Move aside, Indiana Jones. UNLV students are making history come back to life by unearthing ancient sites across Nevada. With an emphasis on the practical over the theoretical, students in the Archaelogical Field Practicum course get down to earth (literally).
Though the course was put on pause because of the pandemic, it previously had students taking part in six-week long excavation projects in New Mexico and on the Shivwits Plateau near the Grand Canyon. Many students found it difficult to take so much time away from their other responsibilities, but the fieldwork experience had proved invaluable.
That's why professor Barbara Roth — after taking in feedback from students and alums — revived a Saturday field practicum started by her predecessors in the department of anthropology, Margaret Lyneis and Claude Warren. Roth also shifted the course's focus from excavating to surveying to build the skills currently most in demand.
So, how do students feel about the re-vamped archaeology course? Well, they're digging it.
Says anthropology major Anne Ostler, "This class has given me the opportunity to not only work in the field but to work alongside people whose actual profession is in anthropology and archeology. It has been very eye opening to see what jobs in archaeology are actually like and be able to ask questions to people who are currently working in that field.”
ARCH 448B: Field Practicum
This course offers hands-on experience in the field methods used by archaeologists. Students learn basic survey and mapping techniques, artifact identification, field documentation, and laboratory methods. These skills are applied at several Mojave Desert sites in the Valley of Fire and local areas around Las Vegas.
Who’s taking it?
UNLV students, both undergraduate and graduate, can take this course if they have taken Introduction to Archaeology. Students are recommended to also take a course on Archaeological Field Methods, though it is not a requirement for the practicum.
What are students saying?
“This course has helped to study a real life experience out in the field of anthropology using a variety of methods," says Gabrielle Link, a Fine Arts major with a minor in anthropology. "In class we learn to use everyday equipment to record human activity from the past towards the present. The experience has taught me a lot about the process to find a location and how much time it takes to record pieces of different human behavior. My favorite memory is going out to the field learning to work alongside others using analytic skills and several maps to understand why people stayed in the area.”
“If you're considering pursuing a career in archaeology," says Lisa Ducale, anthropology major with a minor in human services, "then taking the field class is a must-do. It offers a fantastic opportunity to gain hands-on experience and deepen your understanding of being an archaeologist. In addition, the professors leading the class are highly knowledgeable and dedicated to ensuring you comprehend the material. Overall, I really enjoyed this class!”
Who’s teaching it?
This class is a collaborative effort between UNLV, College of Southern Nevada (CSN), Nevada State Parks, and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
Roth served as chair of anthropology at UNLV from 2012-18 and is a long-time field archeologist. Her research focuses on hunger-gatherer adaptations to arid environments in the Southwest. In this course, Roth teaches students how to make accurate records — a vital skill for every archaeologist.
Andrew McCarthy is an archeology professor at CSN. He teaches students how to do broader skill surveys. From the SHPO, Samatha Rubinson teaches students how to record rock art. While the class is not team taught, each collaborator teaches students certain archaeological surveying techniques.
How does it work
Classes are held once a week on Saturdays. The first three weeks are held in a classroom and the rest of the semester are field experiences. Students work at Atlatl Rock in the Valley of Fire, Spring Mountain State Park, Stump Springs, and more to hone their surveying skills.
What students might be surprised to learn
"Many students are surprised to learn just how physically demanding archaeological field work is, on top of the mental work of identifying and recording artifacts," says Roth. "The prolonged exposure to the elements is often surprising to experience, too."
What excites instructors the most about this class
While the work is tough, Roth says it’s all worth it when the students make findings. “The other day we found this really nice artifact and several fire roasting pits. These hunter-gatherers were not living in the Valley of Fire, but they were coming up seasonally to hunt bighorn sheep. We could really talk about what people were doing. And the first two times we were out there, we had live bighorn sheep come nearby,” recalls Roth.
What even laypeople would gain from this course
Appreciating the past. Roth often challenges her students to consider what they would do if they were a hunter gatherer to better appreciate the sites and situations they’re uncovering. She also stresses the generational significance of the landscapes they visit. Most of the areas they work in are very sacred to indigenous tribes.
Where do students go next?
This course also touches on the career opportunities for budding archaeologists. Archaeology students often go into a field called cultural resource management, which is a type of applied archaeology. Most work at a government agency or a private contract firm after graduating. Some students also realize that while they love the field of archaeology, they don’t love being in fields of dirt. Realizing their preferences and goals while still being in school gives students time to find out which specialities are for them — whether it be fieldwork, lab work, compliance law, and much more.
The reading list
Archaeology as a whole has a representation problem in media, Roth explains. "You've either got Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or you've got textbooks."
Instead of watching or reading about archaeology, Roth suggests going outside and visiting the Lost City Museum, the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, and, of course, Nevada State Parks.