The following is one of a series of articles from working archaeologists, describing what life as an archaeologist is really like. In this feature, Tony Klesert, former Director of the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department provides a description of what field archaeology is like in modern New Mexico.
Nuts and Bolts Archaeology in the American Southwest
- Gallup, New Mexico
- Copyright 1998: Tony Klesert
People tend to think of archaeologists as Indiana Jones, leaping from one perilous adventure to the next. But the cartoon character Calvin may have gotten closer to the truth when he declared, "Archaeologists have the most mind-numbing job on the planet." Here's an example of nuts and bolts archaeology.
The archaeologist meets her client out at the job site. She gets out of her truck and grabs her back pack. Inside the pack, along with her lunch and water bottle, are a topographic map, a compass, a measuring tape, a bundle of pin flags, a notebook with graph paper, a ruler, and a pencil. Her job today is to find and survey a parcel of land for the client to make sure their new gas station and convenience store doesn’t get built on top of a sacred spot or an archaeological site.
The gas station will be an important addition to the local area -- but so are the cultural resources its construction could destroy. So it's the archaeologist’s job to make sure the station gets built, but away from any cultural resources that construction or use might damage.
The archaeologist is a Navajo from Sanostee, and she has worked for 5 years for the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department’s Farmington office. When she was a child, her grandmother told her stories about the many cultural sites she saw around their home. Her grandmother advised her that these ancient sites contained bad power and must be avoided. With some ambivalence, the archaeologist now must come into contact with these same sites. But she does so with the goal of ensuring that others avoid them.
She has taken some college classes, at Diné College in Shiprock and at Ft. Lewis College, and she intends to complete her college education in the next few years, getting her Bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Meanwhile, she hones her skills with each new project -- and with each new technical report she writes, describing the results and conclusions of her fieldwork.
The Field Work Begins
Today, the archaeologist walks back and forth over the 2 acre parcel, walking in parallel rows spaced 50 feet (about 15 meters) apart. In the process, she finds an old abandoned Navajo ceremonial area along one side of the project area. She finds the fallen-down remains of some old wooden structures, along with a light scatter of rusted cans and broken glass.
She knows, by looking at the kinds of structures and the types of cans and the colors of the glass, that this is an old place, built earlier in the century, maybe around WWII. She can also tell which ceremony took place here.
The site is mapped on graph paper, using a measuring tape and compass; she describes the layout and the artifacts in her notebook. Then she plots the site location on her topo map.
The final part of her fieldwork is to ask local residents what they know of this site, and also about any sacred places or graves they may know about in the area. The residents confirm that this old Navajo site was built and used during WWII, and involved a couple of Navajo soldiers who went off to the Pacific to become Navajo Code Talkers.
Navajo Culture in the 20th Century
The archaeologist concludes this site is a good example of Navajo culture at mid-century, and the Navajo's proud role in the war, and so it should be protected. It's also over 50 years old, which means it qualifies for protection under the National Historic Preservation Act.
So she tells the sponsor the gas station needs to be relocated to avoid this site. Since the client was out there to meet her, they move the project's location 100 feet away, to allow plenty of space between the ceremonial site and the gas station. The archaeologist then must submit a report describing what she found and what she recommends, so the client can be allowed to proceed.
Before work begins on the station, the historic site must be flagged off, to keep heavy equipment away during construction. By then, the archaeologist will be working on another project for another client, in her daily effort to prevent the adverse effects of modern development on Navajo heritage and history.
It may not be Indiana Jones, but protecting American heritage is an important job.
This article first appeared in the Gallup, New Mexico Independent, and is reprinted here with permission.