Archaeology with the National Park Service: A Summer of Cultural History at Grand Canyon National Park
Mission of the National Park Service:
“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” (http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/index.htm).
In the summer of 2015, I completed the Polk Internship in archaeology in the National Park Service’s Science and Resource Management Division (SRM) in Grand Canyon National Park. The internship itself is offered through the Grand Canyon Association (GCA), not the National Park Service, so I am an employee of GCA; however I work for the National Park Service. The Polk internship is a 10-week, paid internship program in which an undergraduate or graduate level student can apply for one of three positions within SRM in wildlife, vegetation, or archaeology. As a student of anthropology at Texas State University, I was inclined to apply for the archaeology position. As an intern at Grand Canyon National Park, I hoped to understand more about the cultural history of the area, as well as the park, learn important archaeological techniques, and end up with a better sense on the focus of my anthropological education. This report will discuss the different projects I worked on as an archaeology intern at Grand Canyon National Park, the type of work a federally employed archaeologist does, and how the Cultural Resources division operates in relation to the federal budget.
Jewel of the Southwest:
Grand Canyon National Park is located on the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona, 80 miles north of Flagstaff. A mile deep or more in some places, it is dominated by the Colorado River, running the 277 miles through the canyon. The popular South Rim sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet, while the less popular North Rim sits at a slightly higher elevation of 8-9,000 feet. Even a difference of 1,000 feet contributes to a totally different environment. The South Rim is dominated by Ponderosa Pine and Pinyon-Juniper woodlands, while the North Rim is a mixed conifer/aspen forest.
The canyon was carved by a number of processes, most notably the Colorado River. The process of formation will never be complete, but the canyon as we see it today was a billion year process. Each year, the canyon deepens by the width of a piece of paper, which does not seem like much, but it will make a significant difference even a few thousands of years from now.
The cultural history of Grand Canyon is very rich and diverse, ranging from hunter-gatherer camps to historic horse corrals and tourist lodges. There are 11 affiliated Native American Tribes associated with Grand Canyon National Park who claim Grand Canyon as a place of ancestry and cultural significance. The 11 affiliated tribes are: Havasupai, Hualapai, Navajo, Hopi, San Juan Southern Paiute, Kaibab Band of Southern Paiute Indians, Paiute Tribe of Utah, Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, Yavapai-Apache Nation, White Mountain Apache Nation, and the Pueblo of Zuni. These tribes are included in the processing of archaeological artifacts found in the park, depending on their affiliation and cultural importance. The archaeological record is rich, especially on the South Rim, where multiple sites border each other all around the park. During my time here, I was able to learn about many different types of sites, both historic and prehistoric, and how they contribute to Grand Canyon’s cultural history.
The Grand Canyon Association and Cultural Resources Division:
The Grand Canyon Association is a private non-profit organization affiliated with Grand Canyon National Park. They receive their funding from private donations and from the operation of bookstores within the park, which helps to fund internship programs such as mine. The association exists to educate the public about the natural beauty of Grand Canyon through field classes and guided hiking trips, and to partner with Grand Canyon National park, and to provide financial support to Science and Resource Management where federal dollars cannot.
The Cultural Resources division is under Science and Resource Management, which includes other smaller divisions such as air quality, wildlife, vegetation, and hydrology. The Cultural Resources division only has four people employed full time, and they each are tasked with a wide variety of duties. My supervisor is the director of the Vanishing Treasures Program, which is the cultural preservation program in the park. There is a fire archaeologist who makes sure that archaeological sites are protected when prescribed burns happen, or wildfires in general. Also employed is a river archaeologist, so her work mainly focuses on sites along the river. Recently, she got back from a river trip with Hopi elders where they visited sacred sites along the Colorado River. The last is the director of the Cultural Resources Division, which is under the Science and Resource Management division. She is in charge of all the archaeological work that goes on in the park, and makes sure that sites are protected when construction work is done within the park. This is just an overview of each person’s job description; obviously they do so much more than this because there is so much archaeological work to be done in the park, and they are stretched pretty thin as it is with both money and staff.
Responsibilities of a Federal Archaeologist:
My first week on the job, I had to learn the ins and outs of archaeology at Grand Canyon National Park, which consists of site monitoring and work with the government database. The main responsibility of a Grand Canyon National Park archaeologist is to monitor and assess the condition of the over 4,500 documented archaeological sites. The purpose of site monitoring is to make sure unwanted threats or disturbances do not negatively impact the integrity of the site. Threats and disturbances can range anywhere from the impacts of frequent human visitation, erosion, wildfire, and animal trampling/grazing. In the field, we have a monitoring forms that lists all the threats and disturbances that could impact the site. Based on that form, we are able to examine the site and determine under which category the disturbances/threats fall. It seems simple, but some things are not very obvious at first. Things such as sheet wash and water erosion can get confusing because they are so similar, and things such as vegetation growth and human-caused impacts are much more difficult to interpret. Vegetation growth should be simple, but a lone shrub growing in the middle of a site is not necessarily going to disturb the site. Vegetation growth mainly becomes a problem in a structure, when a shrub or tree threatens to displace artifacts or the structure itself.
I found it difficult to assess the threats/disturbances of an artifact scatter because, the artifacts are already out of context from centuries of natural disturbances like heavy rainfall, flooding, and animal trampling/grazing. However, even though the artifacts are out of their original context, they are still part of the cultural history of Grand Canyon, which makes them part of the archaeological record that must be protected from unwanted threats and disturbances.
Throughout the summer, I found myself thinking about the importance of artifact scatters. I do understand that they are an important part of archaeology and without them we would not have the same understanding about the ways ancient people lived, but part of me wonders why they are given the same attention as an ancient pueblo where so much more information is available. With an artifact scatter, it was a place that was only temporarily occupied, so there are no living quarters, sometimes not even middens (how food was cooked). Some of the sites we visited consisted of only a few artifacts, and I couldn’t help but think why there were considered sites at all. I am still not sure how I feel about artifact scatters, because I know they are important to archeology, but I found myself having these thoughts after we would spend an hour trying to locate a site, only to have it be a tiny artifact scatter. This is merely my frustration about how sites are organized here in the park. I do understand that sites have monitoring frequency schedules, and artifact scatters are pretty low on the list. However, as an archaeologist, we simply cannot ignore a small artifact scatter, even though I find myself wanting to. I could just be an ignorant student who was tired and frustrated from looking for a site and being disappointed that it was not anything “more interesting” than an artifact scatter, so perhaps later in my education will come to appreciate even the smallest of archaeological sites.
My experience was not all frustration over artifact scatters. I thoroughly enjoyed monitoring the larger, more intact architectural structures in the park. I found them more interesting because it gave me a very clear idea about how ancient people actually lived their lives, and what they built to sustain themselves. We spent some time on the North Rim monitoring sites, and I was able to become familiar with granaries (storage), and what types of disturbances directly impact them. We visited a granary along a trail and were surprised to find it in the same condition as the previous year. I had expected it to have some kind of visitor-caused damage since it was along a popular trail, but the almost 700 year old site was in excellent condition.
In addition to field work, I had the opportunity to learn and work with the government archaeological database. The data from all 4,500 sites are stored in this database, and as new sites are discovered, and monitoring forms filled out, we add to the database. When my internship first started, the archaeology division was backlogged more than 10 years on both monitoring forms and new site discovery forms. In my down time in the office, I tasked myself with entering the monitoring forms to decrease the backlog, which I was able to do in a few short weeks.
Something that helps the archaeology division greatly is the use of park ranger monitoring. Grand Canyon National Park Rangers can use their time to monitor archaeological sites that the archaeology division would not normally be able to get to without a lot of planning. It’s difficult for the archaeology division to get to places such as those because they are so short staffed.
This summer, I was tasked with the ongoing archaeological site monitoring project along the South Boundary Fence that borders Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab National Forest. Through this project I was able to become more familiar with the archaeological processes used by the National Park Service. It was during the fieldwork of this project that I learned the bulk of my archaeological skills, and above all, I was able to become more observant of my surroundings in a way that helped me translate them into a deeper understanding of my archaeological work. I find these skills important not just for archaeology, but for any profession that requires field work. Above all, the archaeological site monitoring of this project has helped me to better understand the relationship between an archaeological site and the land that it is situated on.
This project itself, which has been a work in progress for several years now, is the monitoring of sites along the border fence between the National Park and the Kaibab National Forest. The fence was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and because of natural forces, parts of the fence are in disrepair. Consequently, livestock from the nearby Kaibab National Forest and Native American reservations are able to make their way into the park and disturb archaeological sites along the way.
In the early days of Grand Canyon National Park, quite a few ranchers were in the area, which resulted in many historic water tanks that are still present today. Since the tanks contribute to the history of Grand Canyon National Park, they are in the archaeological database and on the National Register of Historic Places. When the livestock make their way into the park and drink from these historic water tanks, they damage any archaeological artifacts that are found on the sites, as well as trample the vegetation through frequent use. Because of this, the park wants to fix the broken sections of the fence to stop the livestock from entering the park. Before this can happen, all the archaeological sites along the fence, excluding the water tanks, have to be monitored before construction begins. The monitoring is done so the park knows exactly what condition the sites are in before the fence is repaired, and also so they can better protect the sites when the construction crew begins work. Even though the project has been in progress for several years, many of the sites we visited had not been monitored since they were discovered in the 1980s. This monitoring not only helped the fence project, but it helped to update the site records in the database. The work is far from done on this project, but the work I did this summer helped move the progress along, and hopefully the fence is a little bit closer to getting the repairs that it desperately needs.
In addition to my South Boundary Fence project, I had the opportunity to work on several other projects. My favorite project was at the Tusayan Ruin site on the South Rim. It was a grueling process, but I learned many valuable preservation techniques, and also the organization process of a big project such as this. The site itself was populated by the Ancestral Puebloan people around 1150 AD. It contains two kivas, only one of which is excavated, and a dozen rooms. The site most likely housed 20-30 individuals, which is considered somewhat large for that time period. The project we were working on happens almost every year with funding from GCA. The large excavated kiva sees a lot of visitation, and even though there is a “do not enter” sign, visitors feel the need to enter anyway, therefore damaging parts of the site. The mortar on the bench that surrounds half the interior of the kiva covers the original mortar that the park wants to keep protected. When the site was first excavated back in the 1940s, they used Portland cement to hold stones in place, which has turned out to be very bad for the stones themselves and can impact the integrity of the structure by hastening the deterioration.
In response to this high volume of visitors, the Vanishing Treasures Program has been experimenting with different types of mortar to use on the bench, and this year we tried a new one that seems to be better than last year. A reason why the bench had to be re-done this year was partly because of the new mortar, but mostly because when they applied to mortar and left it to dry last year, someone climbed into the kiva and walked all over the bench, leaving big footprints in the drying mortar. Because of that unfortunate situation, we had to extensively rope off the entire kiva and put several “do not enter” signs. The whole process of adding the new mortar was time consuming, taking a total of 2 weeks, mainly because they old mortar had to be carefully removed. Once it was removed, we started to mix the new mortar, which was a mixture of local soil from a nearby streambed, organic cement, sand, and pebbles to help with the binding of the mortar to the bench. The previous year’s mortar was only applied in one layer and deep cracks could be seen all over the bench, so this year they decided to apply it in two layers. One was applied and left to dry for several days, then the other was applied on top of the first to give it more stability. After the actual preservation work was finished, I got to help out with the paperwork detailing the project, which rooms were worked on, what exactly we did in the kiva, and what kind of mortar we used.
All of that information, including before and after pictures, go into a report that I was able to start for my supervisor. My job was to compile all the information available on the kiva, fill out the forms on what materials we used and where we used them. We went back several times to the site and evaluated how the mortar was drying and to take the after photos. The experience of this whole project was totally new to me. I’ve had experience with excavation and survey, but not with preservation work, so it was interesting to get to experience a different facet of archaeology.
The Realities and Implications of a Tight Federal Budget:
In addition to furthering my archaeological experience this summer, I have also become familiar with the many issues Grand Canyon and the National Park Service face, and how that impacts how archaeology is done in the parks. The national federal budget is what determines what archaeological work can be done in the National Parks. The National Park Service has always been plagued by compounded budget cuts over the years, which has caused archaeological work within the parks to suffer. In the past five years, the National Park Service has seen a 23%, or $364 million, reduction in its total budget. However, that’s only part of it. Over the past decade, with inflation accounted for, there has been a 62% decline in the Park Service’s construction account, leading to an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog (www.npca.org/protecting-our-parks/park-funding/park-funding.html).
Money distribution within the National Parks is very bureaucratic in the sense that the very first things to get funded are maintenance and construction. These things are funded first because they contribute directly to the visitor experience. The archaeological work of Grand Canyon National Park contributes indirectly to the visitor experience, so it is almost the last thing to get funded. At the beginning of each fiscal year, every division request funds for certain projects they want to do. However, according to the rules of disbursement for federal funds for projects, the project is more likely to get funded depending on the direct impact it will have to the visitor. Archaeological preservation and monitoring help preserve the cultural history of the region so everyone can enjoy it, but that is not considered a direct impact. Because of that mentality, archaeology falls behind when it comes to project proposals.
In response to not being able to get the required money for archaeological projects from the National Park Service, the Cultural Resources Division has turned to The Grand Canyon Association (GCA) for funding. GCA has been a friend to the Science and Resource Management Division for many years, and has paid the bill for many big projects within the whole division (www.grandcanyon.org/about-grand-canyon-association). However, even though GCA has helped out with projects over the years, the Cultural Resources Division still has budget issues. They were once able to conduct big survey and excavation projects, but now they can only do site monitoring, as well a few small preservation projects. Unfortunately, they are doing the bare minimum to keep sites relatively preserved and monitored. Along with funding for preservation projects, it is a huge advantage for the Science and Resource Management Division to have access to funds from GCA that sponsor internship programs such as mine. I feel that the work I did this summer was able to help the division with a lot of their regular tasks, such as site monitoring, so they could focus on securing funding for future projects.
I started this internship with a clear mindset about what archaeology was and what I wanted to do with it. But, throughout this summer I found myself becoming less and less confident on my thoughts about archaeology. I have heard that it is important to have an experience and absolutely know you want to pursue that field of study; however I think that it is equally important to have an experience and know what you do not want to pursue, and that’s exactly what happened to me this summer. I had a great experience, but the most important thing I have taken away from it was not the archaeological skills, but the knowledge that I do not want to be a federally employed archaeologist. I know now that I had a very naive perspective on archaeology in the sense that I thought it was all the same. I could not have been more wrong. With federal archaeology, there is no research aspect, just maintaining existing sites. Now, if I choose to pursue archaeology as a career, I want to feel a sense of advancement. To me, working at Grand Canyon felt a little stagnant, like I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I chose to be an archaeologist with the National Park Service.
I found myself curious as to why the park does not do any major excavations projects, and if it was something other than money, and I was told that it interferes with the mission of the National Park Service. I was fairly surprised by this at first, but it all goes back to the direct impact of the visitor, and whether their experience will benefit from archaeological work. I’ve had to come to terms with a lot about the work that I’ve done this summer, but the lack of research, and progress in my eyes, has allowed me to come to my own realization that I do not see myself holding a job as an archaeologist with the National Park Service. Even though my experience here was invaluable, I feel that I would need to pursue a much different path with archaeology that involves more opportunities for research and the advancement of knowledge in that particular field. I am disappointed that I did not find myself enthralled with the work done here, but I do feel better now that I know what I do not want to do.
 The Vanishing Treasures Program was started by a handful of park rangers back in the 1990s after they noticed a rapid rate of deterioration on cultural sites. The programs strives to maintain the cultural integrity of historic sites through preservation work in the National Parks (www.nps.gov/archeology/vt/vt.htm).