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Archaeology in Mining 

Authors: Dr. David Maxwell and Jack Caldwell


This review looks at the role of archaeology in mine development and in mining. Links to information regarding archaeological issues at mine sites are given. Regulations protecting archaeological resources are described.


You should not open or develop a mine unless you have determined whether archaeological resources are present in the proposed area of development. In both the United States and Canada, an archaeological survey of a prospective exploration area or new mines is an integral part of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Study. In both countries, such a study is required by law; similar laws apply in many parts of the world.

In this review, we look at the role of archaeology in mine development and in mining. We provide some links to information that may be useful to the miner faced with having to address archaeological issues in their project or at their mine. And we repeat some stories of mines and their involvement with archaeologists; we do this to entertain and inform.

One of the co-authors of this review is an archaeologist employed by Statistical Research, Inc. (SRI), the second-largest consulting firm in the world, and largest in North America. SRI has nearly 25 years experience in leading clients through the maze of laws and regulations relating to archaeological and heritage resources all over the world. More information on SRI can be found at www.sricrm.com

What is Archaeology?

When most people hear the word "archaeology," they immediately envision Egyptian pyramids and scholars in pith helmets, or people in the badlands of Alberta and Montana digging up dinosaur bones. In reality, archaeology is the study of human behavior through material remains; these types of studies occur all over the world, and can focus on people who lived only a few decades ago, as well as the ancient world. Oh, and archaeologists do not study dinosaurs; that's the realm of paleontology.

The three most common questions that an archaeologist hears are (1) "how do you know where to dig?" (2) "What do you do with the stuff you dig up?" and (3) "how do you know hold old a site is?"

Like a miner, an archaeologist knows where to dig because they have done background research, and gone to the area to observe the local conditions. Not all materials are deeply buried; indeed, in some parts of North America people sometimes find artifacts more than 10,000 years old on the ground surface. As with mining, the process of finding sites through ground inspection is referred to as survey, and this makes up a major portion of archaeological research.

Archaeologists study the past through material remains - stone artifacts, soils, bones, ceramics, glass, metal scraps, and shells are just some of the materials that archaeologists collect and analyze. These materials provide hints about what occurred in an area in the past. After digging is completed (and sometimes even while it's still going on), archaeologists take the materials back to the lab to analyze them. Everything recovered is cleaned and catalogued. Animal bones and shells are identified to the species they came from, giving us insight into past diets. Stone tools are studied to determine what they were made from and how they were produced, whether they are made of local materials or materials that were traded into the area, telling us about activities such as hunting, skinning, and woodworking. Ornaments such as shell beads are sometimes recovered, and these inform on such things as ritual behaviors, trade and economics. Sometimes human burials are recovered, and the study of these can tell us about the health of the population, the types of injuries and diseases they faced, and the types of rituals the surviving members of the community performed. In historic sites, glass, metal, and ceramic items can tell us about the ethnic background of the people living there, whether they made their own goods or traded for them, and very often with whom they did the trading. Historic items also provide information about economic pursuits such as farming, trapping, and mining.

Determining the age of the site often seems like magic, but can actually be a straightforward process. Take, for example, a historic mining camp. The types of artifacts recovered will be indicative of the era when the camp was active. Glass bottles can often be examined for maker's marks, and their age estimated to within a period of a few years. Some commonplace items, such as metal nails, underwent constant change in the past, and the shape of the artifact itself can pin its age down to within a decade or less. Even beer cans can be used to date an occupation to within about 5 years.

Prehistoric sites are more of a challenge, but many of the same approaches are used. Changes in artifact shape or material can sometimes be used to determine the age of a site. However, by far the most common approach to dating prehistoric sites is the use of radiocarbon dating. In a nutshell, there are 3 kinds of carbon in the atmosphere, including one (carbon 14) which is radioactive; the ratio of carbon 14 in the atmosphere is relatively constant. All living things, including people, take in and expel carbon all the time, and the amount of carbon (including carbon 14) stays constant in the body during life. Thus, no matter how old the individual, all living things have the same amount of carbon 14 in their bodies. When an organism dies, it ceases to take in new carbon, including carbon 14. Because carbon 14 is radioactive, it decays (at a known and constant rate). Carbon 14 has a half-life of approximately 6,500 years; this means that after 6,500 years, there is only half as much carbon 14 in an organism as there was when it was alive. By measuring the amount of carbon 14 left in an organic object, such as a shell or a bone, recovered from an archaeological site, it is possible to estimate the age of that item, and by inference, the site itself.

To the average miner, the practice of archaeology is important for determining the former uses of an area where a mine is to be developed - who used to live there, and what did they do at that location? The miner needs the services of a professional archaeologist to walk the area, observe artifacts and other more subtle indicators of past occupation that may be lying around, and, if need be, dig down to find buried artifacts indicative of past use or habitation of the site. The archaeologist then collates all the information into a coherent story of what was at the site before the miners got there. Decision makers, including government agencies, use the archaeologists' reports to decide to proceed with mine development or to preserve the site intact thereby stopping mine development.

A fine document that tells how to carry out archaeology at old mining sites in California is Mining Sites: Historic Context and Archaeological Research Design (2006) prepared for the Cultural Studies Office of the California Department of Transportation by the HARD Mining Sites Team.

A large-scale archaeological study that was undertaken in conjunction with a mining project is the Fence Lake Project. This project was conducted in response to the proposed Fence Lake Coal Mine in western New Mexico. A short synopsis of this project follows:

SRI was the cultural resource management consultant for data recovery at 16 prehistoric and historical-period archaeological sites located in the Fence Lake Coal Mine (FLCM) project area and along the New Mexico Transportation Corridor (NMTC). From 2001 through 2005, SRI rose to the challenges posed by a complicated project with multiple stakeholders, permitting requirements, and logistical needs. The proposed FLCM was to have been a 17,600-acre surface coal mine in Catron and Cibola Counties. The FLCM would have connected to the existing Coronado Generation Station, some 6 miles north of St. Johns, Arizona, by means of a private, 44-mile-long, coal-haul railroad. The New Mexico portion of the transportation corridor was about 30 miles long and 150-250 feet wide and was located entirely within Catron County. It would have extended from the Arizona-New Mexico border eastward to a central loading location within the proposed FLCM, about 14 miles northwest of Quemado, New Mexico. Although SRP ultimately canceled the FLCM, the project yielded significant new information, including the oldest directly dated maize in the United States.

Tasks and products include:

  • Development and implementation of a comprehensive research design and treatment plan reviewed by federal and state and Native American tribes
  • Data recovery at 16 prehistoric and historical-period sites with Paleoindian, Archaic, Puebloan, and nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century Hispanic and Euroamerican homesteads
  • Documentation of nineteenth-century Hispanic settlement in the project area
  • Development and implementation of a comprehensive environmental studies program including geomorphology, soil science, archaeobotany, and dendrochronology. These studies led to the detailed reconstruction of the Holocene environment of the project area that is directly applicable to all of west-central new Mexico and east-central Arizona
  • Results are contained in a five-volume report entitled Fence Lake Project: Archaeological Data Recovery in the New Mexico Transportation Corridor and First Five-Year Permit Area, Fence Lake Coal Mine Project, Catron County, New Mexico, compiled and edited by Edgar K. Huber and Carla R. Van West (2005)

This large, multi-year project required a field staff of 20 archaeologists and a laboratory staff of 10, along with a variety of specialists. SRI established a field office in Quemado, New Mexico, to manage this project. The field office housed storage space, computer facilities, and high-speed telephone lines to ensure rapid communication. SRI performed this complex project in a timely manner and has received numerous complements on the quality, comprehensiveness, and synthetic depth of its final report.

How Does Archaeology Affect Mining?

Archaeology is concerned both with ancient and historic uses of an area, and from a legal perspective, materials that are 100 years old are just as important as those that are 1,000 or even 10,000 years (or more) old. A variety of regulations protect archaeological resources, and require that these be considered before undertaking any kind of ground-disturbing activities. The following news items provide excellent examples of why archaeology is significant in mining:

According to Powertech Chief Geologist Frank Lichnowski, drilling began Friday and will continue for six weeks. The work will be done in the Dewey Burdock area, and holes will be drilled to see if uranium in the ground will leach out, which would make it feasible to mine the mineral. Powertech had been waiting while an archaeological study was done to determine if drilling would impact any possible historical or archaeological sites. Now that the study has been completed, the exploration can begin.

And another:

The Greek Council of the State (Greece's Supreme Court) decided that TVX, a Canadian gold company that aimed to build a large gold-processing plant near the ancient city of Stageira in Chalcidice, northern Greece, could not go ahead with its plans. The Council ruled by a large majority, 20 to 7, that the company's plans would endanger the area's environment and antiquities. It was a huge victory for Greek archaeologists, environmentalists, and the inhabitants of nearby Olympiada village and a sharp rebuke to the Greek government, especially to Deputy Finance Minister Pahtas and Environment Minister Laliotis, and to the Ministry for Culture's Central Archaeological Council, which had accepted TVX's environmental study.

Regulations - a Thumbnail Sketch

Some people are surprised to discover that there are a number of regulations that protect archaeological resources (others are surprised to learn that there aren't more regulations!). In the United States, archaeological sites and resources are protected by a variety of federal and state regulations. Canada lacks federal regulations, but each province and territory has its own legislation. Compliance with similar regulations is also required for architecture in North America, as well as other parts of the world. And in many developing countries, Social Impact Statements are required; these are similar to environmental impact statements, except that they involve the assessment of how a development, such as the creation of a mine, will effect local inhabitants of an area. Such effects could include local economies, environmental conditions (for example, will mine operation effect fish resources in local streams on which local populations depend?), and the general health and welfare of local peoples. The following is a thumb-nail sketch of some of these regulations, and how they could impact mining.

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA)
A U.S. federal regulation, ARPA protects archaeological resources on public lands, such as national parks, forests, or wildlife refuges. Under ARPA, only items that are at least 100 years old are protected. In order to remove items, ARPA requires that a permit be granted by a Federal land manager, that the permit holder be qualified, and that the activity is undertaken to further public knowledge; the selling or personal collecting of artifacts is strictly prohibited. ARPA also covers archaeological resources located on Indian lands, such as tribal reserves. Thus, if a mining operation is to be conducted on a reserve, ARPA would apply. The full text of the APRA regulation can be found at http://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/FHPL_ArchRsrcsProt.pdf

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
An example of a state regulation, CEQA provides additional protection to archaeological and historic resources in California. Unlike ARPA, CEQA covers any materials that are more than 50 years of age. CEQA applies to any resource that is listed on (or eligible to be listed on) the California register, or to unique resources. Essentially, CEQA requires that archaeological resources be considered during the environmental analysis of any ground-altering project. The initial study will determine whether project, such as a mine development, will have any adverse effect on archaeological resources. If this is not the case, then a Negative Declaration can be made; otherwise, and Environmental Impact Report must be prepared. The full details of CEQA can be viewed here http://www.ceres.ca.gov/ceqa/. A more detailed look at how archaeology fits into CEQA is presented here http://www.ceres.ca.gov/topic/env_law/ceqa/more/tas/Arcpage2.html.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
The National Environmental Policy Act offers an additional layer of federal protection (in the U.S.) for archaeological resources. Along with specifically environmental issues, such as protecting water and soil, NEPA protects historic, cultural, and natural aspects of the U.S. national heritage. Environmental Impact Statements, and the studies that lead up to them, will typically involve studies of archaeology and other cultural resources. A short overview of NEPA can be found at http://www.epa.gov/compliance/basics/nepa.html.

The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)
In the U.S., the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), and particularly Section 106, are the biggies - the law that drives most archaeological research, and requires industry compliance. Section 106 is designed to assist Federal agencies make management decisions about historic properties and other archaeological resources, particularly the protection and mitigation of these resources. An excellent, detailed primer on archaeology and Section 106 can be found here Section 106 applies to a wide variety of situations, including construction projects and land and resource planning efforts occurring on federal lands. Additionally, any setting where federal agencies provide funding or issue licenses, permits, or approvals for actions on non-federal lands, including tribal, state, municipal, and private property also fall under Section 106.

Federal agencies evaluate archaeological sites under Section 106 by determining their eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. They key point here is eligibility; a site does not actually have to be listed to be eligible for listing. These agencies, in conjunction with a variety of Native American groups, consider the effects of a given project, such as the development of a mine, on eligible or listed archaeological sites. These consulting parties will then consider ways to minimize, avoid, or mitigate the effects of the project on the resource. It is important to point out that although Section 106 is designed to protect these archaeological resources, it does not necessarily mean that a proposed project will have to stop if archaeological resources are encountered. Section 106 is designed to allow interested parties (including Native American groups) to be heard, and to try to find a solution that will appease all parties. Mitigation - usually through excavation - is a frequent outcome in situations where the development will result in the destruction of the archaeological resource. A complete version of the National Historic Preservation Act can be found here http://www.achp.gov/nhpa.html.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)
NAGPRA was designed primarily as a means to have museums, universities, and other institutions return materials from Native American Graves (including skeletons and artifacts) to descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes. It only applies in a field situation if Native American graves are encountered and the project is on federal or tribal lands (including private property within tribal lands). Thus, if a mine operation on a Native reserve encounters Native burials, NAGPRA would be in effect. If such a burial were encountered but not on federal or tribal lands, NAGPRA would not apply, although other regulations such as NHPA and NEPA would be in effect. A discussion of NAGPRA can be found here http://www.nps.gov/history/nagpra/MANDATES/INDEX.HTM.

Case Histories

The best example I know of is the Royal Mountain King Mine in California where major excavations prior to mining establish long and extensive habitation and use of the area by the many, varying groups who came to the site for salt and acorns. The story is told by Brian Fagan in Before California: An Archaeologist looks at our earliest inhabitants.

Also take a look at the story of the archaeology of the Galore Creek Mine in British Columbia.


Some of the better sites devoted to archaeology in general, but of interest to the miner who finds him/herself dealing with archaeology:


One of the authors of this review is with Statistical Research, Inc. Some statistics of their company:

  • SRI was established in 1983 by Jeffrey H. Altschul to provide a vehicle for creative people to do interesting and exciting work on the human condition.
  • Staff includes 30 individuals with Ph.D. degrees in anthropology or a related field, 14 with M.A. degrees in these fields, and 4 with M.B.A. or equivalent degrees.
  • They are the second largest historic preservation consulting firm in the world (working on #1)
  • SRI has extensive experience in the western United States, and has worked on mining-related projects in Arizona and New Mexico.
  • SRI does more than just archaeological consulting, including historic preservation and social impact studies.

Personal Perspectives (Jack Caldwell)

I must confess a fascination with archaeology ever since my days courting at Sterkfontein, Kromdraai, and Makapansgat (at this link is a presentation about these sites for the committed-it takes a while to download, but it's chockfull of information.).

My introduction to archaeology was the australopithecene sites of southern Africa. Mrs. Ples and the like captured my attention and imagination. Makes you cognizant of the long time we have been around, our propensity to wonder, and our ultimate ability to mine to provide for our material and emotional needs.

Personal Perspectives (David Maxwell)

My introduction to archaeology was less dramatic than Jack's, and I have never worked on an australopithecine site (although I would love to do so!). I took archaeology on a whim during my first semester in University, primarily as it fulfilled a social science requirement necessary for my proposed business degree. I was in love. Another semester, another course, and by the end of my second year, I declared my major in…archaeology. Actually, I never took a business class. My first digging experience was in British Columbia, on Pender Island, between Vancouver and Victoria. I've since worked on sites in B.C., Arizona, Oregon, and all over southern California. My dissertation research took me to Guatemala, although I didn't do any digging while I was there. Personal areas of interest include the study of animal bones from archaeological sites (we call this zooarchaeology), prehistoric coastal and island adaptations, and attempting to recognize (and even interpret) prehistoric ritual behaviors.

Of General Interest

Archaeology not only tells of things that happened at the site before the mine; archaeology tells us tales of miners of yore. For example, archaeology tells us that Bomvu Ridge 40,000 years ago may have been the first large-scale underground mine anywhere. Australia well populated 60,000 years ago? Modern humans, not Neanderthals, were in Russia as long ago as 40,000 years? Minnesota was well inhabited 15,000 years ago.

One we did not read (but would love to) is the e-book Social Approaches to an Industrial Past: The Archaeology and Anthropology of Mining.

More recently and relevant to our current interest in mining, here is one story from the archaeologist about old mining activities:

On April 20, 1914, Colorado National Guard troops attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners at Ludlow, a small town on the Colorado plains. That morning, the guard commander ordered Louis Tikas, the leader of the colony, to meet him at Ludlow railroad station. Fearing this might be a pretext for an attack, armed strikers of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) took up a position in a railroad cut overlooking the station. The situation was tense, and when shots rang out, guardsmen near the station trained their machine gun on the tents and began firing into the camp. As the day progressed, up to 200 guardsmen joined the fight and a second machine gun was added to the first. Armed strikers engaged the guard and tried to draw their fire away from the camp, where women and children huddled in fear.

As dusk gathered, a train crew sympathetic to the miners stopped their train in front of the machine guns, blocking their line of fire. As the guns fell silent, most of the remaining people in the camp and the armed strikers fled, while the guardsmen swept through, looting and setting the tents on fire. Mary Petrucci and her three children, one an infant she held in her arms, fled her burning tent and took refuge in the already occupied cellar below a nearby tent. Four women and 11 children crouched in the cellar while the flames crackled above them. In the first light of dawn, the camp was a smoking ruin. In the dark hole below the tent, Mary awakened to find her baby dead in her arms. Two of the women and all 11 children seeking shelter in the cellar had suffocated. During the battle, the guardsmen had seized Tikas and two other camp leaders and shot them dead. In all, 24 perished, including four guardsmen.

Following the attack, the strikers rose up in armed rebellion and seized control of the mining district. They destroyed several company towns, killed company employees, and pinned down the National Guard in their camps. Finally, after 10 days of war, President Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops to restore order. The strike continued until December, when a financially broke UMWA had to call it off.

At Ludlow, we have exposed tent platforms, latrines, a trash dump, and the cellars that families huddled in during the attack. The remains of the cellars tell the story of the attack in terms more vivid than any found in historical documents. We found fire-damaged family possessions sitting on the floor: a rusted bedstead, metal basins, a row of canning jars melted in place, and a porcelain doll's head deformed by the heat of the fire. To reach them we dug through a level of burned wood and charred canvas from the burned tents. On top was a layer of charcoal, rusted metal, and burned possessions that the miners used to fill the cellars after the massacre.

A more grisly tale of a mining company finding remains during archaeological investigations:

Archaeologists first identified textiles and bits of bleached bones on the beach at Punta Lobos in 1997 during an archaeological impact study for a mining company that planned to build port facilities in the area. Now Peruvian archaeologists have reconstructed the scene of a grisly sacrifice that took place some seven centuries ago on a beach 120 miles north of Lima.

The remains of 187 men have been uncovered; most were found with rope still tied around their wrists and ankles. They had been kneeling when they were stabbed through the heart and fell forward or on their sides into the sand. "Field investigations showed that the sacrificed bodies weren't buried," says Héctor Walde, chief archaeologist. "Many of them were covered by only an inch of sand and some had their heels exposed." Larvae found in the hair of the cadavers came from several generations of flies, indicating that the bodies were watched over for several days to keep away carrion-eating animals and to allow them to be covered naturally by sand.

A large fishing net, ropes, fishing weights, and ceramic vessels with food, found at the other end of the beach, were associated with the victims. It's believed that surviving family members placed these objects there so that the men, presumably fishermen, could continue their labors in the afterlife.

Textiles covering the faces of some of the victims helped archaeologists affiliate them with the Chimú civilization, which began a military campaign in the area at the end of the fourteenth century. Researchers believe the fishermen were sacrificed by order of the Chimú emperor Minchancaman in gratitude to the sea god, Ni, for success in battle.

Then there is the story from West Virginia:

Eighty-six years after the largest armed uprising on U.S. soil since the Civil War, Blair Mountain is once again a battlefield. Historians and environmentalists say the value of the site where more than 10,000 armed miners fought police and the U.S. Army in 1921 is equivalent to better-known battlefields like Pennsylvania's Gettysburg. But property owners and coal industry figures suggest the preservation effort is an attempt to block new surface mining operations from starting in the area.

After the completion of the first-ever archaeological study of the site last year, supporters say they have the strongest case yet for designating Blair Mountain a nationally historic place. "It would be a travesty if this site were not preserved for posterity," said Harvard Ayers, an archaeologist at Appalachian State University in North Carolina who led the excavation. Ayers said researchers found more than 1,000 artifacts from the battle, mostly spent shell casings. Because of the work, Ayers now can reconstruct how battles were fought and pinpoint the place on the ridge where the miners were able to breach the line of defenders.

But the attempt to win an official designation - which has come up several times since 1980 - has been opposed by some property owners, including Massey Energy. The coal company has a subsidiary that plans to mine parts of the area that would be designated a historical landmark. The designation would not necessarily stop the company from mountaintop removal mining, but it would trigger a federal permitting process that could delay or even halt the work. In 2005, the Massey subsidiary said it already had spent roughly $1 million to secure permits and prepare for the work.

The battle began in the summer of 1921 with a miners' rally in Charleston. The famed labor activist known as Mother Jones told the miners they should march into southern West Virginia, which was then largely free of unions, and organize the mines by force. The miners set up an armed camp at Marmet, 10 miles south of the capital, and within two weeks were marching on Logan. Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin set up fortifications on Blair Mountain, a ridge the miners had to cross to reach the county seat. In the town of Logan itself, bells tolled to warn people of the approaching miners, and the local newspaper printed Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade to encourage the defenders. The battle ended with the arrival of federal troops dispatched on the orders of President Harding. An unknown number of people were killed and wounded, although sources commonly cite 30 as the number of dead.

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