The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, June 4, 2010

Shows What You Know...

Several years back, when I had just graduated from being a field technician and became a crew chief, I was thrust into the role of field director on a large survey project in Ventura County. We were performing survey to help our client avoid destroying sites during the construction of a natural gas pipeline that would run from a connection with the oil derricks off the coast in the Santa Barbara Chanel out to processing facilities in western Los Angeles County.

This project ended up being a bit more...umm..."storied" than I would have liked, but all in all, it was a good project and a good one in which to get my feet wet as a higher-level supervisor.

Most of the area that we surveyed was either open grassland (which, amazingly, was not being used to graze cattle) or else farmland, primarily strawberry fields and lemon and avocado orchards. The majority of the land was devoid of archaeological sites. We found only three sites in the end. On the first day that we found a site, however, we also had an amusing run-in with a rather smug landowner.

It was the second half of the day. We had spent the morning climbing hills, and on a gentle slope that overlooked a seasonal stream we discovered a flake scatter (the remains of people making or maintaining blades and projectile points out of glassy stone) and some groundstone (artifacts used to grind seeds). We recorded the site, and then proceeded along the route, eventually coming out to a paved road.

As we exited the gate onto the road, a truck pulled up, and the driver leaned out the window and asked "are you the archaeologists?"

I walked up to the vehicle and affirmed that we were.

"Well," he gave me a huge, patronizing grin, "you're not going to find anything in that field." He then proceeded to expound on how he was so certain that we were wasting our time, clearly nearly bursting into laughter at regular intervals before he drove away.

While I had only been a supervisor for a short time, I had been in the field in one capacity or another long enough to recognize the different ways in which land owners would try to inform you that their fields were clean of archaeological sites. Some landowners simply doubt that their land was of interest to hunter gatherers; others assume that because they haven't seen anything that they recognize (arrowheads, pottery, etc.) there must be nothing there, and are unaware of the breadth of archaeological remains just as I am unaware of the ins-and-outs of running a modern farm; still others believe that, if there had ever been a site there, that the plowing and tilling of the fields will have destroyed it (not the case, but an understandable assumption); some landowners collect artifacts (perfectly legal when on their own land) and assume that the sites are gone once they have collected everything recognizable; and a very small number intentionally try destroy sites because they fear that a site on their property will result in their land being taken away (not true, but a wide-spread fear despite the fact that it's unrealistic).

I have had landowners inform me that I won't find sites in a way that indicates that they are honestly and helpfully trying to save me time, I have had landowners inform me that I won't find sites in a way that was clearly intended to be threatening, I have had landowners try to inform me that I won't find sites in a way that is close to pleading with me to not report anything that I find, and in each of these cases I either explain that I am required to look whether or not there's anything there or I try to explain the regulations in a way that re-assures the person that I am not going to do them any harm. I have occasionally turned hostile landowners into allies by this method, and at worst they stop threatening me even if they still don't like me.

I can handle all of these types of cases. I am sympathetic to worried landowners, and if I provide amusement to folks who are friendly or at least inoffensive in their disbelief that I am bothering to work in an area, that's fine. What really annoys me, though, is the smug bastards. I have no idea if this guy knew that he had a site and had tried to destroy it, or if he hadn't known but simply assumed that there was nothing there. But he clearly thought we were wasting our time, which doesn't bother me, and wanted to rub our faces in it, which would have irritated me if we hadn't just found a site thus proving him wrong.

I didn't tell him about the site - if he owns the land, he can look it up easily enough, and I wasn't going to help someone who's being a dick. But the thing that kept me from being bothered by this guy was the simple fact that, for all of the arrogance that he put into his lecture to me, he was wrong. It's petty of me, I know, but that brought a smile to my face.

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