Preserving Ancient Artifacts: Looking to get more than scenic views out of your hikes? The U.S. Forest Service's Passport in Time program turns trekkers into weekend archaeologists.
by Timothy Sprinkle, Backpacker
(Photo: New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, courtesy of Tom Till)
It’s midafternoon in northern New Mexico and, as happens almost every summer day in the high desert, anvil-headed thunderstorms are rising over the nearby mountains. But for Santa Fe National Forest archaeologist Mike Bremer, the excitement isn’t in the sky–it’s on the ground. He’s on his hands and knees, scanning the charred debris of an overgrown ruin 80 miles north of Santa Fe. “Look at that,” he says, reaching for a palm-size chunk of dull, gray stone and turning it over in his hand. “That’s Gallina cookware at its most spectacular.” For the sandy-haired Bremer, a piece of pot that hasn’t been touched by a human hand in hundreds of years is far more absorbing than an everyday cloudburst.
As Bremer holds up the fragment, onlookers clad in everything from tie-dye shirts to wraparound sunglasses and technical rain shells press forward. We peer into the 12-foot-wide depression where he crouches, watching as he pokes at bits of broken clay and burned adobe. “Can everybody see this?” Bremer asks, pointing to a series of bumps and troughs in the dirt. “There’s a berm here, a drop there, a little rise going on in here.” The undulating terrain seems random at first, but then the slight manmade patterns become clear: It’s the foundation of an ancient building. Bremer looks up at the group. “Can everybody see that this is archaeology?”
Bagging peaks and seeking dramatic views may be goals of other hikers, but the more than two-dozen aspiring archaeologists gathered with me at this ruin are eager to hang out and get their hands dirty. We’re part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Passport in Time program. Better known as PIT, the all-volunteer network allows everyday citizens–from college students to retirees–the opportunity to explore and appreciate public lands in a way that normal hikers can’t. In our case, we’re spending a week learning how to locate, identify, and catalog ancient artifacts. Every morning we haul our survey gear several miles from our basecamp to the research site–an abandoned pueblo village concealed beneath a grove of ponderosa pines atop a 7,500-foot ridge. Other PIT trips access similarly stunning backcountry settings, and are led by professionals who teach participants how to survey ruins, restore damaged buildings, and collect scientific samples.
For the volunteers, PIT expeditions represent a chance to live out long-held dreams of a career in archaeology–a kind of Indiana Jones fantasy camp. For the Forest Service, which has coordinated the program since 1988, the trips harness a reservoir of public enthusiasm to help reduce the agency’s huge backlog of undocumented cultural sites. “What we found out when we started was that people wanted to help, not just watch,” explains Jill Osborn, the program’s national coordinator. “But before PIT, there was never an easy way for people to get involved–you had to be a professional archaeologist in order to do these things. We learned that opening up these sites to the public was a necessary outlet.”
Today, securing a spot on a PIT expedition is highly competitive, even though participants must pay their own way and provide their own food, transportation, and camping gear. To keep the program fresh, PIT coordinators often assign a mixture of veterans and first-timers to each expedition, a practice that allows the more experienced researchers to teach the newcomers. Longtime volunteer Larry Tradlener, a retired construction foreman from Cortez, Colorado, is a typical repeat participant. “I had wanted to go into Egyptology when I graduated high school,” he explains during a break at the New Mexico site. “But in those days–in the 1950s–you had to be a trust fund baby to go into archaeology. Now we get to do it, and we accomplish meaningful work. We’re not just pushing dirt.”
Osborn believes that Passport in Time projects routinely save cultural sites that would otherwise fall into disrepair or be forgotten. Over the last two decades, the program’s 28,000 volunteers contributed the equivalent of $20 million in preservation work, restoring more than 250 structures and surveying more than 150 ruins. Despite a small budget, PIT coordinators plan to expand the offerings in 2008 with 120 expeditions in more than 25 states. In addition, volunteers can now join Bureau of Land Management projects, and the program is negotiating a similar arrangement with the National Park Service. But for organizers like Osborn, the future success of PIT depends on more than raw numbers. “The enthusiasm that volunteers bring is just as crucial as the work they do,” she says. “When they share the knowledge they gained on PIT projects, they become ambassadors for preserving America’s past.”
Back at the New Mexico site, Mike Bremer strongly believes that archaeology can enhance people’s enjoyment of the outdoors. “The more we explore a site, the more we can get an idea of what went on here,” he says, watching teams of volunteers survey the ridge. Earlier, he’d explained that even the smallest artifacts can help identify the purpose of a particular spot, distinguishing a kitchen from a ceremony site. “At first it all looks the same: pottery shard, stone flake, shard, flake, but then…” He trails off as a commotion at a pit house 100 yards away catches his attention. He walks over to check out his group’s work. It’s after three o’clock, and there’s a dark cloud looming on the horizon, but no one has looked up to notice it yet.
Keeping Up with the Indiana Joneses
How to join the Forest Service’s citizen-archaeologist program
Search for Passport in Time trips by state or by month on the program’s website, where new projects are constantly posted. Check out photos of past expeditions, or review a Frequently Asked Questions page. Then apply online, or request a paper application by phone. Sign up for the E-Traveler electronic newsletter to receive email updates on new trips. (800) 281-9176; passportintime.com