Highway Salvage Problems in New Mexico and Arizona

Fred Wendorf

The following appears on Pages 41–49 of Symposium on Salvage Archaeology, edited by John M. Corbett and "published" (using a mimeograph machine) by the Department of the Interior, National Park Service in 1961. My corrections to typos are indicated by square brackets. The original publication is in the archives of the Maxwell Museum, University of New Mexico, under catalogue number 2015.5.1.

The symposium was "Held under the auspices of the Society for American Archaeology and the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains, Bloomington Indiana, May 5, 6, 7, 1955" and was chaired by Frederick Johnson, secretary of the committee. The symposium was taped and transcribed; afterwards the participants were given a chance to correct their portions of the transcript. The symposium was not published until 1961; as John Corbett explains in the preface, at the time "Several people concerned with administering or operating large-scale salvage programs thought this information should be made available for the record."

There is no explanation why Arizona is mentioned in the title of the paper, when Wendorf's presentation is concerned only with New Mexico.

It is particularly fitting that this paper should follow Mr. Tong's presentation on the role of the amateur in salvage archaeology, because had it not been for the active and enlightened cooperation of interested amateur archaeologists the project which I shall discuss could not have been realized.

This project, perhaps the first systematic cooperative program of salvage archaeology undertaken by federal and state highway construction agencies, may be of some interest for archaeologists in other areas, for the precedent which it established could lead to the formulation of similar cooperative salvage programs in other states. There have been several instances in the past where archaeological material threatened with destruction by highway construction has been salvaged with [the] cooperation of the highway [agency] or the construction contractor. Generally, however, such salvage operations take place after the construction work has exposed and possibly destroyed the archaeological remains. Only when some alert individual happened to be present and made the necessary effort to contact the proper authorities did archaeologists hear of the site at all, and then the site was materially damaged or construction was delayed, or shifted elsewhere at considerable expense. So far as I have been able to learn, there has never been any previous systematic attempt to locate and salvage the archaeological material prior to construction, nor have the joint responsibilities of the highway departments and the state archaeological organizations been accepted by all concerned. I have emphasized the problem of joint responsibilities because I firmly believe that the salvage of archaeological material is not the sole responsibility of either the construction agency or the archaeologist. But must understand and be sympathetic with the problems, capabilities, and limitations of the other. Of course, the primary responsibility for the initiation of salvage project and the education of the construction people in their olbigation to assist in preserving this basic archaeological data lies with the archaeologist.

Background for the New Mexico Project

The conversations which led to the New Mexico project were initiated by a lecture which I gave in March 1954, to a Santa Fe service club on the El Paso Natural Gas Company's pipeline archaeological salvage program which I supervised for J. L. Nusbaum. At the conclusion of the talk I chided the New Mexico HIghway Department for their failure to comply with the state and federal statutes concerning the preservation of our archaeological remains. Fortunately, but unknown to me, Mr. W. J. Keller, New Mexico District Engineer for the Bureau of Public Roads (United States Department of Commerce), was in the audience. Mr. Keller had long been interested in archaeology and had been deeply concerned by the destruction of archaeological materials by highway construction. In a later conversation, Mr. Keller agreed to cooperate with the Museum of New Mexico in salvaging archaeological materials in the construction projects by the Bureau of Public Roads and to justify these expenditures by reference to the New Mexico and Federal Antiquities Acts (Laws of New Mexico, 1931, Chapter 42, p. 81; 34 Stat. 1, L. 255, approved June 8, 1906). Mr. Keller further offered to arrange for a conference with officials of the New Mexico State Highway Department for the purpose of discussing the possibilities of a similar agreement with their organization. After clearance with Director Boaz Long of the Museum of New Mexico, a meeting was arranged (in April, 1954) and was attended by C. O. Erwin, then State Highway Engineer; T. B. White, Construction Engineer; I. B. Miller, Maintenance Engineer; L. D. Wilson, then Administrative Engineer, now State Highway Engineer; L. H. Miller, Construction Engineer for the Bureau of Public Roads; J. L. Nusbaum, Senior Archaeologist, Department of the Interior; Keller and myself. Keller had previously discussed the problem with state officials and found them sympathetic, thus agreement was reached almost immediately. Erwin, like Kelley, had long been interested in archaeology and had an extensive personal collection.

The agreement between the Museum of New Mexico and the State Highway Department was informal, oral, and subject to modification by either party. It was understood by all concerned that this was an experiment; we did not know either the cost of such a program or if techniques satisfactory to all concerned could be devised. But the essential (and still standing) features of this agreement were as follows: That the New Mexico State Highway Department would provide the necessary labor and heavy equipment to salvage the archaeological sites threatened with destruction by highway construction; (2) that the Museum of New Mexico would provide trained personnel to supervise the surveys and excavations; (3) that all requests for labor assistance would be kept to an absolute minimum necessary for scientifically acceptable results; and (4) that all salvage operations would not interfere with construction operations.

The Museum of New Mexico was able to make such an agreement because it had a readily available research staff, at least some of which could be utilized in the initial trial phase of the project. It was realized, however, that if the project became a permanent part of the Museum's program, then additional sums would have to be sought to cover the necessary staff increases and other expenditures. In all honesty however, it must be admitted that none of us had any full realization of the extent of the operations which we were about to undertake; otherwise, we would have been much more hesitant in entering into the agreement at that time.

Both the Bureau of Public Roads and the State Highway Department have been sympathetic with our limited resources and have repeatedly offered additional assistance. By agreement with the State Highway [Department] and Bureau of Public Roads, supervisory assistance (a foreman archaeologist) can be provided by cooperation with the contractor who will include such supervision on his payroll along with the labor assistance which he has provided. Thus graduate students may be hired for a few weeks to supervise labor on a particular project. The State Highway Department has considered the inclusion of an archaeologist on its staff, but this proposal was dropped when the various difficulties of such an arrangement became apparent. They have, however, undertaken the printing of the reports resulting from the highway salvage excavations, and the first volume, entitled Highway Salvage Archaeology, Volume I, has appeared.

The Project in Operation

The first step in implementing the cooperative agreement with the State Highway Department was the placement of the Museum of New Mexico on the Highway Department's mailing list adverstising proposed construction projects. In addition, we receive copies of their confidential priority schedule where the projects for the next several months are noted, thus permitting some estimation of planned future activities. For the most part it is impractical to search projects for archaeological material ahead of their advertisement, because the final alignment is agreed upon just prior to this date and plans are therefore not available.

From four to twelve separate projects widely scattered around the state may be advertised each month. Most of these have to be examined for archaeological materials. On receipt of the notice of advertisement, the Museum obtains copies of plans and sections for each job involving major right-of-way changes. With the aid of these maps, and sometimes in the company of the Project Engineer, the construction areas are examined for possible archaeological sites. When such remains are found, an estimate is made of the number of man days of labor and other assistance required for their salvage, and the appropriate District Office is tendered a request for this needed assistance, along with an estimate of the number of days needed to complete the salvage operations.

This is the critical point of the program. The Highway Department rightfully insists that there be no delay in construction activities, but on the other hand there may be two or three ruins on a project, and other projects elsewhere in the state may have ruins which have to be excavated simultaneously. Thus all archaeology on every project let for contract during each month must be completed in the interval between the request for bids on the project and the moment the contractor has to work where the ruin is located. This may vary from ten to thirty days. The vagaries of chance have, on occasion, made this an almost impossible situation. One month salvage excavations may not be needed anywhere, but the next month there may be five ruins to dig, all in different areas. To overcome this situation we try, wherever possible, to check projects in advance of their advertisement. We have also drawn heavily on our colleagues in the National Park Service and elsewhere, as well as graduate students from the University of New Mexico. Without their help we would have been forced to radically curtail our activities. When sorely pressed, we also employ what may be considered slightly unorthodox methodology, for we have repeatedly used power machinery to remove fill from deep pithouses and kivas or to locate suspected buried structures.

A slightly different procedure is followed for the construction projects under the direct supervision of the Bureau of Public Roads. In this instance, all archaeological surveys are completed prior to the advertisement of the project, and the estimate of needed assistance is included in the awarded contract under a "force account" item. The contractor then supplies the labor and equipment needed and this is made a part of his monthly estimate to the Bureau of Public Roads.

An important item in this arrangement with the Bureau of Public Roads, and that with the State Highway Department as well, is that no funds are transferred from on agency to another. The excavations are conducted by the construction agency as their responsibility under existing laws, while the Museum assists in insuring that the excavations meet the standards set forth in the statutes and acts as a depository for recovered materials. Thus the objections of certain fiscal officers regarding transfers of funds from one government agency to another, as noted by Mr. Lee in a previous paper, are largely overcome.


As of this writing (October 1, 1955), twenty-four sites have been salvaged, in whole or in part, and excavations are underway at two others. Reports describing the results of this work have been published on seven of these sites, three others are in press, and four in preparation. The majority of these are small, requiring but a few days to excavate and write brief descriptive reports. A few, however, have been sizeable projects and have materially increased available archaeological data for their particular areas.

A corollary and importand development of these salvage excavations has been the stimulation of considerable interest in archaeology among the Highway Department and contractors' personnel, as well as among the local people in the areas where we have worked. In general there has been a genuine interest in and sympathy for the work, and no critical comment suggesting that the expenditures might be considered unjustified. On the contrary, the Museum of New Mexico has become widely known throughout the state for these activities, and the project is promoting a better understanding of the functions and purposes of a state museum.

There are, of course, many special problems resulting from these cooperative arrangements, one of the most important of which has been the financing of additional costs. For the first year the proejct operated without any increase to our regular staff, although part-time assistance was utilized on one or two excavations, and the National Park Service cooperated on several occasions and provided archaeological assistance at no cost to the Museum. But the increased travel expenses and demands on equipment sorely strained our modest budget. Our difficulties at this level were remedied by the New Mexico legislature when it passed a deficiency appropriation specifically earmarked for highway salvage archaeology. It is a particular pleasure to acknowledge the assistance given by officials in the Highway Department in obtaining this appropriation. A similar increase in our annual budget permitted the Museum to acquire some of the additional equipment so desperately needed if we were to fulfill adequately our agreements. These measures lead us to conclude, therefore, that the Highway Department and the Museum now consider highway salvage archaeology as a standard part of their operating program.

There are also problems inherent in the archaeology itself, for the speed with which the excavations must be accomplished and the limitation of excavating only those sites threatened with destruction leads to a feeling of frustration on the part of the archaeologist who likes to obtain a thorough sample from his excavated communities. There is also every likelihood that we will accumulate a tremendous backlog of unprocessed and unreported material, a situation which leads to further frustration. In this connection there is the additional consideration that, perhaps even more than for problem-oriented excavations, the prompt preparation of descriptive reports is much to be desired because invariably the speed of the work leads to sketchy notes on some aspects of the project. To overcome this last difficulty, we have been attempting to standardize our recording techniques, but as yet with only limited success.

New Developments

Once the highway officials were convinced that salvage archaeology was practical, could be accomplished withoout undue cost and with a minimum of disturbance to their established procedures, other federal and state agencies involved in construction work in the state were approached with a view toward making similar arrangements with their organizations. To date, agreements have been reached with the United States Forest Service and the New Mexico State Game and Fish Commission, and salvage excavations resulting therefrom have already been undertaken.

Perhaps the most important new development has been a recent review of our activities by the United States Commissioner of Public Roads, Mr. C. D. Curtiss, which resulted in his agreeing to cooperative archaeological salvage projects on all construction by the Bureau of Public Roads. We may reasonably expect soon some directive to be issued by his office. The Bureau of Public Roads has further indicated that they will permit the cost of archaeological salvage conducted by state highway departments on Federal Aid projects to be considered as an acceptable item of construction costs and thus available for Federal Aid participation. This means that the Bureau of Public Roads will repay these expenses at the same ratio as the other construction costs for that project if requested by the state. This percentage varies from state to state, but in New Mexico it amounts to 64.02 percent. The decision should be of great assistance when seeking participation by other state highway departments.

These developments present a great challenge for archaeology, for the means are now available for promoting a nationwide program of conservation and salvage comparable, on the long view, to that undertaken in connection with the great river basin projects. Our country is about to embark on a vast program of accelerated highway construction, with consequent severe loss to our archaeological resources. With prompt and energetic action on our part, and reasonable respect for the problems and requirements of the highway and other agency officials, the loss to science resultant from this destruction would be unnecessary. The construction agencies have placed the responsibility squarely on our shoulders.

DR. JOHNSON: Have you any questions which you would like to ask Dr. Wendorf?

QUESTION FROM THE FLOOR: I would like to ask who pays the wages of these ten men that you get for two weeks?

DR. WENDORF: That depends on the project. It is paid by the construction agency. In the case of the State Highway Project, it is paid by the Highway Department, or Bureau project by the Bureau of Public Roads.

QUESTION FROM THE FLOOR: You said something is specified in the contract at the time it is let?

DR. WENDORF: In all the highway construction projects there is an item called "force accounts" in which these matters are covered. I would like to add here that in the cases where we have a particular emergency—right at the moment we are excavating a site on the Sandia Pueblo grant, a gravel pit—and the roadbed has already been done and this was a surfacing contract; they needed part of the gravel immediately after the contract was let, and this was in an area in which we wanted to work, so it was impossible for us to get our work done before the contractor arrived. In this instance, the State Highway department made it possible for the project engineer, who was notified about a month ahead of time, to hire labor for us. We have a crew of ten men and some use of heavy equipment.

DR. JOHNSON: Are there any further questions?

QUESTION FROM THE FLOOR: Yes, I wonder in regard to the expense of publication—is this publication actually put out by the Highway Department?

DR. WENDORF: This one was typed, paper supplied, et cetera, everything was done by the State Highway, except binding which was paid for by the Museum of New Mexico.

DR. HOLDER: I wonder if it would help you if requests for the publication—I certainly intend to send some—should go rather to you than to the State Highway Department, and to indicate to them how much interest there is in this sort of publication? Would it help you at all for requests to be directed to the State Highway Department?

DR. WENDORF: It might help if you expressed your appreciation, but the request for this should come to me—it would just be too much shuffling of letters.

DR. JOHNSON: Is there any further question?

DR. WEDEL: Yes, if there is a hundred billion program subsidized by the Federal Government, is this something that the Committee for Recovery is going to have to take up?

DR. JOHNSON: This matter has been discussed by members of the Committee and discussed also in meetings. I must admit that the whole idea fills me with horror. I'm getting old. I think there must be some organization, some kind of a coordinating organization such as the Committee, but it should be something—either an offshoot of this Committee or a separate organization, or at least there should be somebody else to do the work.

DR. HOLDER: Could I address a question to Mr. Lee? Will this, in principle, extend the Antiquities Act to potential federal property, that is to say, if a highway be planned through private property could this be an exten[s]ion of the principle you discussed?

MR. LEE: I find this instance extraordinarily interesting, and undoubtedly it wil be explored and pursued. Now, whether this participation of the Bureau of Public Roads with federal money was based on the fact that the land was federal land or whether it was based on the fact that it was on some other basis, I don't know, but it sounds like it was federal land and the Antiquities Act was the basis of their making the grant. The Bureau of Public Roads has a program of grants and aids for highway construction all over the country and some of those roads are on federal lands, some are on state lands, and some of them are on private lands. Well, they would all be on public lands of some kinds, but not necessarily federal.

DR. HOLDER: Yes, but if there are these potential dangers involved then the Society and/or the Committee perhaps should set up some sort of a subcommittee to act as a liaison between people like Mr. Lee, who has a knowledge of how things go in Washington, and Dr. Wendorf, who knows the situation in the field.

DR. JOHNSON: This is not a new idea to the Committee, I believe, it is just a question of when should this be done and when can it really begin going to work.

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