an instant infusion of caffeine.

An Archaeologists’ Hat is as much an indicator of professionalism as his trowel. As such this hat has been my travel companion since 2004, the year of my first archaeological job.

A short drive to downtown Cedar City, brings us to one of the two coffee shops in town. Religious prohibitions on caffeine definitely cuts into the morning options in rural Utah.  With a 20oz iced soy mocha in hand we hit the road, still trying to clear the fogginess of an eighth night in a hotel. Regardless of season, crew size, project, weather, or impending days off, the morning drive is usually a shorter drive than the afternoon. After listening to some archaeological theory lectures through an ipod, we cross the barren sagebrush flats of the Escalante Desert, still in Utah and still an hour out. Oddly, the Escalante Desert is home to one of the largest pig farms in the United States, and by the pungent odor permeating our rig, locals apparently use the by-products of the facility (poop) for the smattering of agricultural fields that dot the valley bottom.

Wild Horses Roam Freely in the Project Area

Finally, after passing a railroad ghost town of the 1920s, we turn onto a dirt road, finally making the last desperate plunge into the project area. Conversation has now completely died, as everything that was worth saying has been said, and now thoughts turn to the work at hand….pop…there goes a tire…changed in 14 minutes, new record. As soon as we start again we encounter a wild herd of horses, roaming freely across the rugged mountains now covered in a Pinyon-Juniper Woodland. We take some time to capture their free spirits on our company’s digital camera, and their skittishness makes for excellent action photos.  Today is the third day of “Red Flag” warnings in Utah and eastern Nevada, defined by high heat and high wind. One perk, which is apparently my pithy catchphrase of choice according to my straw-hatted colleague, of a “Red Flag” day is that the wind offsets some of the oppressive 99 degree heat.

Finally, upon reaching our project area we unload the car and start the processing of conducting archaeological survey. Simply put, we wander in organized lines through defined areas looking for remnants of the past, whether it is chipped stone from Native American use up to 13,000 years ago, or cone-top beer cans of the 1930s. In the United States, all sites older than 50 years must be recorded during survey, thus even making songs like “The Twist”, “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, and “Duke of Earl” now a historic part of America’s past.

We are currently working for a mineral exploration company, who is looking for traces of fortune in these desolate mountains. In 1899, these same mountains saw their first mining boom, which quickly fizzled into abandoned ruins and trash of hundreds of disappointed miners. This trash is exactly what makes me excited for our job, as these cans, bottles, ceramics, corset hooks, buttons, and a million other small things forgotten, tell us a story of who lived here, how they lived, what they ate, what was their ethnicity, and sometimes if we get lucky, their gender, age, and perhaps even name. All archaeologists, regardless of their location, age, or position, are bound together by this common thrill of discovery. The unknown is what gets me up in the morning.

Half Stone, Half Log Cabin Sits Peacefully and Poses for Photo

After arriving on-site by 9am, we start the process of identifying one of the five sites we will record today. It is a large mineral prospecting site dating to the 1890s-1910s boom period. We identify several building platforms, a privy, two dumps, and over a dozen mining features from adits (horizontal mine shafts) to prospect holes. After nearly 20 days of recording sites in this area, we start to see patterns in the trash people disposed of, and this gives us an idea of what they ate on-site.My focus is on the lowly sardine can, a common fixture of any mining camp in the American West. While I find the smell, texture, and perhaps even packaging of this small fish as pleasurable as the pig farms we just drove through, it was a common source of protein for miners isolated in the mountains. More interestingly, though, I notice that we can tell that there was some consumer preference for these stinky little fish in one camp versus another. The site we are recording today has only two sardine cans in a dump of 400 cans. Yesterday we recorded over 50 cans in a similarly-sized dump. Apparently a kindred spirit of sardine-dislike occupied this camp over 100 years ago. Another camp, this time occupied during the Great Depression (1930s), also contained a boatload of sardine cans, though these all showed signs of burning. Yep, someone decided not only to eat this product, but also cook it within the tin can it was purchased within. Health and palate concerns aside, these small patterns of trash keep the mind going over the course of a 10-hour field day.

By 3:30pm, we have recorded another two small mining sites (thankfully devoid of further sardine cans), and two prehistoric sites composed completely of obsidian, which is black volcanic glass. There is a local obsidian quarry, so this black glass is found everywhere in great abundance. Interesting of course…but as we pile in the rig to head home…my mind still ponders the lowly sardine, and how we seem like sardines ourselves squeezed into a vehicle filled to the seams with equipment, water, backpacks, a now flat tire, and the other trappings of archaeology.

The return drive is far less eventful, and far less filled with theoretical conversations. Focus is instead on the evening’s pursuit of nourishment, fried food and a beer (definitely not cooked sardines!). After a gentle avoiding swerve of a jackrabbit attempting to speed up Darwinism, we hit the pavement and tear off for the comfort of hotel and bar in Cedar City. We close the work day with a banana and strawberry flavored snow cone from a child labor operated roadside stand, and hit the showers. Tomorrow is a short day, only a four hour drive to home, and then the four hours of paperwork. After a seemingly short four days off, we hit the road again for another archaeological adventure in Nevada.


One thought on “A Day in the Life of Contract Archaeology in Nevada & Utah

  1. John Lowe says:

    Excellent post! I like that you found a way to find differences in sites that must seem to be more of the same after a while.

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