The West is littered with cultural artifacts of Native American peoples—pueblo ruins, petroglyph panels, tool-making sites, and plenty of others.
There are hundreds of these sites that are well-known and publicly interpreted, usually in national parks, state parks, national forests, or on other public lands.
And then there are a host of other ruins and sites that aren’t publicized, but—especially in the age of the Internet—are still easily located with some basic research.
And then there are the secret sites. The confidential ones. These aren’t the ones you’ll find listed in guidebooks or on a blog post, and they may not even be well known by the land managers themselves. Their locations are often obscured, even in archaeological literature.
How to find the secret sites
There is a way to learn of these secret sites, however. It requires a bit of work, but it’s very rewarding and educational. And you’ll be giving back to the public lands you love. Here’s how:
Become a site steward.
Site stewardship is a relatively new phenomena on or public lands, but it’s a powerful one. It’s one of the most rewarding volunteer opportunities I’ve participated in.
What does a site steward do?
Simply put, a site steward is a trained volunteer that monitors a specific set of archaeological resources. They regularly visit the sites in their portfolio, looking for the signs of damage and trying to head off future negative impacts. They serve as the eyes and ears of land managers who are often understaffed and increasingly office-bound.
The benefits of being a site steward
The main benefits of being a site steward come down to two words: access and knowledge.
Site stewards are not only given detailed information about the archaeological sites they monitor, but also learn about many other sites in the program. In addition, archaeologists often utilize site stewards in special projects, everything from inventorying areas for artifacts to helping to record rock art to conducting research.
In addition, strong communities often form around the programs, providing some serious opportunities for networking and learning.
When you’re accepted in a site steward program, you’ll receive some basic training. Here in Arizona, that means a half-day of classroom instruction followed by a half-day field visit.
In addition, there are annual site steward conferences, plus other archaeology conferences and other special events. All together, these educational opportunities will completely expand and enhance the way you recreate on our public lands.
Site steward programs
No site steward program in your state?
Not every state has a statewide site stewardship program, but some states not listed above have partial programs. You can also contact one of the federal land managers, such as the US Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, to see if they have active programs in your area.
If you still aren’t having any luck, don’t despair. Para-archaeologist organizations like the Arizona Archaeological Society offer similar training, networking, and volunteer opportunities. You can attend conferences and guided trips with organizations such as the Utah Rock Art Research Association and American Rock Art Research Association. And other organizations, like Archaeology Southwest, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center advocate on behalf of cultural resources on public lands and have a variety of programs to get involved. A few google searches will likely find a similar organization in your neck of the woods.
The photo of “Hidden Bird” petroglyph site in Agua Fria National Monument, which is monitored by the Arizona Site Steward volunteers, is courtesy of the stellar Bob Wick of BLM.