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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.
Backpacker_Magazine_New_Mexico_Chaco_CanyonNew Mexico's Chaco Canyon, 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.

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