An interview with Chris Johnston, History Colorado’s new Assistant State Archaeologist

Chris Johnston
Assistant State Archaeologist Chris Johnston

History Colorado intern, University of Colorado-Denver student, and Koch Fellow Kirby Page-Schmit sat down with Chris Johnston, the new Assistant State Archaeologist, to ask him about his life, work, and plans for his new job.

So where are you from originally?

I’m from Colorado, I grew up in Steamboat Springs, and lived there most of my life. I moved down to the front range full time in 2006 or 2007.

What is your educational background?

I did my undergraduate at CU Boulder, with a BA in anthropology, and I did my masters up at CSU in Fort Collins, so I have an MA in anthropology as well, with a concentration in archaeology.


Can you talk a little about that distinction, anthropology vs. archaeology?

Sure. In different areas of the world, and even within North America, anthropology and archaeology are sometimes separate, sometimes combined. In most places in the United States, archaeology is considered a sub-discipline of anthropology, since we study people, even though most of the time they are dead people. We talk about what they did and how they lived their lives. In other places—Europe for instance—archaeology is often its own discipline. It is still archaeology and it is still a science, but it may be considered more like history in a way. But it still has some anthropological underpinnings.

When did you get your MA?

I officially  got my MA in May of 2016.

Chris at the Blackfoot Cave site in 2015 working with students from the CSU Archaeological Field School (funded in part by an SHF grant). Photo courtesy of Paleocultural Research Group.
Chris at the Blackfoot Cave site in 2015 working with students from the CSU Archaeological Field School (funded in part by an SHF grant). Photo courtesy of Paleocultural Research Group.

Congratulations!

Thanks! Yeah, I had finished coursework a few years prior to completing my thesis, but as many people will know, and often happens, I had to go out and work and support my family. My wife and I had a baby soon after I finished the coursework, so I got a job and took a long time to actually finish.

What is your work experience in the field of archaeology leading up to this job?

I’ve worked on many different facets of archaeology. I have worked for the public: the federal government, for the U.S. Forest Service, in Medicine Bow Routt National Forest out of Steamboat Springs. I put in an application, got the job, and got to go back home to survey the woods.

Was that as an archaeologist?

Yes. I was a field technician, so I did a lot of survey around the forest with the beetle kill. They were cutting down a lot of trees, so to mitigate those impacts, we surveyed and looked for archaeology opportunities before they did that.

Do you have a lot of field experience?

I do. I worked for a contracting firm in the private sector, but the bulk of my experience has been working in public archaeology at a non-profit research organization called Paleo-Cultural Research Group, or PCRG.  We would get grants, including some State Historical Fund grants from History Colorado, and do projects across the state.  

It was a lot of public archaeology, so we would find interesting research questions related to these research projects, get money, and then we would invite people to come participate in archaeology and get to experience it firsthand. And a lot of the people who volunteered on our projects were PAAC [Program for Avocational Archaeological Certification] members, which is a big component of my position now. So I got to interact with a lot of members of the public and do some outreach, and helped others experience archaeology. You can talk about it in a classroom, I can sit here and tell you about the difference between archaeology and anthropology, but once you get out and do it—put a trowel in the ground and move some dirt and handle some artifacts—it really comes alive. That was our focus.

Chris taking some photographs in the field. Courtesy Paleocultural Research Group.
Chris taking some photographs at the Chief Looking’s Village in North Dakota. Courtesy Paleocultural Research Group.

How did you end up here in this job?

That’s a good question. I was working for PCRG, and I saw the job posting for this come around, and I had the great fortune of knowing Kevin Black, who held this position before me for many years. I met him in 2010, and from the moment he started talking about his job and what he did here at History Colorado, I knew that that was something I would be really interested in doing, if and when he retired, which I knew was coming at some point. So yeah, I had an interest in this job for a while, and had worked a lot with public archaeology and presentations and whatnot, and I did a little bit of teaching lab work with a bunch of students. A fair bit, actually. So I applied, the stars aligned, and here I am.

Is there a certain sub-discipline of archaeology you focus on?

Yes, Plains [Great Plains] archaeology—in particular prehistoric and Native American archaeology in the mountain region.  That’s really where I have done most of my research, and where most of my interest lies.

Colorado is an amazing state for archaeology because we can come at it from so many different angles. We have the amazing and spectacular cultures down in the Southwest, with the pueblos and Mesa Verde. We have plains folks moving into the mountains, living in the mountains, we have Fremont groups in the northwest of the state. And so it is this intersection of many different cultural groups and traditions, all living in what now is the state, and all who may have known each other and interacted—and we have some evidence of that.

Colorado also has some of the oldest and most important sites in North America in terms of understanding the peopling of the Americas; how groups lived here—we have mammoth kills, we have a really important Folsom site called Lindenmeier. Folsom is Paleoindian, it is roughly 10,000 years ago. Pretty old. So we have this amazing breadth of archaeology and history that is really neat to be a part of.

Chris, in 2010, working on notes during an excavation of a high-altitude prehistoric camp site at the base of Uncompahgre Peak in the northern San Juans. Photo courtesy of Paleocultural Research Group.
Chris, in 2010, working on notes during an excavation of a high-altitude prehistoric camp site at the base of Uncompahgre Peak in the northern San Juans. Photo courtesy of Paleocultural Research Group.

 

And what was your thesis?

It was on the site called the Roberts Buffalo Jump. It’s late prehistoric—about 1600AD or so—and it’s where native folks drove bison over a cliff, so they gathered them up and pushed them towards this cliff and then started a stampede, and they went over the cliff fall. So it is a kill, butchering, processing site.

Where is it?

It’s in northern Larimer County, about 20 miles or so from the Wyoming border, near Highway 287. It is one of the most southernmost bison jumps. Most are in Montana or northern Wyoming, or Alberta.

What tribe used this jump?

We don’t know. That’s the other interesting piece of Colorado archaeology, especially right around the time we think contact happened. With the tribal histories, folks are moving in and out of the state and it is constantly  changing. We know who was here roughly around 1750 or so, but before that we don’t really know. It is one of the most-often asked questions and one of the hardest to answer, because there is no written history.

Can you give a brief overview of your duties as assistant state archaeologist?

There are two main components to my job. One is running a program called the Program for Advocational Archaeological Certification or PAAC. PAAC is a really unique and interesting program in that it serves multiple purposes: it acts as some outreach and interaction between our office [the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation] and members of the public. We coordinate with a group called the Colorado Archaeological Society (CAS).

So a big component of my job is running this program, and what it involves is going around the state to different CAS chapters and teaching classes that range from lithic analysis to artifact and field photography to surveying techniques and methods, excavation techniques and methods, archaeological practice in Colorado, and so on. There are thirteen different types of classes.

Folks can take these classes, however long it takes them—usually there are five or so taught each fall or each spring. Participants can get different levels of certification, and some then go and volunteer on projects with my old organization PCRG, or they can volunteer with CRM companies and get some practical experience, or they can just get the pleasure of knowing something about archaeology.

The other piece is doing permits. To work or collect artifacts on state land, you need to have a permit. I compile all that information to give to the state archaeologist [Holly Norton].

I have a question on something the public may not be aware of: the state archaeology office doesn’t do archaeological projects itself?

Exactly, this particular office—we don’t take on any active research projects. Some of us have little side things we do, write papers or do a little field work when we have time, but the office in general, no. It acts as public outreach and education, and also as a conduit for the professional community. When they are doing work on their site files they submit to us—it gets more complicated than I think anybody would actually care to know, but we work in partnership with the professional community in the state.  That is the dual role of our state office.

As someone who has worked in private, non-profit and government archaeology, what are some additional ways that people who are interested can get involved?

There are some really great lecture series that people can take part in. The Archaeology Institute of America (AIA) has a local series in the Denver area and maybe Boulder as well. Then CAS has chapters across the state. Most of those chapters organize monthly lectures by professional archaeologists or members who are a little more advanced and are doing interesting stuff. Most chapters do that between September and May. If you go to our website (OAHP) there is information as well. PCRG takes people with little to no experience. We also do a PAAC survey every summer, where people can go out and get experience.

Chris, (front) (foreground) in 2015 with Dr. Mark Mitchell, Research Director for Paleocultural Research Group, scouting excavations at the Late Prehistoric Dry Creek Site in Otero County. Photo courtesy of Paleocultural Research Group. (this doesn't show my face but I think it's a pretty cool shot).
Chris, (front) in 2015 with Dr. Mark Mitchell, Research Director for Paleocultural Research Group, scouting excavations at the Late Prehistoric Dry Creek Site in Otero County. Photo courtesy of Paleocultural Research Group.

 

Across the country and in Colorado , how is the evolution of technology changing the field of archaeology?

Technology is the driving force of all of those, I think. In remote sensing, it is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to do quick and efficient and relatively inexpensive mapping of areas for site documentation, and to assess different levels of impacts. That is on the fieldwork side.

There is also a digital curation side: digital museums, collections are being digitized to some degree with photogrammetric methods. There is a lot of neat stuff about that, creating 3D rendering of artifacts.

One of the downsides of archaeology is that we dig up a lot of this stuff, but then it just goes and sits on a shelf and no one gets to see it, making that more accessible is a big push.

Do you think all these technologies, especially with fieldwork, is taking away from traditional methods or serving as a supplement?

I see it more as a supplementation, because you can get LiDAR images—but LiDAR is not going to find flakes or artifacts, it is going to show you landscapes, so you can use those landscapes to do interpretation, especially right now in the Southwest and in South America. In our area you can map landscapes to direct your survey and be more efficient with the money that is being spent on archaeology, and we can try and make it the most cost effective and efficient as possible, to target more high probability areas. I see it more as working hand in hand, and not taking away from field work. But field work is expensive and it is a way to kind of mitigate that. I don’t think you will ever get away from traditional field work.

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