The ‘Middle of Everywhere’: Archaeology in the Great Basin

Story and photos by Lauren di Scipio Kinsner

Research Associate, Archaeology
Based in the Bureau of Land Management Battle Mountain Field Office, Nevada.

As an archaeologist and part of the BLM’s cultural team, I spend my days pretty much 50/50 in the field executing cultural surveys and monitoring, then at my desk doing things such as research, GIS mapping, reviewing/writing cultural reports, managing the database. Some days I am in the mud and pouring rain, or blazing sun, some days high up on a peak or in the flatlands (some days all of those kinds of places and conditions in eight hours!). Other days I am in front of the computer all day, building a database or reviewing cultural reports for Federal and State Historic Preservation Office compliance.

Only four percent of the Battle Mountain District’s 10 million acres (15,625 square miles!) has been surveyed for pre-historic and historic non-renewable resources. The cultural team’s job is to monitor the  four percent, survey and record the other 96 percent, adhering to federal regulations and protocols to ensure their archiving and protection. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) regulations can trigger investigations into situations of looting, vandalism and theft on public land. Mining, ranching and agricultural use can generate non-compliance issues that may affect cultural resources. And Tribal concerns and informing the general public via outreach and on-going communication are always of paramount concern.

Pony express_ldiscipioLooking north at Bean Flat and Kobeh Valley, where the Pony Express trail runs through, from east to west (and west to east, LOL!). This portion of the Pony Express trail was considered the most remote, the frontier, because it was midway between Carson City and Salt Lake City, and there were many skirmishes with the Shoshone here in our district. As you can see, it still retains the look and feeling of what Henry Streeper, the rider of this leg, saw when he rode through.

My work includes reviewing and writing cultural reports, drafts of management plans, cultural resource inventory assessment reports, ArcGIS mapping, etc., which are all part of the federal record relating to protecting our public lands.

The Great Basin has gone thru huge changes over time, and many people have adapted and thrived in this area. During the late Ice Age, camels lived near what is now Pyramid Lake, near Reno. There were huge glaciers at the tall peaks, and huge lakes submerged Death Valley and the Great Salt lake Desert. The Great Basin covers over 200,000 square miles, from the Sierra Nevada range to the Colorado Plateau. Precipitation that falls drains neither to the Atlantic nor Pacific.  As Mark Twain wrote in his book Roughing It: “There are several rivers in Nevada and they all have a mysterious fate…”

The modern climate of the Great Basin helps preserve sites and artifacts, but the many uses of the land can endanger the cultural resources.  We evaluate and record any areas that will be a part of an undertaking, and protect significant, contributing cultural resources, to be sure those tiny pieces of the big puzzle are included in context and not lost to disturbance.

Toquima Cave-11_150Toquima Cave, in central Nevada’s Toquima Range, was a summer hunting base (it is located at altitude), not a habitation site, for pre-historic peoples in this region. The interpretation of these symbols is up in the air, but hunting and water sources is/are usually the gist. Western Shoshone diagnostic artifacts documented at the site date to at least 2,000 years before present. The cave has probably been used as a shelter for humans and animals for many years before that.

The clues and artifacts found thru archaeology give context to human populations in the Great Basin and help us appreciate our heritage, whether we are Shoshone with ancestral roots here, or a white chick from Connecticut (me!) who arrived a few years ago. The history in our district is a significant part of the expansion of the old West via the Overland and Emigrant Trails, Pony Express, railroads, mining, ranching and farming (all found in this district). Before these events, pre-historic inhabitants lived in the Basin for thousands of years, uniquely adapted to the changing landscape and climate. Signs of all of this are all around.

What are some of the high points and low points? A high point is finding a site that has never been recorded with diagnostic artifacts such as arrow heads and tools, cut nails, historic architecture. I love the wide open spaces, that I can drive for two hours and not glimpse another car, person and very few structures. But I do see eagles, pronghorn antelope, wild mustangs, rattlesnakes, elk, deer, lions, big horn sheep … natural springs and hot pools, sand dunes, wild flowers, Pony Express stations, ox shoes from the Emigrants wagons and graves. It is a truly breathtaking place. I call it the ‘middle of everywhere.’ From the main roads, it looks vast and blank, but the closer you look, and the more you venture into canyons and gullies, the more you will discover secret places, like oases, streams, hot springs, lush plants and flowers, and all sorts of animals and cultural sites. It’s a pretty amazing place to work.

Often, I have the opportunity to meet and work in the field with the people who use the public lands in our district, such as the ranchers and miners. They always provide valuable information that is not really available otherwise. These are the people who use the land, often for generations. When they share their knowledge of the land and local history, it is always fascinating to me. I feel lucky to be here learning more and more about the Great Basin.

Low points include getting flat tires on the rugged roads and not being able to get access to some of the most remote regions. And seeing looted or vandalized sites is always very disturbing.

Diana's Punchbowl, Monitor Valley, NV-5_150Diana’s Punchbowl is an active, geothermal feature located on a small fault in central Nevada. Located about 30 feet down in a perfectly round crater on a small hill, the azure-colored pool is boiling hot. A small stream runs north from the south side of the travertine hill. Locals report that the level never drops and remains constant, regardless of rain or drought. I think this site is a good example of the solitude, remote nature and the surprises that this district holds.

Any interesting surprises or discoveries? Yes. The grave of two Pony Express station keepers who were shot with arrows by Shoshone, and an unrecorded horse trap from circa 1860.

Does this project challenge your knowledge and experience? How? This project challenges me to master the federal regulations and protocols required for such work on public lands.

GBI is a great resource for those who want to gain experience in this amazing region, and other places in the west, and work with hardworking, resourceful, adventurous people who all love the wilderness and learning more about and protecting our resources, with the strong support and guidance of GBI staff, and I challenge anyone who is interested to jump in and give it a try!  I highly recommend the book Roughing It by Mark Twain for an entertaining, first-person account of travels through the Great Basin during the Gold Rush and the expansion of the Old West.

One Comment

  • Ellen Crawford says:

    I love Toquima Cave. As an archaeologist in the Great Basin in the 1970s, we built our databases for cultural reports on Fortran punch cards. Thank you for this article!

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