I never expected to work on a ranch…

One particularly friendly ranch dog who followed us on survey most of the day

Winter is a tough season to do fieldwork in. Luckily, the winters here are fairly mild compared to other parts of the country. So far, we’ve been able to get out and do field work a few times this winter. Most recently, we were down in Roswell, New Mexico to do a pipeline survey on one of the many cattle ranches in the area. This particular project involved clearing about several miles of corridor for the installation of new water pipelines to carry water from wells out to drinkers staged along the length of the pipeline. These drinkers are essentially artificial oases in a place where there is little to no surface water available for cattle herds. Our job was to clear the length of the pipeline and the areas around the planned drinkers in order to determine that there are no sites that will be disturbed by the planned project. Working on a ranch isn’t so bad, but I will say that getting to play with the ranch dogs is usually one of the high points of the project. They’re usually super friendly, and all they want from you is to pay the belly-rub tax in order for them to grant you access onto their ranch.  

               These kinds of projects are pretty typical, but not limited to archaeological survey in the eastern part of the state. Related projects tend to involve brush management projects on cattle ranches. These block survey projects involve clearing areas of brush for the purpose of improving range land. One unfortunate complication from overgrazing is the invasion of plants like cholla (pronounced choya) cactus, thorny mesquite trees, and even sage brush into areas that were previously grasslands. If these become too densely overgrown, it may become necessary to remove them in order to try to restore the grasslands. It then becomes our job to clear the area in advance of the planned brush removal. Trying to navigate a reasonably straight line through a field of cholla or mesquite can be a literal pain, but it’s part of the job. At the very least, we are able to get into remote areas and record sites that would otherwise not be recorded at all.

Navigating a straight line through a field of sage is less prickly than trying to negotiate a field overgrown by cholla, but can still be frustratingly difficult.

               When we do identify sites in our project area, we have to be able to make a recommendation as to whether the site is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), as potential eligibility will determine what steps need to be taken to manage the site. If we’re doing a block survey of a parcel of land, that usually means its an all-hands-on-deck effort to record the site. If instead we’re strung out along various segments of a pipeline corridor, there may only be two people available to record a site. The first task to accomplish is to establish the boundaries of the site. Once this is done, the boundaries can be mapped out using a handheld Trimble GPS unit that is capable of recording positional data with sub-meter accuracy. Site overview photos are then taken (preferably with a prominent landmark in the background) in order to assist in relocating that site in the future. During the process of marking out the boundaries is when we typically identify any features, artifacts, artifact concentrations, and formal stone tools or temporally diagnostic artifacts that occur within the site. When the boundaries are established, we can then set about recording the artifacts within the site. For most sites, we record every artifact that can be observed on the surface. If the artifact density is so high that recording everything would be unfeasible, a sample area is designated within the site. This sample area is then recorded on the assumption that the artifacts it contains are representative of the artifacts across the entire site. Simple lithic debitage and scatters of historic artifacts are tallied, but formal stone tools and temporally diagnostic artifacts are point plotted by GPS device. Any artifact designated as a field specimen is point plotted, has its dimensions recorded, and is photographed. Any features within the site are mapped out with the GPS unit, described in the field report, and photographed. By the time the site has been completely recorded all of the pin flags which mark artifact locations will have been pulled, so as to leave no evidence of where specific artifacts are located.

If the site is deemed potentially eligible for inclusion in the NRHP, then the next step is to mark the site in such a way that the individuals conducting brush removal, trenching and installing pipeline, or whatever the proposed project is, can recognize and avoid disturbing the site. If the site is located along a pipeline corridor, a bypass route can be surveyed and mapped so that the site can be avoided. Typically, these sites are located in extremely remote areas and/or on private land, and are otherwise inaccessible to the general public. If these sites are located in areas that are more accessible to the public, they would not be so obviously marked out to discourage the attentions of ne’er-do-well artifact collectors. The last stage in recording the site typically involves completing site forms. Descriptions of soils and vegetation within the site are recorded, as are observations on the site’s setting and location. Artifacts are tallied and features are described. Once the recording is complete, its time to saddle up the pack and keep going until you find the next site. On a very hot day, it can almost feel like a godsend to find a site and be able to drop your pack for a little while.  

And that, in a brief nutshell, is how a site is recorded. The field forms we complete allow us to completed reports that describe the site in detail. We don’t collect any artifacts, so the photographs we take allow us to represent specific artifacts in the project report. The GPS data we record with the Trimble unit allows us to create maps of the site. I can’t stress enough how important it is that every part of the recording process be carried out as precisely as possible, as we rely on our site forms, photos, and GPS data to accurately represent the site in our project reports. The reports that are generated are then submitted to the state or federal agency which assigned the project, as well as to our State Historic Preservation Office.

These reports are generally not publicly available for what should be obvious reasons, but they do add to the ever-increasing database of archaeological sites in the state. There’s a running joke in the CRM field that ancient peoples were great at leaving sites precisely in the path of modern-day construction projects. If you happen to look at a copy of Stuart And Gauthier’s Prehistoric New Mexico: Background for Survey, it would appear that most sites are concentrated along the various roadways within the state. This has nothing to do with prescient Native Americans leaving sites along the paths of our modern roads. If anything, this illustrates that survey in advance of construction projects has contributed greatly to our knowledge of archaeological sites in the state. The vast majority of New Mexico has not been surveyed, so even doing survey on remote cattle ranches allows us to fill in some of the blanks.

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