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Desert Archaeology

Desert Archaeology-– These are notes and anecdotes from an archaeology survey project that I am on in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. Paid to Hike in Desert I get paid to hike in the desert. “Really, they really pay us to do this?” Yes, it is true, archaeology surveys in the southwest are far different [...]

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Desert Archaeology-

These are notes and anecdotes from an archaeology survey project that I am on in the Sonoran desert of Arizona.

Paid to Hike in Desert

I get paid to hike in the desert.

“Really, they really pay us to do this?”

Yes, it is true, archaeology surveys in the southwest are far different than they are in other regions of the USA. In the desert, I carry not a shovel, trowel, or auger — I simply walk with my head down for miles and miles and miles.

Walk over surveys are the rule here in Arizona. No grass can cover the naked butt of the earth here, and the plants that do grow tend to be polite enough to leave the archaeologist with around 85% surface visibility. The modern standard for USA archaeology states that if you can look down and see more than 65% (give or take a few percent) of the soil — if the vegetation covers no more than 35% of the ground surface –the area can be surveyed by walking over it and looking down rather than digging.

When working on archaeology projects in parts of the USA were grasses and other vegetation tends to over the ground surface, the modus operandi for surveying for sites consists of doing shovel testing:

A shovel test is, by standard, a 50 by 50 CM hole that you dig down into the earth until you enter 10cm into a sterile subsoil which was formed at a time far prior to human existence.

The archaeologists on a survey project usually dig one shovel test every 15 meters systematically in all directions — so that the entire project area is Swiss cheesed with an ideally neat grid of shovel tests. Any artifacts that are found in this testing are recorded, collected, and shovel tests are then dug at closer intervals around the find spot until the rough area of the site is made evident.

But doing these surveys in the desert are different, as there is little vegetation here and we can find and record sites more thoroughly by scanning the bare surface of the earth for artifacts. The surface layers of archaeology sites oftentimes reveal a conglomeration of the cultural matrix that are beneath the soil, so doing these walk over surveys are prime indicators of new sites and provide a glimpse of areas should be excavated further.

Archaeologist in the Sonoran desert

Archaeologist in the Sonoran desert


Surface Archaeology

There is even a school of archaeology here in Arizona that says that excavating has no place in the practice: that archaeologist can get all the information that they need from the surface and excavation is a gross impertinence.


The ringleader for this archaeology school has even published a book on his findings, aptly called Surface Archaeology.  I read a little from this book to see if perhaps I am the stupid one. On the front inside cover he signed it personally to a friend of mine, “Thou shalt not dig.”

I took his advice and did not dig much further into the book.


Desert Archaeology Preparation

I pour a package of electrolyte powder into a liter bottle of water in preparation for a hot day of desert archaeology. I awoke at 4:30 AM to be ready for work by 5:30 and out to the site by six. The day starts early in this land where temperatures can rise to 110 degrees Fahrenheit by midday. We want to be nearly finished working by the time the sun climbs to its fiery apex, as nothing — no animal, reptile, or human — wants to be out in the middle of the Sonora when the sun is directly overhead and incinerating anything and everything that lays beneath.

I begin my day with one liter of electrolyte water and then switch to straight water for the rest of the day. I go through five liters of water in the course of a day of surveying — each liter greasing my gears up enough to go 2.5 miles.

I wear a long sleeve button up cotton shirt, thin denim blue jeans that have holes ripped all through them, sturdy Carhartt boots, and a Mexican cowboy hat that I picked up at some long gone juncture in Chiapas. I use spf 35 sunscreen. I carry a small insulated sling bag that has a compass, a scarf, bottles of water, a lunch, and granola bars. I keep my camera in the back pocket of my jeans and a sound recorder in my bag.

Coyote Skull

Coyote Skull


Walkover Survey

“Are we ready?” called out the crew chief.

“Yeah!” responded the crew, who were all standing in at 20 meter intervals from each other in a straight line at the beginning of their transect.

“Walk on!”

We walked on. And on and on and on. For 10 miles we walked on. For 12 miles we walked on. For more than 15 miles we walked on. This is desert archaeology.

Sonoran Desert

Sonoran Desert


Dust Devils

“Its a good day for dust devils,” spoke a member of the crew as we watched two swirling spires of sand spinning in the wind a mile before us. “The Navajo believed that they are souls, and that it was unlucky to get caught up in them.”

“I got caught up in one yesterday,” piped up another crew member.

“Yeah, that’s why we had to walk 16 miles.”


Desert Monotony

“I feel like I’ve been here before,” jested a crew member about the monotony of the desert landscape that we had been working in for two weeks.

“I feel like I’ve been everywhere in this entire desert before,” replied another crew member before we began yet another 2.5 mile push through the shrubs and cacti of the Sonora.


Desert distances

The raw distance that deserts extend to are mind blowing. I have never been anywhere before where I could walk a full 3 miles and feel as if I had not gone anywhere. Three miles is nothing to a desert. To walk this distance is to leave yourself just about at the same point that you started from.


Desert Archaeology

We found a historic site last week. It had 20 something old tin cans, three barrel rings, and two iron stove plates. We took pictures of it all, documented it as site, kicked at it a little, and then walked on.

I found a hundred year old empty bottle of Chamberlin’s  Cough Remedy. It’s glass was morphed blue by the hot sun — the early glass makers had a difficult time making their wares clear, and a bottle that has turned blue or purple is a shear indication that it has had a long life.

As I held the old bottle in my hand I wondered if it was one of the old cough remedies that had cocaine in it. I laughed at the thought of an old dude wandering way out in the desert high on cough medicine . . .

(wait, I use to do that, too)

Yesterday we found a scatter of prehistoric lithic flakes. Some prehistoric fellow had stooped down and knocked a few flakes off of a core of rhyolite, and, apparently not satisfied with the results, left them behind for posterity.

Archaeology is the present hunt for past garbage.

But I must wonder what any person was doing out in the middle of this desert at any time.

What am I doing here?


Archaeologist in the Desert

Archaeologist in the Desert

Archaeology field work series

[seriesposts orderby=date name=”archaeology field work” ]


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Filed under: Archaeology, Arizona

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

2 comments… add one

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  • craig | travelvice.cm September 25, 2009, 1:28 am

    Crap that’s a lot of walking… Seriously no joke out there in AZ in September.

    Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com September 26, 2009, 5:45 pm

      Yes, totally, Craig. As far as work goes, it is good — even with the 105 degree heat.

      You use to live in AZ, right?


      Link Reply