Archaeology in the United States has been shaped by many federal regulations, starting with the 1906 Antiquities Act. Many people I talk to are surprised to learn that all construction projects that take place on federal lands must be approved by experts in environmental sciences, ecology, and archaeology before breaking ground. In archaeology, this process is called Section 106 and consists of a survey and inventory of cultural resources on the affected lands.
For the last five summers, I have worked as a contract archaeologist for the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands at Ft. Wainwright, Alaska. My job was to assess and mitigate any potential damage to cultural remains associated with the US Army's use of federal lands. The training lands associated with Ft. Wainwright cover hundreds of square miles of unsurveyed land and the US Army is constantly expanding their training operations in these areas.
The first step in cultural resource management, or CRM, is to inventory significant cultural sites. This involves a lot of pedestrian survey and shovel testing. Essentially, you walk the landscape, dig holes, and sift through dirt to identify archaeological materials. The whole process can resemble finding a needle in a haystack: my first summer, my crew dug over 500 shovel tests and only found artifacts in two of them. But boy were those two days exciting!
Once a site is found, a determination of eligibility for the national register of history places takes place. Archaeologists typically dig a grid of shovel tests or test units around the original area where artifacts were found to determine the size of the site and recover additional artifacts. If tools, dateable material, or even obsidian are found, the site is submitted for consideration on the national register.
In the rare case a site is found on land where construction must take place, the third phase of CRM begins: careful removal of cultural remains or archaeological excavation. Through these excavations, significant cultural remains, or artifacts, are carefully logged, bagged, and stored for future analysis so that construction and other federal land use can continue.
On rainy winter days like today, I miss the excitement and fresh air of survey and excavation. I love applying my knowledge of archaeology in the interests of future work. CRM saves knowledge from being destroyed and provides invaluable data that future generations can learn from through visiting museums, working in labs, or even visiting websites like this one.
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.