Sunday, December 10, 2017

Oil boom breeds archeology boom, too

Drilling crews are eager to plunge their equipment into the ground. Road builders are ready to start highway projects, and construction workers need to dig.

But across the hyperactive oil fields of North Dakota, these and other groups have to wait for another team of specialists known for slow, meticulous study: archaeologists.

They are the experts who must survey the land before a single spade of dirt can be turned, a requirement that has produced a rare jobs bonanza in a field that forces many highly educated professionals to hop from project to project around the world and still struggle to make a living.

Without the oil boom, a lot of young archaeologists might "never get the experience," said Tim Dodson, who endured a long job search before finding work overseas and later coming to North Dakota.

The positions also come with a constant tension: The archaeologists are trained to find evidence of the past, but the companies that pay them would prefer not to turn up anything that gets in the way of profits.

Archaeological surveys are intended to protect any historical treasures that might lie buried atop the region's oil and natural gas deposits. Although not required on all oil projects, they are a mandate for most federal drilling permits.

The work involves inspecting a site for any artifacts or evidence of past human habitation and cataloging the effort. If significant discoveries emerge, most oil companies will change plans to avoid the hassle of drilling in a sensitive area.

Long before the oil boom, previous archaeological digs uncovered a nearly complete duck-billed dinosaur fossil with skin, bones and tendons preserved in sandstone. Other excavations have focused on old trading posts, military forts and battlefields, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

With more archaeologists working in the oil fields, the number of historic sites in North Dakota jumped from 846 in 2009 to nearly 2,260 in 2013, the state's Historic Preservation Office said. Those sites include forgotten settler cemeteries with graves marked in foreign languages, abandoned homesteader farms and stone circles put in place by American Indians thousands of years ago.

"A lot of that wouldn't be happening without the boom," said Richard Rothaus, an archaeologist who heads Trefoil Cultural and Environmental Heritage.

No one in the field keeps track of exact archaeology employment numbers, but the oil boom has almost certainly expanded the ranks of North Dakota archaeologists from as few as a few dozen to several hundred, if not more.

For instance, the Bismarck office of Metcalf Archaeological Consultants has roughly doubled in size every year for the past three years, according to Damita Engel, regional director of operations at the firm, which is based in Colorado. Three years ago, they had 10 to 12 employees. Now they have 53.

"And we're still hiring," Engel said.

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