Archaeology: Pay Dirt

Most archaeology in the United States is now mandated by law and done for profit

ON A SERE summer day not long ago David Stephen pulled his Land Cruiser onto a shimmering scarp in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, above Tucson, Arizona, and came to a halt at the edge of a steep arroyo. He pulled a revolver from the glove compartment and motioned for me to get out. I looked at him in surprise.

“Grave robbers?” I asked.

“Rattlesnakes,” he said.

He slung his holster over his shoulder and headed away, and I followed him into the desert, threading among the saguaro and prickly pear, for what turned out to be a trip backward about a thousand years.

A covey of quail skittered by. We happened upon a pack rat’s nest and then another, and when we came to a third, Stephen, who is an archaeologist at Pima Community College, kicked it and dislodged from under the brush a spray of pottery shards. We walked on. “There’s some more pottery,” Stephen said, pointing to a place near my feet, but I saw nothing until he had picked up a piece and licked it to reveal its rich terra-cotta hue. “There’s some more,” he said a moment later. Again I saw nothing. Gradually, though, my eyes grew accustomed to the landscape, as if to objects in a darkened room, and I came to realize that with every step I touched the shattered remnants of lives lived fifty generations ago. At one place there was a slight depression. “Pot hunters,” Stephen said. “Kid stuff, though. If they’d been serious, they would have been up here with backhoes.” We moved farther along the ridge. Finally Stephen stopped on a level patch of ground and told me that we were standing on top of a house.

With a sweep of his arm he defined a perimeter and said, “If you look around, you’ll see that in a kind of circle here the soil is a little sandier than it was where we just were, and the color’s a little different, and there are none of the bigger rocks you find just beyond. The vegetation is sparser and a little stunted. I’m ninety-nine percent certain there’s a house under here.” As we moved on, Stephen pointed out more “houses”—a whole village of them, in fact, one that probably flourished around A.D. 1000. Before long Stephen showed me several sites that he had believed contained houses and had excavated, digging down to reveal their hard-packed soil floors, along with a lot of ancient plant remains and tool flakes and other domestic garbage.

“There was once quite a populous community up here,” he said. “It’s not surprising, really. In an environment like this one first of all you want water, and there’s the arroyo right over there. You want arable land, which is just below. on the plain, and access to game, which is just above, in the mountains. There were sheep bones in one of the houses we excavated and there are still bighorn up in the Catalinas. Another thing you would want is some protection, which the height up here gives you, and in a place like this you would also want a breeze.” The breeze that enveloped us as we talked was hot, but it was steady and it drew off perspiration. Stephen said, “When you look at the kinds of places that people have chosen to live in, you find that century after century they always choose the same ones.”

That they do is the reason why David Stephen had been excavating here at all. Stephen, who is primarily a teacher and an academic archaeologist, also works as what is known as a contract archaeologist. As required by various federal, state, and municipal laws—or, in some cases, as required by the dictates of a property owner’s conscience—contract archaeologists examine sites that may be archaeologically rich and are about to be developed by builders of homes, roads, office buildings, or factories. Here in the shadow of Pusch Ridge, below Bighorn Point, homes were about to rise again, after a thousand years. Stephen had been asked by Estes Homebuilding, the developers of a project called La Reserve, to come in, survey more than a thousand acres for their archaeological significance, probe what seemed to be the important sites, record all the others, retrieve what he could, and then, as soon as possible, get out.

Stephen was happy to oblige. Pima Community College supports one of the largest field-archaeology training programs in the United States, and the work-for-hire provided by companies like Estes Homebuilding, which was voluntarily submitting this tract for review, offers opportunities for public education at private expense. There is money these days in archaeology, and though profit margins are small, the discipline is now as much a business as it is a scholarly pursuit.

UNTIL archaeology A HUNDRED was primarily years or so a priago vately funded and dilettantish affair. Although archaeology has never quite shed its rakish reputation—archaeologists do tend toward drink, they do countenance a bending of rules, they do take a “long view” of the human continuum which makes their personal foibles, when mentioned, seem impossibly trite—some semblance of order and scientific rigor was eventually imposed on the enterprise. For most of this century archaeology everywhere was conducted primarily by people with academic or museum affiliations. They set their own research priorities and were funded through academic or museum channels or by foundations or by an institution like the National Geographic Society. Outside this mainstream were some modest federal salvage programs to provide “mitigation”—often excavation and artifact removal—at archaeological sites threatened by the construction of highways and reservoirs.

Then came the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and with it a web of new federal and state legislation. At its center was the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (and its emendations), which stipulated that state historic-preservation officers had to be consulted before construction projects with any sort of federal involvement—that is, occurring on federal lands or funded even in part by the federal government—got under way. This legislation has since been fortified by additional laws and executive orders, and by dozens of federal regulations and directives.

The effect over time has been to make the federal government the biggest supporter of archaeological research in the country. Because many states and municipalities soon spun similar webs of legislation, private developers, even ones that have no federal connection, now must frequently pay for and file archaeological-impact statements before they can legally build. If a survey reveals that a site holds remains of major importance, a building plan may need to be revised or even abandoned, and the site may be subject to protection. If the remains are of less than major importance, which is usually the case, the project may nevertheless be delayed while the site is excavated. Most of the digs now conducted in the United States are done to fulfill a legal requirement. While contract archaeology has not led to the discovery of any Pompeii or Valley of the Kings—there just aren’t such things to be found in the United States, so far as we know—it has made possible the investigation of thousands of smaller prehistoric sites, and it has led to the discovery of some significant historical sites as well. The remains of what may be the Great House built by John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, were discovered recently by contract archaeologists who had been hired to survey the path of a highway that will pass under Boston. In New York City some years ago contract archaeologists investigating a building site in lower Manhattan uncovered the foundations of the Stadt Huys—New York’s first city hall, built by the Dutch.

No one knows what the annual financial boon to archaeology has been as a consequence of all the federal, state, and local ordinances relating to archaeological impact and historic preservation. One estimate that I heard for federal outlays alone—this from an official at the Department of the Interior—was “somewhat less than a hundred million dollars” a year, as compared with a federal subvention for “pure” archaeological research last year of about $5 million, from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the chief government funders in this field. Although the annual outlay for nonfederal contract archaeology cannot be determined, it is without question enormous. All this money supports the work of about 6,000 professionals. Some of them are itinerants who move from project to project and place to place, though never out from under the shadow of bulldozers.

Just to handle its own business the federal government employs some 400 permanent archaeologists in the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and several other landholding or land-modifying agencies. The U.S. government cannot install a new restroom in a national park without calling in an archaeologist. When the Army wants to run tanks over a new piece of ground as part of a wargame exercise, an archaeological survey of the area must be done first. Whatever the future of the Strategic Defense Initiative, it will at least have modestly enhanced our understanding of the past. Artifacts dating back more than 8,000 years were turned up by contract archaeologists a couple of years ago at the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, when plans were being made to build a research facility for a ground-based free-electron laser.

Outside the federal government, every state today has a historic-preservation office, and many states and municipalities have archaeologists on their payrolls. Local museums and universities will sometimes have a contract-archaeology arm. In addition to public or nonprofit groups, hundreds of private and for-profit archaeological companies, with names like Environmental Preservation, Inc., and Soil Analysis Associates, have sprung up, many of them active in more than one state. In some parts of the country they are listed in the Yellow Pages. A spot check of state archaeological offices yielded the following estimates of the number of contract-archaeology companies in operation in various places: about a dozen each in Massachusetts and Virginia, twenty in Florida, forty in New Mexico, fifty in California, seventy in New York.

The people involved in this new archaeological enterprise, whatever their professional affiliations, are engaged in what is known in the trade as “culturalresource management,” or CRM. Cultural-resource management has many proponents, because the theory behind it is hard to dispute and because the practice of it involves so much money. But it also has many detractors. Part of the criticism surely stems from sour grapes: some academic archaeologists are envious of their more affluent colleagues. The split between clientoriented or profit-minded archaeology and the more traditional sort may be ill defined—many archaeologists have a foot in both camps—but it can be bitter. Yet, sniping aside, CRM is also beset by some real problems.

I SPENT MOST of a morning in Tucson with Bill Doelle, who is the president of Desert Archaeology, a Tucson-based contract-archaeology company, and who was mentioned by about a dozen people as exemplifying all that can be worthwhile about contract archaeology. Doelle is slim and tall and, like almost every other archaeologist I met in Tucson, has a spouse who is also an archaeologist. Also like almost every other archaeologist I met, he pins cartoons from The Far Side on his bulletin board. Desert Archaeology employs a full-time staff of twelve, putting as many as twenty more on the payroll during the peak digging months. The full-time staff members are all trained professionals; Doelle himself holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Arizona. His headquarters, in what looked to have once been a motel, included a modern laboratory and several large storage rooms, where artifacts were arrayed typologically on long tables. Doelle produces an interpretive study for every survey and excavation that his company undertakes. He makes about a hundred copies of each report, binds them durably, and sends them out to major libraries and research institutes in the Southwest. Such studies—called “gray literature" by some in the business—are considered, as one archaeologist I know says, “a step or two up from samizdat,” but any scholar who shares Doelle’s interests will know where to find his publications and others like them.

The Tucson Basin, which has been continuously occupied for thousands of years, is a contract archaeologist’s dream. It contains an enormous amount of federal property, and Pima County laws mandate archaeological surveys before certain private properties can be developed. And during much of the past decade Tucson has been among the fastest-growing cities in the country. There is virtually no place along the city’s three main riverbeds, which for most of the year are dry, that does not contain evidence of human settlement. Even far beyond the city someone who has a trained eye can hardly walk a hundred yards without picking up signs of a human presence in the distant past. Trying to understand how a large patch of geography strewn with many small sites was actually used in a social and an economic way, and how it functioned as an ecosystem, is one of the chief aims of the so-called new archaeology—an orientation adopted by many American archaeologists in the 1960s, in part because it makes a great deal of sense and in part out of sheer necessity. (America north of the Rio Grande offers very few spectacular individual sites to explore, and rarely anything comparable to the complex and highly urbanized ancient sites available in Europe or Asia.) In Doelle’s view, contract archaeology, which by its very nature results in the amassing of data from many scattered parcels of land, can go a long way toward achieving the objectives of the new archaeology.

Doelle’s company has been awarded contracts on significant pieces of the Tucson Basin for study. When I spoke with him, he was engaged in a survey of a 5,000-acre tract on the north side of Tucson where a housing development was about to be built; a 20,000acre tract slated for irrigation on the Tohono O’odham reservation, which abuts the town on its south and west sides; a site to the north of Tucson in Catalina State Park, where there are known to be at least three dozen unexcavated Indian settlements; and, to the west of downtown Tucson, the site of the Indian village where Spanish Franciscans from Mexico established Mission San Agustín, the first European structure in the vicinity.

Doelle follows a regular procedure. The first step is a systematic survey. Doelle and as many as two dozen fellow workers walk over the landscape in broad swaths, perhaps twenty-five yards apart. This is a fundamental new-archaeology technique that allows one to get the lay of the land: big settlement here, smaller, satellite settlements there, and so on. Do any compelling patterns emerge?, Doelle asks. He brings in a hydrologist to read the landscape and tell him about the history of the area’s water supply over the past several thousand years. How, he may want to know, have the paths of the riverbeds changed? Then Doelle makes a decision about where, if anywhere, to dig. In which place or places, given limited time and resources, does excavation make the most sense? Finally Doelle brings what he has found back to his laboratory for evaluation and analysis. Where, he may ask, did the sand and clays in certain pottery fragments come from? What can the presence of different pottery styles tell us about technology and trade? The final product, inevitably, is a fat report with a title like “Excavations at the Valencia Site,” and it may contain not only a dense archaeological analysis but also, as the Valencia report does, a recommendation that the site be protected (it has been so far).

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I came away from Desert Archaeology with a knapsack full of site reports. Having skimmed a few of them in Doelle’s office, I could see that they would make for interesting reading: each one is a kind of Winesburg, Ohio, by a Sherwood Anderson who arrived a millennium too late. A few miles from Docile’s office I found myself crossing the dry bed of the Santa Cruz River on a road that I suddenly realized would take me past the Valencia site. From the road it looked like nothing but a thirty-acre parcel of desert scrub, and signs all around it discouraged trespassing. But the maps in Doelle’s report on the site proved to be too appealing. I spent the next hour or so tramping over the unmarked and uneven ground, deriving a quiet satisfaction from the knowledge, imparted by the legend and tiny contour lines on a piece of paper, that now I was standing in the ball court, now in the great plaza, now in the entranceway of a rich person’s house.

DURING OUR conversation Doelle spoke frankly to me about some of the criticisms of contract archaeology and cultural-resource management. For one thing, he said, there are fly-by-night companies in the business. He remembered one in Tucson that “blew in from out of town” and was awarded a choice piece of work at a Hohokam Indian site on a riverbank. The company, he said, really knew nothing about Hohokam archaeology and, after sinking a hole and discovering a lot of ancient rubbish, concluded that all of the material had simply been washed down by the river over the years to some natural collecting point. The company told the developers to go ahead and build. In fact what they had found was a garbage pit, which should have tipped them off to the presence of a settlement. The Hohokam, Doelle said, “were very neat about where they put their trash, and it built up in large piles. What the company found and didn’t realize and therefore didn’t save was a whole village.”

A duller but more important issue raised by contract archaeology has to do with the interpretation and reporting of results. An archaeologist can come in, apply some rote techniques, dig neat, photogenic pits, count and record and preserve everything he finds, fill out lots of forms, and yet contribute basically nothing of significance to our stock of knowledge. “Not doing something with what you’ve found, not evaluating it in the context of its environment or thinking about it in terms of a problem, is bad archaeology,”Doelle said. But so much archaeology is being performed in the United States these days, particularly in the Southwest, that the task of analysis can be overwhelming. Contract archaeologists typically face tight deadlines. Their work is labor-intensive and expensive, and profit margins are thin. They can’t afford to put off the next project. When something has to give, it is frequently the quality of the work’s academic side. While most projects do result in a site report, not even,’ site report that gets written was worth writing.

To get some idea of how much material has been coming out of the ground in recent years, I visited the Western Archeological and Conservation Center of the National Park Service, in Tucson, which since 1980 has been the official repository for every artifact turned up on national parklands in the Far West, the Southwest, and the Rocky Mountains. The center, which once consisted mostly of offices and laboratories, had to build a storeroom to hold its rapidly growing collection, and 1 was shown around the place by George Teague, a Park Service archaeologist, and John Clonts, who at the time was the director of the repository.

The storeroom, which is about the size of an airplane hangar, is climatecontrolled and filled with row upon row of free-standing metal shelving units, ten feet high and set close together. On the shelves were thousands of cardboard cartons, most of them about the size of a case of wine. (Some of them were wine cases.) As we walked up and down the aisles, Teague pointed out the objects we were passing, his voice settling into a laconic litany. “All this stuff here is nothing but corn cobs,” he said, “and over here are soil samples . . . and unworked bone . . . and shards . . . more soil samples . , . and pots . . . more pots. ... As you can see, we have lots of pots . . . and more soil samples . . . and here are some sandals . . . and fabric . . . and some more soil samples.”

As we left the storeroom, John Clonts paused at the door and gazed at the collection as if to take it all in. “You’re looking at a million objects,”he said to me, “but I can’t tell you exactly what’s in this room. An inventory of what we have now won’t be finished for a couple of years, and by then we’ll have a lot more. We can’t elect not to accept something once it’s been found. We’ve already got decades of work in front of us, and the stuff is coming in faster and faster all the time.”

WHAT is ONE to make of contract archaeology? I’ve asked that question of many archaeologists, in and out of the business. Their answers have usually consisted of a measured pavane between “on the one hand” and “on the other,”and of a recognition that the shift toward contract archaeology is in any case permanent.

On the one hand, I was told, the various statutes on which cultural-resource management depends amount to a kind of extortion, practiced on taxpayers and developers. Contract archaeology, critics say, has become something like an entitlement program-welfare for archaeologists. Many of the excavations done by contract archaeologists are far too hurried, and many of the studies that result don’t really contribute very much to scholarship. Besides, the direction of scholarly research shouldn’t be determined by the profit motive, or by the fact that someone wants to build a house or an office building in a certain place. Contract archaeology threatens to make the profession into the sort of thing you could learn at trade school. And really, it’s appalling the way some developers exploit the publicity surrounding any finds on their property— naming a subdivision Indian Acres, for heaven’s sake.

On the other hand, I was told, extortion is a hoary tool of public policy, and anyway, Americans on the whole seem genuinely pained by the needless loss of the nation’s past and are not averse to paying a little conscience money. Sure, some of the resulting scholarship is irrelevant or second-rate, but this is partly because contract archaeologists, unlike academic ones, are supposed to produce something on paper every time they turn dirt. In any event, proponents point out, the scholarship by all accounts is getting better. During the past ten or fifteen years contract archaeologists in various parts of the country have brought new depth to our understanding of local and regional prehistory. Twenty years ago the chronology of events among the Indian cultures in southern Arizona during the several thousand years before the Spanish conquest was known in only the most limited way. Today the details of that chronology are well established within a margin of about fifty years. Twenty years ago views of American prehistory were skewed by findings from a relatively small number of major sites. Today archaeologists have a surer feel for the texture of whole societies.

As for contract archaeology’s being welfare, at the very least it’s workfare. The thousands of people who have found work in contract archaeology are, after all, out there in the blazing sun all day trying to preserve a few things of significance and mitigating the unavoidable damage everywhere else. Archaeology is hard work, and contract archaeologists work longer hours and under far greater pressure than most academic archaeologists do. All in all, proponents say, the millions we spend are a small price to pay.

“People are always talking about ‘getting more bang for the buck,”’ George Teague said when we met. “I think we get a lot of bang already. Not long ago I was called down to Chiricahua National Monument, where they wanted to expand a parking lot. We surveyed the land where they wanted to put it and we found something there and started to dig. What we found turned out to be the remains of Camp Bonita, which was one of the first camps in the West to be manned by an all-black cavalry unit. Its location had been completely forgotten. We got them to put the parking lot someplace else, and now they’ve got an exhibit mounted down there about Camp Bonita. But you see, you wouldn’t find things like that unless this whole system of laws was in place.”

One may take his point or leave it, but the fact remains that archaeology, like engineering and other academic disciplines that have practical or “applied" implications, has established itself in permanent fashion outside academe. In the process it has become diffused nationwide, with local archaeological digs now a staple of small-town newspapers. And it may be that these excavations, even when they turn up little and tell us less, are worthwhile. In wholesome societies the recognition of impermanence is no small part of conscience.

—Cullen Murphy