When people find out that Christy Rickers is an archaeologist, they often think of Indiana Jones.
“Or they think of paleontology, which is dinosaurs, or geology, which is rocks,” Rickers said.
Archaeology is instead the study of human history and prehistory through excavation and examination of artifacts and other physical remains.
Rickers is the individual who gets the call when concerns are raised that a western Iowa construction project might disturb evidence from a prehistoric site.
“It’s basically contract archaeology,” she said.
Her work takes place under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
“That says, prior to any sort of construction that is either funded or permitted by a government agency, which can be state or federal, they need to go out and do a survey and make sure there aren’t any significant cultural or archaeological sites that are going to be destroyed,” Rickers said. “That’s what I do.”
Rickers is a 1985 Ar-We-Va High School graduate; she has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Iowa State University (ISU) and a master’s degree in archaeology from the University of Minnesota.
Her first archaeology job after graduation from ISU was with the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist.
“I worked another summer there and for a short while after grad school,” she said.
Rickers worked as an archaeologist in Minnesota, Montana, and at the Illinois State Museum before returning to Iowa 15 years ago.
She lives and works on the family farm, which is about seven miles northeast of Vail.
“When they (the Office of the State Archaeologist) found out I was back in Iowa, they asked if I could do some small projects for them in western Iowa, as it was closer for me.”
She works hourly when she is called to investigate the land for projects such as cell or radio towers that are being planned.
“They send somebody out to make sure that if they build a tower there isn’t going to be a site that gets destroyed,” Rickers said. “I do my survey work and I find whether or not there is a site there. If there is a site and I do find something, then there is a decision-making process.”
If the site is determined to be potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, then a determination must be made about whether more investigation must take place.
“The contractor can decide if they want to pay money to have more archaeology work done or if they want to scrap the site and find somewhere else to build,” she said.
Areas that show signs of prehistoric habitation are what Rickers and other archaeologists find to be the most interesting and important to investigate.
“A place where they (Native Americans) were living and cooking is usually a good place where we can find a lot of information that we don’t already have,” she said. “If we’re looking at just a little campsite where they knocked a couple of rocks together and were there one night, that’s not so interesting.”
A briefly-inhabited site would likely not be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but a large habitation area might be, she said.
If a prehistoric site is discovered and the construction project is not one that can easily be relocated, the owner or developer may choose to pay to have the site thoroughly investigated.
“We would dig and get a sample of a good chunk of the area to get as much research about what these people were doing, and then they can go ahead with their project,” Rickers said. “If they find a burial site, that is usually something they want to avoid. It’s kind of a decision made by the people paying for the contract.”
Last fall she was called to excavate an area near the Rocky Run Creek bridge over Highway 30.
“In 1993 they found something eight feet down on the west side of the creek,” Rickers said.
A survey was conducted at that time before Highway 30 was widened.
“They’re going to redo that bridge, so we came back to do some more work,” Rickers said.
She and the team from the Office of the State Archaeologist were unable to locate the original site.
“So we went to the other side, did some surveying and found a new site four feet down,” she said.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but we found some chips of rock that were flakes of rock that come off while they were making stone tools, and we found a little corner piece off of a tool. It wasn’t enough for us to know what kind of tool.”
A piece of fire-cracked rock (FCR) was also discovered.
“FCR is produced when a rock that is in a fire cracks from the high heat,” Rickers said.
The Iowa DOT will decide if the new site can be avoided during construction or if additional archaeology is required.
Rickers averages about six archaeological projects per year.
“Most of the projects that they give me are small cell tower surveys and I can usually get them done in one day,” she said.
The work usually takes place only during moderate weather.
“The work we did over by Rocky Run was pushing it late in the year,” Rickers said. “We were working between snowstorms and normally the ground needs to be unfrozen.”
She said a site in Montana was the most interesting one she has investigated.
“I was working on a site where they (Native Americans) had killed bison nearby and the area was where they were processing the bison, meaning they were butchering them, cooking and scraping down the hides,” she said. “That was pretty interesting.”
In Iowa she found axe heads and burn pits where natives likely had campfires.
Rickers said what she is doing is exactly what she wanted to do with her degrees.
“I’m very fortunate that I get to work in what I went to school for,” she said.
“I get to go investigate a little corner of the world and, even if I don’t find anything, I usually do some background research, look at old maps and look at what the soils are. I learn a little something about this little corner of the world and I find that very gratifying.”