The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Back in the Desert Again

So, I'm back in the Mojave. The land of Mountain Hermits and unexpected snow. When I mention to people that I am headed out here, they typically try to commiserate, which is odd, as I like being out here.

Don't misunderstand me, with the amount of travelling that I do, I'd much rather be home than in the field. I spent somewhere between 9 and 10 months of last year in the field, if taken cumulatively, and this year is shaping up to be another one of heavy fieldwork.

But, if I have to be in the field, I'm okay with being here. There's a few reasons for this. One is that our primary client out here, for all of their eccentricities and frustrations, is a good client. They pay well, are reasonable about considering the amount of time that it takes for field personnel to get to the field, and have us work with archaeologists rather than construction foremen or company executives who don't understand what we are doing. It's a better scene than many of our projects. Add to that the fact that we stay in the Lancaster/Palmdale area, which means that we have a large city at our disposal in our off-hours in case we want to catch a movie, hang out in a coffee shop, or just go for a walk in a city park.

But beyond all of that, the archaeology out here is damn cool.

Let me give you a bit of perspective. When I was working in the Taft area last year (look up the blogs between April and October of that year to see how I was feeling about that), we found very little other than historic metal scatters and brick piles. Yes, they are archaeological sites, but they are just about as exciting as something called a "metal scatter" or a "brick pile" sounds. And for seven months, this is all I saw.

By contrast, out here we see a huge range of archaeological sites. Yeah, we get the historic metal scatters, but we also get historic homesteads, the remains of old buildings, and loads of prehistoric archaeological sites*.

And let me give you a brief description of one of these prehistoric sites. The bottom level, visible in channels cut by mellenia of water pouring or trickling (depending on the time of year) out of a spring, contains the fossils of animals that went extinct with the end of the Pleistocene, some 10,000-12,000 years ago. Every layer on top of that contains elements of human occupation, from the highly mobile hunter-gatherers of the early Holocene to the homesteaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This site contains a record of human occupation spanning at least 10,000 years.

Beats the hell out of a pile of bricks in an oil field.

And the types of prehistoric sites found in the desert are varied and fascinating even outside of the big and impressive sites. The Californian deserts have changed radically during the course of the last 12,000 years, and places that are now dry and desolate once held massive lakes, while others contained plants now moved or extinct resulting in changing use of the land by humans reliant on those plants, and the range of fauna has also changed considerably forcing human hunters to change their behaviors. As a result, the types of sites visible on different parts of the landscape can speak to the changes in the environment in a dramatic and captivating way. To imagine the ways in which the people who lived here, who had to be aware of their environment simply to ensure that they had the resources to survive the season, moved within and interacted with the landscape is amazing.

And to be working on a site and come upon a spear point of a type that you know was manufactured by another person 10,000 years ago, to have that sort of strange contact with someone dead these thousands of years, is an amazing feeling. The sense of elation coupled with the chills down the's impossible to describe.

Yeah, I like it out here.

*As this often seems to confuse people, I'll give a quick explanation. A historic archaeological site is a site that was left behind by people known from the historic - that is written - record. In California, this means that Spanish/Mexican colonial sites from the late 18th century and most sites from the 19th and 20th century are historic sites. Prehistoric sites are those left behind by people who left no written record - in California, this means Native American sites (some people would argue that Native Americans had oral histories and as such calling their sites prehistoric is wrong, but - without getting into the argument about whether or not oral histories are comparable to written documents - as these oral histories usually don't provide the type of information about life that the written documents do, the technical distinction between historic and prehistoric sites remains).

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