As Jason Nez scans rugged mountains, high desert, and cliffs for ancient tools and unique dwellings in the American Southwest, he realizes that they are part of a larger picture.
And fire is not new to them.
“They have been burned many, many times, and that is healthy,” said Mr. Nez, a Navajo archaeologist and firefighter. “Many of our cultural resources we see alive, and living beings are resistant.”
As a pair of wildfires rim this northern Arizona mountain town, flames rip through a land dense with reminders of human existence throughout the centuries: multi-level stone houses, rock carvings, clay pieces and pottery. pottery that have preserved well in the arid climate. long before firefighting became a tactic.
Today, firefighting crews are increasingly working to prevent or minimize damage from bulldozers and other modern tools to archaeological sites and artifacts, and protect those on public display to ensure history is not lost in the wild. future generations.
“Some of those arrowheads, some of those pottery shards [broken ceramics] he sees out there that he has that power to change the way we see what humans were like here,” Mr. Nez said.
The teams’ 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 to locate evidence of significant past human activity in and around burned areas and map them for protection.
Just last week, a team discovered a half-buried dwelling over 1,000 years old known as a pit house.
“We know that this area is really important to the tribes and is ancestral land to them,” said Jeanne Stevens, an archaeologist and tribal relations specialist with the U.S. Forest Service. “When we do more survey work, it helps add more pieces to the puzzle in terms of what is in the landscape.”
It’s not just the scattered ruins that need protection.
Nearby Wupatki National Monument, a center of trade for indigenous communities around the 1100s, has been evacuated due to wildfires twice this year. Exhibits there contain priceless artifacts, including 800-year-old corn, beans, and squashes, along with intact stone Clovis points used for hunting dating back some 13,000 years.
Before the first wildfire broke out in April, forcing the evacuation of the monument and hundreds of homes outside of Flagstaff, there was no set plan for how quickly to remove the artifacts because the wildfire was not considered a imminent threat to Wupatki.
“Now, with climate change, conditions have become different, hence a new plan,” said monuments curator Gwenn Gallenstein.
Ms. Gallenstein assembled nested boxes with pockets for larger items and foam bags for arrowheads and other smaller artifacts. She had pictures of each item so whoever was doing the packing would know exactly where to put them, she said.
Ms. Gallenstein created a training plan on how to pack ceramic pots, bone tools, sandals, textiles woven from locally grown cotton and other things before another major wildfire broke out on June 12 and the monument was closed. again. No one expected to put the plan into action so soon.
Fires have so far prevented the facility. Several boxes of items dating back to what archaeologists say are distinct indigenous cultures were brought to the Museum of Northern Arizona for safekeeping.
Some Hopi clans consider those who lived in Wupatki as their ancestors. Navajo families later settled in the area, but left slowly, either voluntarily or under pressure from the National Park Service, which sought to eliminate private use of the land once it became a monument in 1924.
The monument has some 2,600 archaeological sites in 54 square miles, representing a convergence of cultures on the Colorado Plateau at the Four Corners, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet. The region includes the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Hopi Tablelands, 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 .
“That gives you a sense of the density of cultural history here, and it continues outside the boundaries of the national monument into the national forest,” said Lauren Carter, the monument’s chief interpretive ranger.
The Coconino National Forest on the southern edge of the plateau has surveyed just 20% of its 2,900 square miles and recorded 11,000 archaeological sites, Ms Stevens said. Forest restoration work including mechanical thinning and prescribed burning has given archaeologists the opportunity to map sites and record features. More discoveries are expected due to the current bushfires, especially in more remote areas, Ms Stevens said.
The arid climate has helped preserve many of the artifacts and sites. But it’s also the kind of environment that’s prone to wildfires, particularly with a mix of fierce winds and heat that were all too common in the western US this spring as megadroughts linked to climate change hit the region.
Ms. Stevens recalled working on a wildfire in 2006 in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona and a prison crew came across a large kiva, a circular stone structure built into the earth and used for ceremonies. “That was really remarkable stuff,” 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 that new discovery.”
Mr. Nez has also made rare finds, including two Clovis points and mountainside village sites 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.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press.