For thousands of years people have called what is now Oklahoma home. Its natural history has shaped their way of life. Its lands and animals have undergone many changes, and underneath its soils are priceless treasures waiting to be unearthed for study.
Among those charged in the safekeeping of these yet unearthed artifacts are a few dedicated and highly trained Chickasaw Nation technicians.
Four workers within the Chickasaw Nation Environmental Services Department are licensed by the federal government as heritage resource technicians. Heritage resource technicians oversee archeology surveys in the field, record potential archeological sites and safely catalog and store finds.
Archeological surveys are important for many reasons. They are used to learn about the natural and diverse cultural history of the area.
Original Native Americans who lived in what is now Oklahoma did not have a written history, and many Native Americans relocated from the east did not read or write. Much of what historians know of these people and how they lived has literally been dug up from the earth.
More than 20 archeological surveys are conducted each year by the Chickasaw Nation within its boundaries. These surveys preserve the cultural heritage and natural history of its lands, according to tribal environmental specialist Brandon Prince.
“We conduct archeological surveys and environmental impact studies whenever we have ground disturbances caused by tribal construction,” Prince said. “Before heavy equipment is brought into a work site, we test to make sure impact will be minimal and we aren’t disturbing potential archaeological sites.”
Chickasaw construction projects include building new homes, running underground utility lines, road projects and improvements to existing structures.
“By far the most archeological surveys we do each year is for new houses,” Prince said. “Septic tanks and storm shelters also have surveys done, even on previously developed properties. They are the easiest and quickest to get done because of the smaller impact area.”
The processes and tools involved in the surveys are time consuming and costly. But for this investment, much can be saved by the tribe and its partners.
“Surveys are done before the first phase of construction, during the planning period, environmental specialist Ambrie Johnson said. “This makes sure our projects can be completed timely. Bigger projects may involve many contractors and organizations. Time lines are involved. If we have to stop construction for archeological purposes, that is expensive to everyone involved.”
Once an archeological survey is complete, construction can begin.
Since 2004, many artifacts have been discovered, catalogued, studied and preserved for future generations. These have included bird point arrowheads, ancient fire pits, 19th century buttons, stone scrapers and numerous fossils.
“Some of our best finds came from near the Ardmore airport a few years ago,” Prince said. “It was a month-long dig. Artifacts were found that dated to 1850 to mid-1860s. It was exciting to be a part of.”
Recently, technicians conducted an archeological survey that uncovered a large, rare prehistoric mollusk fossil. It was an important find related to Oklahoma’s natural history. It was taken to the University of Oklahoma for dating and further study.
“The fossil I found was huge,” environmental technician Joey Seeley said. “I was walking down a gully and looked up and there it was, stuck in the wall of the creek bed. It was amazing. The recent rains partially exposed it.”
About archeological surveys conducted by the Chickasaw Nation
The archeological surveys conducted by tribal heritage resource technicians follow a precise set of guidelines and procedures. Conducted in the first phase of new construction, letters are sent to various state and federal organizations to inform them of potential finds.
These include the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office, Oklahoma Archeological Survey sponsored by the University of Oklahoma, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, among others.
The Chickasaw Nation receives similar letters from groups conducting archeological surveys, both from within the tribal homelands and in Oklahoma.
The archeological survey most often used is known as the “shovel test pit method.” The shovel test pit method is efficient for sites with unknown archeological importance. When a site has been selected, a sampling of the area is conducted. Test pits are dug in a grid like pattern of distances of up to 30 meters, but these pits can be spaced shorter depending on individual circumstances.
“Sometimes we test long stretches of ground and space our test pits up to 30 meters between each,” Prince said. “Other times we may be at smaller sites for a storm shelter. Those receive test holes at the corners and center of where the digging with take place.”
Once a test pit is dug, its location is marked by a Global Positioning System. Photographs of the area are taken for future reference. Sample soil is filtered by hand using a large sifter. If artifacts are found within the material, they are collected and logged to the individual pit. The soil is then replaced with minimal disruption to the area and the technicians move on to the next grid position to repeat the process.
When field work is completed, reports are written about the findings of the site. These are sent to a contracted archeologist. The independent archeologist makes recommendations whether construction plans should proceed or further study of the area should be taken based on the field reports.