As Jason Nez combs through rugged mountains, deserts and cliffs for signs of ancient tools and unique Southwest dwellings, he keeps in mind that they are part of a bigger picture.
And fire is nothing new to them.
“They’ve been burned over and over again, and that’s healthy,” said Nez, an archaeologist and Navajo firefighter. “Many of our cultural resources we see as living, and living things are resilient.”
As a couple of wildfires blaze around this northern Arizona mountain town, flames are ripping through the dense earth with reminders of human existence over the centuries – multi-level stone houses, rock carvings and pieces of clay and ceramic pots that have been well preserved in the arid climate ever since. long before fire suppression became a tactic.
Today, firefighting teams are increasingly working to prevent or minimize damage from excavators and other modern tools to archaeological sites and artifacts, and protect those on public display to ensure history is not lost on future generations.
“Some of these arrowheads, some of these shards of pottery that you see out there have the power to change the way we see what humans were like here,” Nez said.
The crews’ efforts include recruiting people to advise them on wildlife and habitat, air quality and archaeology. In Arizona, a handful of archaeologists have walked miles in recent months locating evidence of significant human activity in the past in and around burned areas and mapping them for protection.
Last week, a team located a semi-buried dwelling known as a pit house.
“We know that this area is very important to the tribes and is an ancestral land for them,” said US Forest Service archaeologist and tribal relations expert Jeanne Stevens. “When we do more research, it helps to add more pieces to the puzzle in terms of what’s in the landscape.”
It’s not just the scattered ruins that need to be protected.
The nearby Wupatki National Monument – a trading hub for indigenous communities circa 1100 – has been evacuated due to wildfires twice this year. The exhibits there contain priceless objects, including 800-year-old corn, beans, and squash, as well as intact Clovis points, or stone arrowheads, that date back some 13,000 years.
Before the first wildfire in April, forcing the evacuation of the monument and hundreds of homes around Flagstaff, there was no clear plan on how to get the artifacts out quickly, said Lauren Carter, the monument’s interpretive lead.
“Tunnel Fire made it – excuse the pun – a matter of fire to finish the plan,” she said.
Monument curator Gwenn Gallenstein has assembled nested boxes with cavities for larger items and foam pouches for arrowheads and other smaller artifacts. She had pictures of each item so whoever was in charge of packaging would know exactly where to put them, she said.
Gallenstein was able to train a person on how to pack ceramic pots, bone tools, sandals, fabrics from area-grown cotton and other things before another major fire broke out on June 12 and the monument was closed again. No one expected to put the plan into action so soon.
So far, fires have prevented the facility. Several boxes of items dating back to what archaeologists say are distinct indigenous cultures were taken to the Northern Arizona Museum for safekeeping.
Some Hopi clans consider those who lived in Wupatki to be their ancestors. Navajo families later settled in the area but left slowly, voluntarily or under pressure from the National Park Service, which sought to eliminate private land use once it became a monument in 1924.
The monument has nearly 2,600 archaeological sites in 141 square kilometers, representing a convergence of cultures on the Colorado Plateau in the Four Corners, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. The region includes the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Hopi Mesas, volcanic ash fields, the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the US, and the San Francisco Peaks – a mountain sacred to 13 Native American tribes.
“It gives you an idea of the density of cultural history here, and this continues outside the boundaries of the national monument in the national forest,” Carter said.
The Coconino National Forest, at the southern end of the plateau, has surveyed just 20% of its 7,510 square kilometers and has recorded 11,000 archaeological sites, Stevens said. Forest restoration work that includes mechanical thinning and prescribed burning has given archaeologists the opportunity to map sites and wood items. More discoveries are expected because of the current wildfires, especially in more remote areas, Stevens said.
The arid climate has helped to preserve many of the artifacts and sites. But it’s also the kind of weather prone to wildfires, particularly with a mix of high winds and heat that were all too common in the western US this spring as climate change ravages the region.
Stevens recalled working on a 2006 wildfire in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and a prison team finding a large kiva — a circular stone built into the earth and used for ceremonies. “That was something that was really remarkable,” she said. “Where we have had fires lately, we have a lot of research and a lot of knowledge, but we are always ready for this new discovery.”
Nez also made rare finds, including two Clovis spots and mountainside villages he didn’t expect to see.
“There will be pottery shards, there will be projectile points,” he tells fire crews and managers. “In native cultures, those things are out there, and we respect them by leaving them alone.”
Fonseca is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP