ARCHEOLOGISTS stay busy tracking state sites

Saturday, July 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

(NORMAN) - Maybe you thought archeologists worked only on digs in exotic, faraway places, such as the Middle East. The truth is a lot of it goes on in Oklahoma, too.

Oklahoma Archeological Survey files contain records of 17,500 sites in the state. The visible results of site investigations cover a number of tables in the layout room of the survey quarters on the University of Oklahoma south campus.

They range from small fossils and rocks to huge bison skulls. One skull commanding attention near the entrance to the display is estimated to be 10,000 years old.

A significant portion of the survey mission is resource management.

``Our goal is to help make sure an important part of Oklahoma's heritage is properly treated,'' said Robert L. Brooks, Oklahoma Archeological Survey director and state archeologist. ``That can be anything from leaving a site the way it is - that is, preservation - to making sure that, if there's no way excavation can be avoided, the information isn't lost.''

Brooks and his staff, which includes six other professional archeologists besides himself (with a total of 140 years of experience in archaeology), keep busy reviewing proposed projects. The proposals may come from private or commercial applicants, or from any of about 25 state and federal agencies.

``There's a whole set of federal and state laws that set certain conditions when people submit information to us about their project ... ,'' Brooks said. ``We deal with what's on the land surface or below it.''

The conditions: Is the project on Indian or federal land? Is the applicant receiving federal money? Is it something the federal government regulates, such as oil and gas, or through the Environmental Protection Agency or the Corps of Engineers? Is it a project that in some other fashion the federal agencies provide assistance, not just money, such as building something? Is the proposed project on state property?

``If what somebody's doing meets any of these conditions, we'll review that project,'' Brooks said.

Applicants usually are people in some kind of commercial enterprise, but they could be a government agency. It might be the Corps of Engineers planning to build a new lake, or the Forest Service wanting to bulldoze firebreaks in a forest for protection against fires, he said.

``That would be disturbing something on the ground, and we'd be required to look at it.''

While all these projects come to the office for review, only a small number require an archeological survey because many projects, for a number of reasons, are viewed as not likely to disturb anything of importance, Brooks said.

The 17,500 sites in the files - on computers, on hard copies and on maps - are matched up with a proposed project to see if it's in a sensitive area requiring investigation.

Brooks defined an archeological site as anything that is 50 years of age or older that has been abandoned and exists on the land surface or below it. For example, he said, a Dust Bowl-era homestead might have only a few remnants standing, such as a chimney; everything else has fallen down and is partly buried or scattered on the ground.

The archeologists also find the camps and villages of people who lived here thousands of year ago, as well as buffalo kills that are 10,000 years old. Some of that work is going on now, he said.

``Just because we don't have a record of it doesn't mean there's nothing there. Our files grow at about 500 sites a year. The state has been keeping track of sites since the 1950s. There wasn't any organized work on state history until the 1930s, when the WPA did it.''

Brooks said so much of history focuses on the lives of important people and on important events that everyday lives tend to be left behind.

``Memories are fragile things. They're lost and forgotten, but what's there archeologically is something firm and material, and we can determine what happened thousands of years ago, or even 50 years ago.

``The Grapes of Wrath deals with Oklahomans who left. Not much is known about the people who stayed. Archeology is how we learned about them.

``When we talk about prehistory - before there was a written record - archeological work is the only way we can learn about that past. We have the oral histories of tribes, but there were so many dislocations and their memories may be faulty. Also, sometimes their oral histories don't deal with archeological material. But they can complement our understanding of what went on a thousand years ago.''

Brooks, who also teaches classes at the university, visits a lot of the work going on, making recommendations of what additional or different things his staff might do. Many times he's just getting an idea of what is being found and a better sense of things, he said.

The director said some time this fall the Oklahoma Archeological Survey will do an archeological survey looking for sites along the Canadian River from about 15 miles east of Purcell to around Minco.

``This is an area that, surprisingly, hasn't had much treatment in some time,'' he said. ``With the increased growth outward by Oklahoma City, Norman and other places, we want to document and record sites.''