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Archaeology Survey in Tonto Forest Arizona

Archaeology Survey in the Tonto Forest — The sun sits three quarters of the way through its Ferris wheel spin across the sky — it will soon be night. The crew of archaeologists complain of sore legs and stumble around the campsite cooking pasta, chili, and pouring boiled water into MRE packages to eat before [...]

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Archaeology Survey in the Tonto Forest —

The sun sits three quarters of the way through its Ferris wheel spin across the sky — it will soon be night.

The crew of archaeologists complain of sore legs and stumble around the campsite cooking pasta, chili, and pouring boiled water into MRE packages to eat before nightfall. The campsite is littered with beer bottles — Becks, Sam Adams — a bottle of California wine, and few Wild Turkey whiskey bottles. All are empty. But full bottles are again being excavated from the depths of coolers by the archaeology crew whose intention it is to make them undergo the same fate as their empty forebears.

I am a part of an archaeology crew doing a survey in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. We are hired by the US Forest Service to search the area for any signs of historic or prehistoric human evidence and record our findings. They want to do a prescribed burn through the area to jump the gun on the natural cycle of forest fires, and they are required to have an archaeology survey done before they can do so.

So we walk through the forests and mountains looking for evidence of anything that was made, dropped, or discard more than 50 years ago.

Tonto National Forest

Tonto National Forest

We work four 10 hour days and camp in the forest during the nights, and then we are turned loose on Phoenix or other Arizona cities for the three day weekend.

Our work is simple enough, the crew lines up in a straight baseline 15 meters apart from each other, and then we walk in a straight line to the end of a given parcel of land, and  then repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat all day long for 10 hours. Each straight line that we walk is called a transect. As we walk we look at the ground for anything that may have been created or impacted by historic or prehistoric humans. The mental exertion needed for this particular type of survey borders on the moronic, but the process of the work is physically excruciating.

Preparation for prescribed burns in Tonto Forest

Preparation for prescribed burns in the Tonto Forest

In the desert, walking 15 miles worth of transects a day is sometimes rough, but it does not extract a severely debilitating toll. It is hot, yes, but the land is flat — your biggest worry is overheating or running out of water rather than how worn your legs are.

Here, in the forest, there are mountains — big mountains — so the transects go uphill, down hill, through ravines, through gnarly upshoots of land and rubble, and up to mountain peaks. Even for a physically fit individual who delights in walking long distances 10 hours of walking over mountain top scree, boulders, and cut logs is enough exertion to warrant the adjective “gruesome.”

“Gruesome” is how my legs and ankles feel by the end of a ten hour day. But to the traveler, a day of “gruesome” just means that you will be a little more prepared for walking down the Open Road tomorrow.

At least this is what I try to tell myself as I massage out my gruesome feeling calves, thighs, and ankles while tucked up tightly inside of my Hennessy Hammock at the end of a long day of Arizona mountain surveying.


After a week of surveying on the Tonto forest in Arizona I have come across one decent prehistoric site, a bunch of isolated prehistoric finds — just an artifact or two in an area disassociated from a larger site — and a bunch of historic trash.

“All archaeology finds are essentially trash,” goes the train of logic to justify recording and cataloging a fifty year old tin can that some jerk chucked out into the forest.

“Yes, that may be true to a certain extent, but the only thing that lends value to an artifact is the information that can be taken from it. The physical object itself means little. What can I tell from a 50 year old tin can? That some jerk ate a can of beans 50 years ago and chucked the can in the forest?”

And so is the life of a CRM bound archaeologist in America.

Archaeologists finding a prehistoric site in the Tonto forest of Arizona

Archaeologists finding a prehistoric site in the Tonto forest of Arizona


“We aren’t leaving this forest until one of us pukes!” proclaimed one of the field crew stoutly.

That took us all of one night.

The sounds of an archaeologist puking in the campsite serenaded the rest of the crew to sleep, snug though cold, in their respective tents.

Last night was a debauchery. When a group of archaeologists are slung together in the woods with a campfire and a clear, starry night overhead, there is often little obstacle to getting drunk — loud and raucous.

When archaeologists are slung together anywhere there is often little obstacle to getting drunk. It is good that archaeology jobs are usually temporary, for if they were not I am sure that many in the profession would surely parish at the hands of their fellow crew members or by their own bottle clad hand.

When a group of people who just meet each other are away on a project — away from home, family duties, friend duties, the world — and are working and camping in the woods, it just makes sense to take their liberty a few clicks further and step beyond all bounds of respectability by drinking down a few too many beers and reveling a few too many stories that should be kept hidden.

Nobody is looking that is going to go home with you — unless you pair up with a fellow crew member and ride out the same path. Your tales of woe and debauchery will only cycle through the profession, though they usually will not follow you outside of this social round. And here your tales of woe need to be exceptionally horrendous to even be worth retelling.

There is often little else to do in the forest after nightfall than to sit around a campfire drinking beer anyway. What else are you going to do? Fiddle in the dark in your tent alone?

Though it only takes one archaeologist to start sliding down the drunken trail to create a slippery slope for the rest of the crew to follow: the sound of one freshly popped brew often brings on a chorus of similar sounds. One drunk and raging archaeologist all too often leads to an entire crew completely debauched.

It was my first day on this project and I cannot say that I made a very good impression. Although I know that my trade is use to such behavior. It is normal for an entire crew of archaeologists to come into work in the morning united in a common hangover.

“Estas de goma?” — are you drunk — was the common salutation on Monday morning for the crew at Copan in Honduras. The life of the archaeologist is the same everywhere.


Gila County, Arizona, where the archaeology survey is centered

Gila County, Arizona, where the archaeology survey is centered

The Tonto National forest covers over three million acres of land in central Arizona. It is the fifth largest national forest in the United States. It is mountainous and covered in pine forests. It is only a couple hour drive from the desert, but the landscape is completely different: where there are thorns, shrubs, snakes, jackrabbits, and cacti in the desert, there are pine trees, bears, elk, and coyote in the forest. Where we are in the Tonto Forest, the elevation is upwards of 6,500 feet above sea level, a full 5,000 feet higher than in the desert.

A note to the traveler: altitude, even more than latitude in most places, is the prime director of climate. It snows in some places along the same lines of latitude as the sun shines warm all year round. But once you get over 6,000 feet you better be prepared for a potentially cold night anywhere, without a thought paid towards your coordinates on the globe.

Tonto Forest

Tonto Forest

Vagabond Journey Series on Archaeology Fieldwork
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Additional Information on Tonto Forest


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Filed under: Archaeology, Arizona, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

3 comments… add one

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  • Emery October 6, 2009, 1:22 pm

    Hi, Wade, debauchery and agony aside, here’s an interesting spot for a traveler in Arizona: http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org . I have a cousin who married a monk and chose the life of seclusion halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. You talked before about bus travel to get to know the underbelly of America. But this is a way to see a bit of counter-culture.

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  • Leona October 8, 2012, 2:58 pm

    was just interested in talking with someone that might know who i would contact in regards of pre-historic bones???

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    • Wade Shepard October 8, 2012, 7:51 pm

      If they look human you have to call the police.

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