Tag Archives: archeology

Forensic Dogs

I was asked to tell a story and in the next breath warned that “not everybody would be happy if you told it”. We both agreed (separately) that since I’d had the privilege of seeing something not everyone gets to see, it’s better that it’s used to build awareness.

The museum staff was invited to go out to the field today to watch forensic dogs survey the areas that will be impacted and developed for the Ocotillo Wind Project.

Our guide strongly believes in the use of forensic dogs in modern archeology. If she had her way, they’d be used on every build site.

Why wouldn’t you use them, our guide asked, they help with 3 key things:

  1. Helps Native American remains to be treated with dignity as law requires.
  2. Actively involves Native Americans in the telling of their history.
  3. Gives archaeology a new perspective. In some cases, archeologists are running tests to prove what the tribes have known for generations. If Native Americans were involved in the process, there would be much less theoretical guessing and much more accuracy in building our nation’s history.

The dogs alerted at two locations over the 4 hour period we were there. We were standing in the shadow of the Coyote Mountains, a sacred site that is part of the creation story.

A handler gets an alert. The remains are flagged and a second dog is brought in to see if they give the same alert.

Documenting the alert. This site will be carefully monitored during construction.

A practical woman who knows her audience, she pointed out that not only the dogs helping human remains be treated with respect, it’s cost effective. For a minimal cost for 3 days of work, the contractor could save themselves the time and cost of dealing with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA). If included in the early surveys, the dogs could notify engineers of locations to avoid during design. They should be a standard tool in site surveys. Get the word out!

We worked till sunset and the dogs will resume at 5am tomorrow. They can only work when the ground temperature is below 100 degrees and these days that happens early. I was reminded that this sunset could be one of the last without wind turbines in view.

Archaeology Lesson – Lake Cahuilla

You can’t tell the story if you don’t know it. Today we had a bit of staff training to see the things we often talk about at the museum.

The people in this area used to live on the banks of a great lake, sustained by the Colorado River periodically overrunning its banks and gushing into the below sea-level valley.

Today, all that is left of the lake is the Salton Sea, a salt-concentrated shadow of it’s former glory. Originally about 2-3 times larger, the lake provided food and shelter for the Valley’s earliest inhabitants. The current “sea” was actually formed by a dam break in 1905 that allowed the Colorado River to re-flooded the lake bed.

The evidence of people’s lives around Lake Cahuilla is evident almost every where you look. From Ocotillo, we drove old route 80, following the route of the 1926 concrete highway, till we turned up Huff Road, passing rich irrigation-fed farmland. Our guide pointed out known sites: the 1820 Mexican Fort near New River, which would have been a reliable water source and has pot sherds near it, the 1940 L electric Line which has several well marked sites up and down it’s length, and the hundreds of house rings just outside the marked Navy Impact Area, and across from a 50m stone ring whose purpose evades living memory. Site after site was pointed out as we approached our ultimate goal at the circa 1690 shore line of Lake Cahuilla.

The Lake evaporated almost 5 feet every year and was irregularly filled by the river waters. You can see the settlements follow the shoreline up and down the bank. Fish traps, which were built in the shallows, are clearly built at 5 feet intervals as the water receded.

House ring at Lake Cahuilla from circa 1690 (top of image). Notice how sandstones are propped to support the walls, marking it as a man-made feature. The white fishbones at the forefront mark the house entrance.

While monitoring these sites, we recorded two new key artifacts (which of course we noted and returned to their proper place):

This beauty had been missed on other walk-throughs. It is possibly a fish weight (which I know has to do with fishing, but I can’t help you beyond that).

and a sandstone bead which had surfaced in the rains and looks exactly like the size and shape of a cheerio. Which was funny, and cool.

We also saw the water line of the ancient lake, nestled up against the Fish Creek Mountains. That Lake hasn’t existed for a loOOooooong time, but it still leaves it’s mark.



Other great finds of the day:

Desert horned lizard.

Iguana taking shelter under a creosote bush, one of the oldest plants on earth..

and (no pictures)
a loggerhead shrike,
2 night hawks,
and 2 low fly-bys by F-18’s.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Last Sunday we visited Indian Point in Anza-Borrego State Park, the largest state park in the country: 60,000 acres.

Indian Point Hill

Indian Point


This hill was inhabited for 4,000 years.

Under the ledge

Under the ledge (just visible in the above picture)


You can see where people made paints and food.

Food and paint production area. Deep = food, shallow = paint.

There were obvious trails weaving in and out of the rocks, though now they are over grown by bushes. I have the scratches to prove it.


The desert is really beautiful up here. It’s a higher elevation than Ocotillo and it gets visibly more lush and green as you enter the park.

AB State Park view

Ocotillo in Bloom

Ocotillo in Bloom



I also felt like we could act out 3:10 to Yuma.

“This was used on a mastodon!”

We are leading volunteer days to re-label the collections the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) interns have finished re-curating. It’s the stuff of volunteer dreams: the true behind scenes of archeology… read the label number in the artifact bag, find the new printed label, replace the old label with the new archival quality one, pick up a new artifact, repeat. Yes, after 3 hours we were all practically walking on a cloud.


I jest, but really, the work we completed was incredibly important to the museum collections and really a lot of fun. Any history lover will see through these mundane tasks and recognize the volunteer days for their true value: as a rare opportunity to have the museum’s treasures explained by passionate experts. Whenever someone found an interesting looking artifact, we’d all stop and speculate and oo and ahh over its possible purpose.

One artifact in particular caught my fancy:

When this projectile point was first pointed out as a ‘neat’ find, I sat looking at the size, going through my mental encyclopedia of desert animals, wondering what kind of arrow would have to be attached to such a big point! What kind of animal would be big enough to merit such a hefty tool? Coyote, maybe? Finally, coming up short, I jokingly said, “What’s so big out here? Saber tooth tiger?” And with a dead straight face the staff responded, “Mastodon, properly.”

Oh. Well ok then.

When I informed the BLM archeology staff I was going to proclaim that this atlatl point was used to kill a mastodon, they quickly shot me the archeologist mantra: “You can’t say that, we don’t know that for sure.” Yes, yes of course that’s true, but it’s pretty cool that it might have been used to bring down a mighty mastodon. It’s always amazing to think that a hunter some 10,000 years ago could have used the artifact in my hand to feed his family. Talk about bringing home the bacon!

Geology Lesson

Native American Trail

Trail marked with a line

“Basically you are standing on the Grand Canyon,” our guide explained. The Colorado River winds through the canyons way north digging deeper and deeper into the rock and washing stones to the end of the line. Every 1,000 years or so, the end of the line was the Imperial Valley. The Valley is below sea level vis a vie the Grand Canyon rocks were under our feet as we walked. This flooding was a natural flushing cycle, reducing the salt in the area, filling the Salton Sea with fresh water and fish and providing food for the people who lived along its banks. Here you can see a trail clearly worn by the marching of thousands upon thousands of feet as they walked from the mountains to the waters edge.


In the 1900’s, a big rain caused the might river to burst the dikes of the Alamo Canal and the rush of water once again began filling in the Sea. Then we built the Hoover dam, the river was tamed, and now the salinity of the Sea is a problem. Cause and effect people.


Also in the early 1900’s the Mexican revolution inspired the building of the All American Canal. The Alamo canal followed the shape of the earth, allowing gravity to do most of the work and let the waters trickle down the hill sides and into the fertile Imperial Valley silt. That path just happened to cross the border into Mexico. The unrest was risky to the American desert farmers, so we built the All American Canal. It has recently been re-lined. Look at how they diverted the water.

Diverted All American Canal

Diverted All American Canal


Other things I learned:


– This area MOVES. The San Andres fault runs directly through the valley. The part of the highway that cuts over it has been known to shift up to three feet. You can watch the real time evidence on   http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/recenteqscanv/


– Way back in the day, the Imperial Valley was part of the California Gulf. “This was the ancient Gulf of Mexico,” I was told by our guide.


– There is a geothermal anomaly here. Magma runs close to the surface. You can observe steam coming off Hoover beach. There are also several hot springs. We stopped at one. There was a group camped across who come here each winter to enjoy the spring and the desert environment. When we returned for a night time dip, a group of Navy boys (who were actually men) from the local base arrived around the same time. We swapped stories. If it was a competition, they would win: Prince Charles is training at the base.


Imperial Valley Hot Springs

Imperial Valley Mineral Hot Spring

- The The Algodones Dunes, near El Centro were the site of filming for Luke’s home planet of Tatooine. I HAD to get picture of this. I was threatened with getting left behind if I didn’t make it to the car before the driver, so I sprinted up a nearly vertical mound of sand for the best possible view. Enjoy it.

Algodones Dunes outside El Centro, CA

Algodones Dunes outside El Centro, CA


Dune season has just begun. If you have a permit, you can ride your 4×4 like a mad man up and down the shifting hills. Sometimes nearly vertical climbs. Don’t get lost: People disappear. I was browsing a list of top ten things to bring with you when you camp here. I remember “fire wood” and “lots of water”. I wish I’d kept the list.


– We also saw some of the geogylphs. I like the way this guy puts it: “America’s Nasca Lines”. Most people who ride the desert don’t know they are here. We observed 4×4 tracks in the same area as the lines. This is not to say that if people knew about them they’d be safer. This is one of the big debates in the area: preservationists versus recreationalists … versus energy companies (lots of sun and wind in this valley).


Because I am unfamiliar with the local traditions, I don’t want to share too much. I can tell you that I saw a horse figure, which excites the archeologists because horses were brought to the America’s by the Spanish in the 1500’s or so, so these representations might document the first meeting of these peoples. I wished more than once that I had a cultural liaison to share the real stories. Without the stories, it’s just a pile of rocks.

Archeologists – The Real Deal

Betsy Carlson, author of Talking Taino.

I can’t get over my Indiana Jones archeologist fever. Who do you know that has met real life archeologists?! I feel so privileged! But I also think I’m driving the team mad.

Unlike the guys, who participated in the reality of digging 1 foot holes straight down for 7 hours a day and craning over screens trying to distinguish dirt and rocks from artifacts the same color as dirt and rocks, I get to just sit back and watch the magic happen.

So the group comes back from the day, covered in dirt, and set about cataloging and note taking, and then have to deal with me sticking my nose over their shoulders asking what they’re doing and demanding that tomorrow they find an effigy. 3.5mm beads just weren’t exciting enough for me.

“Always so unsatisfied! People always want more!” they told me.

“That’s what keep you digging,” I countered.

It’s like a librarian/archivists/nerdy person’s dream to live with walking encyclopedias. I made the DECR (Department of Environment and Coastal Resources) volunteer name all the shells I pick up off the beach. I’d never seen an Atlantic wood-louse shell before and he was able to anme it in the common name AND Latin. Crazy.

I also learned that for native peoples conch was the hardest material. So to release the conch meat from it’s shell, they would use the pointed cone from a small conch to break the foot of the animal. They knew exactly where to hit it to release the conch meat. The one pictured here with the hole is a 1,000 year old conch shell.

The fun didn’t stop there. You should have seen my eyes bug out when I saw the two toned 1,000 year old pottery. “But it’s glazed! And colored! They could do that?”

I was given the “of course these people had a highly developed culture” look.

Yes, of course, I should know better. I’ve visited some of the best museums in the world, but I still find it difficult to imagine the lives of pre-historic people. Most of the artifacts we found were dirt colored. This particular piece of pottery was large and beautiful, and indicative of a higher quality of life than the contrasting worn down shells and fish bones. Changes your whole thought process of these people’s lives.

Also on this site were artifacts from mid 1700 to the mid 1800’s. This was much more familiar territory. Still, I learned a lot about the construction of bottles and platters – ginger bottles, blown glass bottles, different china patterns – the familiar white and blue patterns of the 1770’s and more colorful, but also more drab, brown and yellow of the 1800’s.

Essentially, we were looking at the results of various kitchen accidents. You can imagine the cook: “Oops, broke the plate/bottle/vase, mistress is not going to be pleased.” And throw it on the trash pile.

Going through these people’s trash is really just a diagnostic measure. No longer useless, these items have been waiting around all this time just to tell us when their owners lived here.

Since we are just doing a survey of the site, we’ll be putting the objects back where we dug them up, keeping only the information and some select pieces. This way the historians get the history, but the context stays intact for the next archeology team who enter the site. They’ll also be able to take our notes and identify areas already investigated by the bits on the ground. Or they’ll know that the site has been tampered with if things aren’t where we left them.

It’s really interesting to get an overview of the whole archeological process. You should hear my tours these days! I don’t have a problem keeping people’s attention since now I have all these great stories – governor’s visits, Fort George stories, Lucayan artifacts, new research on shipwrecks, and now a possible location of the fabled Cork Tree Plantation. I’m loving how all these projects we do point to the rich histories of the islands. The locals who attended our event last night were astounded that just a few feet under their feet are all this evidence of the people before us. I guess that’s the magic of archeology.

Neal and I talk a lot about the next generation of museums. My vote is for replicating this type of hands on learning. It’s infectious!