. Scientific Frontline: Preserving the past

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Preserving the past

Christina Chavez is Sandia National Laboratories’ first full-time archaeologist. She established the Labs’ cultural resources program within the Environment, Safety and Health group.
Photo by Bret Latter

When archaeologist Christina Chavez surveys Sandia National Laboratories land and finds rusted tobacco tins, ceramic fragments, glass shards or rocks resting in deliberate formations, she documents and determines who at the Labs needs to know.

“Archaeological resources are all around us, and even if most people don’t see them, there’s still a potential that they’re there,” Chavez said.

Chavez, the Labs’ first full-time archaeologist, works with teams throughout Sandia to ensure the U.S. Department of Energy remains in compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Established in 1966, the act requires federal agencies to consider the effects on historic properties when carrying out or funding projects. For Sandia, projects can mean anything from construction to an experiment or explosion taking place in remote areas.

“Together, we stay in compliance and protect and preserve cultural resources. That’s huge,” Chavez said. “When I meet with groups and organizations, they learn we have a responsibility. I enjoy seeing when they take pleasure in knowing about cultural resources and recognize that they are some of the keepers of the past.”

Cultural sites Chavez surveys by foot are recorded and submitted to state historic databases that archeologists use. Sandia has sites in New Mexico spanning four major cultural temporal periods dating between 10000 B.C. and the mid-1900s, Chavez said. More recent historic sites are likely associated with military use.

Pick it up, put it back

Christina Chavez, third from right, works with teams throughout Sandia National Laboratories to consider effects on historic properties when carrying out or funding projects.
Photo by Bret Latter

Chavez works in the cultural resource program she established within Sandia’s Environment, Safety and Health group that ensures safety and environmental compliance and stewardship while supporting the success of the Labs and community. She also works closely with the Labs’ historian, Rebecca Ullrich, who said Chavez’s impact has made a big difference.

“I can tell you all kinds of things about Sandia’s history and how it’s represented in the built environment and what is significant about that, but I cannot look at a site and tell you anything about it archaeologically,” Ullrich said.

Chavez significantly expanded cultural resources investigations and the opportunity for preservation at Sandia, and she does it in a way that makes others interested, Ullrich said.

“She brings the cool factor,” Ullrich said. “Her work is so interesting and that overcomes a lot of the resistance to any kind of compliance that might delay a project. Her ability to explain what’s going on, why it matters and what she finds fascinates people.”

After she was hired in 2018, one of Chavez’s first big land surveys took place on Sandia’s Robotics Vehicle Range, which spans more than 300 acres. After documenting what she found, she worked with Robotics Manager Jake Deuel, so he could better understand areas the team should avoid during field work.

“Christina and I came back and started talking,” Deuel said. “I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of what was on this site before us.”

In the past, there had been frustration when the team was told to avoid certain areas, but they weren’t told why or where they were. While Chavez is firm that some sites and artifacts need to remain on a need-to-know basis, she also works hard to bridge understanding between her job and the work of Sandia engineers.

“I want organizations across the Labs to understand that it’s doable. We can work together and come up with a really cool reputation together and enhance the reputation of Sandia,” Chavez said. “It’s a huge responsibility, but I think it’s quite flattering at the same time to be able to say we’re doing our best. We’re doing our due diligence to protect cultural resources and lands.”

Deuel worked with Chavez to set up a short field trip, and she was able to educate the robotics team about the archaeological sites in the area. They drove to remote areas, parked cars on dirt roads and walked to locations where Chavez previously noted pottery, glass and other artifacts. Team members picked up pieces, enthusiastically showed them to each other, turned them between their fingers, admired the colors and shapes, then placed them back on the ground.

During a tour with a group of Sandia National Laboratories employees, archaeologist Christina Chavez shared that a site dates to the early 1900s due to purple glass found in the area. During the early 20th century, glass was tempered using the element Manganese, which turns purple after many years of being exposed to the sun. This color of the glass reveals the estimated timeframe when the glass was produced and left in the area.
Photo by Bret Latter

“I’m all for education and teaching people about all of these things,” Chavez said. “You can pick up pieces of pottery and glass and look at them, but make sure you put them back because once these things get picked up and not returned, we lose that context of where they came from and what they’re associated with. Once you pick them up and take them out, they lose meaning in a lot of ways.”

As the team examined a rusty tobacco tin, pieces of a Mason jar and part of a teacup at a historic homestead Chavez showed them, she explained that people probably lived there around 1920. When asked how she estimates time periods, she said certain items reveal time periods based on how they were made and changed.

“I associate time periods with artifacts,” she said. “For example, in the early 1900s, glass was tempered using a chemical reaction and over time as the glass sits in the sun, it turns purple. When we find purple glass, we can date the site to that time period.”

For prehistoric and archaic sites, pottery and arrowheads are diagnostic, Chavez said, and Sandia has many sites from those time periods, too.

“The land we’re on — Sandia’s been here since 1945 but a whole lot of other people were here before that doing very different kinds of things,” Ullrich said. “Having an understanding of the place that we’re in and its overall history is very important.”

‘I’ve never looked back’

Always interested in science, Chavez started college wanting to be a doctor but changed paths after taking an introduction to anthropology course her freshman year at New Mexico State University. The following summer, she participated in an archeological field school offered by the university and spent months camping with other students and instructors near the Mexican border where they excavated a 300-room pueblo.

“I fell in love with everything we did,” she said. “I was outside learning and excavating, and I’ve never looked back since.”

Chavez completed a master’s degree immediately after completing an undergraduate program, then worked at Fort Bliss Military Installation in El Paso and later worked on White Sands Missile Range. Chavez also worked as a consultant and contractor for several years prior to coming to Sandia. Her passion for history and archaeology extends far beyond work, and if she had any advice for the public when they come across artifacts in the wild, her advice would be to leave those traces of history behind.

“Look at it, take pictures of it and then leave it,” she said. “Then we can better know our lands and their histories.”

To learn more, visit the Coyote Canyon page on the Labs’ historic Cultural Resources website that lists some of Sandia’s historic properties.

Source/Credit: Sandia National Laboratories


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