The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, March 21, 2011

Crop Dusted

We are working on a controversial infrastructure project. What it was doesn't matter, and for reasons of professional propriety I shouldn't say, so let's call it the Arthur Dent Bypass Project (ADBP). The project is, as noted, controversial, many people don't want it to be built, while many others think that it's a damn fine idea. Myself, I like the concept (bypassing Mr. Dent being something that I think is important for us as a nation), but have reservations about the project itself.

The project involves many parcels of land, and some of the land owners are enthusiastic, hoping to cash in by selling their land, while others are angry, understandably worried that their land will be taken through eminent domain and they left with little for it (they will walk away with more than they seem to think, but having your land taken is still upsetting). For the latter, the environmental crews are often the first people associated with the project with whom they have contact, and so we often find ourselves subject to abuse by landowners who don't want a project to go through. This is especially ironic considering that, at least in my experience, these same landowners often believe the false notion that projects can be stopped because of the discovery of archaeological sites*, so you'd think they'd be happy to see us if they are opposed to a project going through. Instead, they usually see us as a menacing vangaurd of a force that is out to destroy their lives.

During the initial environmental studies for the project, several archaeological sites were found. In keeping with standard practice, our client asked us to perform test excavations at the sites in order to assess whether or not they are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) or California Register of Historic Resources (CRHR). So, three of us found ourselves driving out into a fallow field in order to perform said excavations.

We arrived at the site, pulled our equipment out of the truck, and each of the three of us went to our excavation unit to begin work. We were digging Shovel Probes (small holes, usually 50-centimeters wide and usually dug in 20 centimeter levels), and I had gotten down to about 15 centimeters in mine, when I heard what sounded like an airplane's engine. I looked away from my screen and towards my crew members, and saw them looking to the south. Turning to the south myself, I saw a small yellow plan coming in low, flying to the west of us, and, when it was almost directly west of us and about 1/4 mile away, letting loose some sort of liquid or particles from its holding tank. It reached the end of the field, it rose up, turned around, and flew above us. It passed by, turned around, and flew above us again, and again, finally essentially flying circles above us. We got the message, packed up our equipment, and drove off, not wanting to be caught in crop dusting.

Driving out of the field, I called the project manager and let him know what had happened. Turned out that this particular farmer had made his displeasure with our presence known a few days earlier, but had nonetheless agreed to let us onto his land**. The project manager asked us to sit on the public road and observe the crop duster, and so we spent a bit of time sitting on the side of the road, watching as the plane sprayed the fields, flew away to the east, flew back, sprayed the field some more, and so on.

While we sat there, the crew, who had worked in this area before, told me that they had previously been chased out of a field by a crop duster. That time, however, they were in an area that got sprayed and the farmer was initially hesitant to tell anyone what the plane had been dropping, so the fire department had to come out to decontaminate everybody. It later turned out that the substance being dropped by the plane was not toxic to humans, and they were alright.

I do not know if it was the same farmer this time around. The crew felt that it was the same plane, though there are only so many types of crop dusting airplanes, so it's possible that it is simply the same model but not the same plane.

Regardless, it was another "only in this line of work moment" - getting chased away from a work site by a crop duster.

It didn't look like this. Though I do look like Cary Grant.

*I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The federal, and in California state, regulations that require archaeological work be done for many construction projects do not prohibit damage to or destruction of archaeological sites, they simply require that state and federal agencies take account of such damage when planning and/or permitting a project. Usually this means that damage to archaeological sites gets mitigated in some way - sometimes the project can be altered to avoid damage, more often the sites are excavated in what is called "data recovery." The cases where projects grind to a halt, in my experience, involve political wrangling and outright stubbornness on the part of one of the parties involved, as opposed to any outright prohibition against destroying sites. Archaeologists usually get caught in the middle of this, rather than being the cause of it.

**Another common misconception is that we can push our way onto other people's land. Not true. If you own the land, you can deny us access, and there ain't nothing we can do about it.

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