Our Insights

An Archaeological Find—A Passion Reaffirmed

May 6, 2020

By Josh McNutt
Cultural Resource Area Lead

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

I imagine everyone in a professional field has something that gets them out of bed in the morning. It could be the satisfaction of completing a complicated engineering project or identifying a rare plant or animal species. In the case of an archaeologist, it’s finding some long-forgotten piece of history.

At the start of almost any archaeologist’s career, even the smallest thing can spark the imagination and fuel the passion for the job. As an undergrad working in the field, I remember the first time I was shown how to identify different types of prehistoric pottery. You would have thought I had learned how to split the atom and map the human genome at the same time.

Over the years, the level of excitement for the little things has faded. Sometimes my job involves purposefully avoiding places where archaeological sites might be found. Of course, this is a good thing with its own level of satisfaction, but it’s not exciting.

On occasion though, I get the opportunity to work on a project that reminds me why I chose this profession in the first place.

Recently, POWER’s archaeology team undertook a transmission line project that spanned from southwestern Arizona to southern California. We spent nearly three months in the field working in an area of the desert where the archaeological remains were relatively unknown.

In fact, the project area was thought to have so few important archaeological or environmental resources that it had been made an unrestricted off-road vehicle and camping area.

We discovered bits and scattered remains of some incredible sites—prehistoric trails likely dating several hundred to thousands of years old, pottery and stone tool artifact scatters, rock art and intaglio sites. They were amazing in their own right, if only for the fact that no one expected us to find them.

Unfortunately, the sites we found were largely destroyed by off-road tracks and unwitting campers making fire rings out of prehistoric structures. Each site was a little taste of the magic that all archaeologists hope to find, but also bittersweet due to the damage. That was until the last day of the project.

Our team arrived in the field at first light to get as much work in as possible before the afternoon heat wave. We were looking for two sites located on the very top of ridges and peaks overlooking the Colorado River.

Hiking in the Arizona desert in the early morning can be inspirational on its own. We listened to a herd of wild burros regrouping as they headed back up the canyon, away from the campers and ATV roads near the river.

At the top of a high steeped peak we found our first site. It was utterly destroyed. A federal land management agency had placed a 20-foot-high survey marker in the ground, which attracted off-roaders like a beacon.

Finding only the disturbed remains of the site covered in trash and vehicle tracks left us feeling a little depressed and frustrated. We headed to the last site expecting more of the same.

Our hike was through a grove of ironwood trees along the bottom of a dry wash. We heard the call of the wild burros again and noticed that one was just ahead of us on the ridgeline. My spirits improved as I thought maybe we had a guide leading us to our next stop. We climbed the ridge out of the ironwood and sure enough the burro had found it.

The right path. The team follows a prehistoric trail cutting through the desert pavement with the mountains around Blythe, CA. and the Colorado River floodplain in the background.

To our surprise the site was unlike any we had seen before. Off-roaders were unable to reach the area due to the steep, rocky slopes.

We were looking at a near perfect example of all the other damaged sites we had seen up until then—geoglyphs, sleeping circles, rock alignments, deeply incised prehistoric trails leading off to other clusters of prehistoric fire pits, rock tool scatters and what we were told were prayer and “dreaming” circles.

And just like that, I got that old feeling again. I had missed it. I like to tell this story as a moment I felt reaffirmed in my personal work.

When my job keeps me at my desk approving expense reports and writing negative results memos, I can think of this site and it still gives me chills.

A sacred ring. The prayer circle is said to be a place for worship or dance, although the true purpose of this feature remains unknown.

That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

About the Author:

Josh is a Registered Professional Archaeologist with two decades of cultural resource management experience for federal agencies and private engineering and environmental firms. He has designed and executed over 70 cultural inventories for projects in the oil, gas and pipeline industries, as well as dozens of projects for the power industry. Mr. McNutt is experienced in the permitting process of transmission lines, wind farms, solar generation fields, transmission towers and alternative energy projects. Got a question for Josh? Send him an email at josh.mcnutt@powereng.com