Grand Canyon Archaeology – Research from the Bottom of the Canyon
My name is Kimberly Spurr. I am an archaeologist.
Over the past 25 years I have worked in some amazing places. But, studying Grand Canyon archaeology has a splendor all its own. It’s partly due to the sheer size of the landscape, which can be overwhelming, and requires contemplation and respect. Spending a lot of time in the Canyon makes one appreciate what a special place it is. Although, working in the Canyon is not always a vacation. There are some perfect moments while hiking or sitting on a rock next to the river in the evening. But reality also includes days of raging wind that pelt us with sand while trying to draw maps. And, reality includes searing summer days when I drink two gallons of water sweating most of it out before the work day is over. But there’s no changing the weather, so you deal with it or you don’t do fieldwork.
Life On Boats
One challenging thing about researching Grand Canyon archaeology is the logistics of living life on boats. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the canyon realizes that it’s both more remote and less remote than it seems. On the one hand, it’s only a day’s hike out from many places, and people have been living in the canyon for thousands of years, so it’s not really like being on the moon. On the other hand, it does take substantial effort to move or transport gear along the limiting routes within and across the canyon.
For our purposes, the main issue is making sure we have all necessary equipment when we leave the boat dock. There is no going back, no running to the supply shelf, or visiting the store for some piece of equipment that would be useful for a particular task. The ability to improvise while studying Grand Canyon archaeology is crucial when all supplies and logistics are on rafts. We rely on the skills and expertise of the boatmen who support us; Grand Canyon raft guides could teach MacGyver a thing or two!
Grand Canyon archaeology is unique in itself. The canyon functions as both a boundary and an interaction zone for prehistoric peoples. The architecture and artifacts we find reflect both of those situations. Furthermore, these projects involve the first excavations undertaken below the rim in 40 years. Therefore, it is a huge challenge to make sure our work significantly expands the knowledge of Grand Canyon archaeology and the surrounding region.
Making Our Work Count
We want to make comparisons with earlier work. However, we also want to expand and improve on the methods those projects used and the questions they asked. We base most of the knowledge of Grand Canyon archaeology on research from just a few expeditions and lots of speculation. This is very different from most projects in the Southwest, where there is substantial literature to consult and compare.
Our big-picture questions, like from where people came from when they moved into the canyon, and who they had social and economic interactions with, have been asked in other regions for decades. Our excavations are at nine sites that range in age from 700 to 6000 years old. These sites may have been used for only a few days, or as long as several years. Regardless, they provide a huge amount of new information for understanding life in the past along the river corridor. That’s pretty exciting for me as an archaeologist and as someone living along the river, even if only for a few weeks at a time.
People often ask me what it was like to do archaeology at the very bottom of the canyon. I am part of the Grand Canyon archaeology project. Opportunities to work on a project like this only come around once in a lifetime. That sounds like a cliché, but it really is true.
* Between 2006 and 2009, Kim was a supervisor for excavations at nine prehistoric archaeology sites along the river corridor through the Grand Canyon. The sites were excavated because they were being badly eroded by side drainages that cut through the cultural deposits, and were in areas that could not be stabilized. Grand Canyon National Park funded the project. The project was carried out by archaeologists from the NPS and the Museum of Northern Arizona.