What is Sacred Space?

Sacred sites are not unusual in religious traditions throughout the world, but the concept ofsacred spaceencompasses a much broader perspective. As the late Upper Sioux tribal elder, educator, and historian Tom Ross once said, one way to understand it is to think of the sacred as being everywhere, but like rain, it tends to pool in certain spots. Thus, there are places on the landscape that become the locus for some special human experience. A powerful locale that may embrace a range of elements: great architecture, ancient temples, geography, terrain, spiritual beliefs, community stories, to name a few. But ultimately, it is a unique place that speaks to each individual person on some intimate level, a space where you step out of your analytical mind and open your heart to an experience. It stirs feelings that range from breathtaking to overpowering.

Although this may sound a bit “new age” to some,  the basic tenets serve as a point of reference. My years of experience in cultural resource management have given me an understanding and an appreciation of the concept of “sacred space.” As a society we tend to categorize and segment such topics into the secular and the spiritual, but in truth they intermingle. This is especially true for many cultures around the world. For example, to the Native American, the entire world is full of sacred purpose and being. Everything is connected. The Earth is the Mother. Her stones, rivers, and landscapes nurture the plants and animals they depend upon for sustenance. The yearly cycles are all part of the sacred circle of life that is essential to our very existence. Thus, all aspects of the landscape are revered and every space is sacred. However, as Ross pointed out, there are certain especially important sites to be revered, remembered, and continually honored.

It’s a perspective about which volumes have been written and a topic that speaks in varied ways to a great many people. One that can’t easily be paired down to a simple blog so today my intent is more of a thoughtful pondering based on an alarming email that showed up in my inbox yesterday morning. It seems that the US Congress is considering a series of bills in which our most treasured public lands and wild places could soon go up for sale. If passed, these bills would allow states to take control of federal lands — including up to 2 million acres of national forests — and auction it off for mining, clear-cut logging, drilling and road construction, with no regard for archeological or environmental protection. That was startling enough, but today I heard of yet another proposed bill that would allow uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. That we would even consider such things raised my hackles.


From an ecological and a cultural perspective, there are some places on Earth that are so special they are worth saving and protecting.  For several years, I did field work in the American Southwest and know first-hand how important it is to protect our cultural heritage and our natural landscapes. More recently, I took a morning train ride through the Santa Cruz Coastal Redwood Forest. I found myself in awe of these magnificent trees. Traveling via an old steam train, we followed narrow tracks that wound their way up the side of a mountain through immense stands of this old growth forest. With every turn of the wheels, the peaceful beauty of this special place settled over me. One of the few remaining virgin stands of coastal redwoods, the property we were traversing had once been part of The Big Trees Ranch, purchased in 1867 by San Francisco businessman Joseph Warren Welch in an effort to protect and preserve the giant redwood trees from logging. In 1930, the Welch family sold part of the property to Santa Cruz County, which eventually became part of the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Science tells us that Sequoia species were once widespread across the North American hemisphere and along the coasts of Europe and Asia. Today, however, only three species survive: the giant sequoia and the coast redwood in California and the dawn redwood in the remote areas of Southwest China. The coast Redwoods of California and the giant sequoia are some of the tallest trees on Earth. They can grow to over 300 feet in height, with trunk diameters between 8 and 20 feet. They are truly magnificent. To stand below one and look up is an awe-inspiring experience.

I can only speak to what they look like today, but their story is one that begins long before written records. Officially, the oldest living coast redwood is at least 2,200 years old, but foresters believe some may be much older. If we were to give in to the economic interests and clear–cut large portions of our remaining redwoods, it would take centuries to fully renew the forest, even if we to plant new trees. In every sense of the word, the Redwood forests of California are sacred natural landscapes that connect people to the peace and beauty of their surroundings. How can we place a monetary value on such a sacred space? They, like the natural beauty of all our parks, need to be preserved for all people to enjoy.

You can read more about the history and archeology of the Grand Canyon by going to: https://www.nps.gov/grca/learn/historyculture/archeology-along-the-colorado-river-video.htm

To read more about Native American perspectives on sacred lands, the following article is provides a good assessment of some of the issues: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/01/16/challenge-protecting-sacred-land-146984

If you’d like to glimpse of the world through Native American eyes, this outstanding collection of essays provides some real insights.


To discover some of nature’s spectacular locales, I invite you to spend a few evenings watching “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” a six-part, 12-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and his longtime colleague Dayton Duncan on the history and development of America s national parks.


To learn more about the cultural, political, and natural history of California’s  Redwood National Parks, the following book is an excellent source.


If you’d like more interesting facts about the giant redwoods, take a look at: http://santacruz.hilltromper.com/article/ten-amazing-facts-about-redwoods

If you are interested in helping to protect and restore redwood forests, this organization was founded in 1918 and their science–based Master Plan for the Redwoods guides their efforts to protect and restore redwood forests.  http://www.savetheredwoods.org/

Another organization that helps to protect sacred places and cultural diversity around the world is Earth Island Institute’s Sacred Land Film Project. Founded in 1984,  this organization has produced a variety of media and educational materials — films, videos, DVDs, articles, photographs, reports, school curricula materials and Web content — directed at deepening public understanding of sacred places and indigenous cultures.  http://www.sacredland.org/




Archeology isn’t just a job…it’s a sensory experience

Archeology isn’t just a job; it’s a sensory experience. The work takes place in diverse environments that range from the dry heat of the desert to the stifling humidity of the coast. You endure weather conditions that are frequently less than optimum—hot and dusty in the summer, rainy in the spring and fall, and cold in the winter. Field work is definitely not for the faint-of-heart, but it is an experience you never forget and not just because of its physical challenges. It broadens you in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Not only do you experience the excitement of finding new sites and shedding light on past cultures, it puts you in touch with who you are at a basic level. Living for six weeks in a tent in the desert teaches you to appreciate all those mundane creature comforts you take for granted like a flush-toilet and a hot shower. It makes you realize just how good you have it in your everyday life.

At its heart, archeology is a profession that engages all our senses. Some, like smell and taste, come into play in a peripheral way, such as the smell of decaying leaves on a forest floor or the stale odor of brackish water. It’s the taste of sand in your mouth and a simple appreciation for the lukewarm water in your canteen that washes it out.

Hearing comes into play in a number of ways. Scary sounds that alert you to danger such as a sudden rattling in the weeds ahead that freezes you in place. It’s also the grating crunch of your shovel as it slices through a matt of roots or the scraping noise your trowel makes when it encounters an object other than dirt.

For an archeologist, sight and touch are probably the most critical senses. Good powers of observation are essential. You learn what to look for on the landscape such as old foundation supports, mounds of rocks arranged in a unusual way, or changes in topography that denote high probability areas for sites. You develop what’s called “a good eye” or the ability to differentiate artifacts from natural objects while sifting through dirt excavated from a test pit. In essence, you hone your “second sight” or your capacity to see subtle differences such as the wear patterns that distinguish a natural looking rock from a ground stone (see Photo 1) or a chipped stone (see Photo 2) artifact.


The work we do in archeology is very tactile. We touch everything—the dirt or sand we’re digging in, all types of debris such as leaves, roots, animal bones, shell, rocks, broken glass, and rusty metal (hence, the need for routine tetanus shots). This tactile sense along with our powers of observation helps us to differentiate the artifacts from the natural objects. For example, it’s the look and feel of a fragment of earthenware pottery that distinguishes it from a chunk of raw clay or a small piece of sandstone (see Photo 3).

Pottery Sherds

Ultimately, when archeologists tap into their five senses they open windows to our past. Interesting, but why should we care? Because our heritage is a national asset of incomparable value that brings inspiration, knowledge, and pleasure to so many. Each time we visit a national monument such as the Arizona Battleship Memorial or an archeological site such as Colonial Williamsburg we are connected to our history in a very tangible way. Understanding where we came from and how we got to where we are gives a strong sense of our place in the world.

Our nation’s historic places and archeological sites reveal the richness of the American story. These wonders are available to all of you, but the skills used by archeologists to identify and interpret these old sites need not be for archeologists alone. Each of you has the capacity to tap into your own five senses to assess the world around you. I challenge each of you to go on a sensory excursion. The next time you take a walk open fully to the experience. Don’t simply look at the path before you, but really “see” what’s around you. Hear and feel the wind on your face, smell the earthy scent of the trees or the sweet fragrance of the flowers, and touch the blades of grass. You might be amazed by what you learn about yourself in the process.

Archeology: What’s the Point?

In the FieldThe year I turned 10 a set of encyclopedias arrived on our doorstep. In an era before cable TV, the internet, videos, and CD’s, I was captivated by all the images displayed on the pages of this amazing set of books. I vowed to read them all cover-to-cover. When I got to the section on Archeology, I knew I’d found my calling. Years later, after a few twists and turns of fate, I loaded my tent and my field equipment into a University van and set out to do field work at a Native American pueblo in Southwestern New Mexico.

So what was it about this unconventional profession that captivated me as a child and called to me again in adulthood? To the average person, the word “archeology” immediately calls to mind a whole spate of images…the pyramids, the Parthenon, golden scepters, cave paintings, spear points, beautifully decorated pottery, dinosaurs…no wait…dinosaurs! Actually this is a common misperception. Archeologists don’t study dinosaurs; Paleontologists study dinosaurs. The last of the dinosaurs died out about 65.5 million years ago. Archeologists only get involved after humans show up on the scene, sometime around 1.5 million years ago… a long time, but only a minor blip on earth’s 4.5 billion year timeline.

Archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology which is the study of all human culture. The difference is that archeologists study humans who lived a hundred or more years ago. Studying our ancient ancestors is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle that illustrates our varied history on Earth. From the small nomadic bands that congregated around small fire pits or in natural caves to great civilizations with their monumental structures, the story of these early people can be told by studying the physical remains they left behind. These physical things consist of objects or artifacts such as food remains, household items like pottery, stone tools, artistic objects, living spaces such as pit houses, and everyday implements for hunting and cooking. When removed from the earth in a systematic way, these physical remains provide a window to the past that not only helps us understand our own culture, but adds to our broader understanding of all human cultures.

Archeologists don’t all study the same time periods or the same places. For example, some prehistoric archeologists only study million-year-old fossilized remains of our earliest human-like ancestors in Africa while others only study early man in North America. Historic archeologists study people, places, and things from a time when written records and oral traditions were part of the cultural tradition. In general, an archeologist will “specialize” in a particular time period and some only study particular types of artifacts.

So why do archeologists spend time and money doing what they do? This question is especially relevant in a time when economic interests dominate our collective mindset. First, there are laws that safeguard cultural resources. The United States and most countries worldwide recognize the value of their archeological sites as part of their national heritage and seek to protect them from wanton destruction.

Second, we study the past to acquire a broader and richer understanding of our world today and our place in it. There is a delicate and complicated interplay between people and the environment in which they live. Studying past human behavior can provide insights into our search for solutions to today’s problems because understanding how those problems developed and how people might have approached similar difficulties in the past gives us a better understanding of where we are going in the future. Hopefully, lessons learned from the past can influence the social, political, and environmental actions we take today.

This blog will take you on a tour of some of Earth’s fascinating archeological sites. It will focus on the innovative people who created beautiful and functional artifacts, the places they lived, and the structures they left behind. Hopefully, this journey will awaken in you a sense of awe for ancient people who, with their supposedly “low-level” technology, had the vision and ingenuity to produce such amazing objects.

If you are interested in learning more about the field of archeology, I invite you to check out the following web sites:  nps.gov/archeology/PUBLIC/INDEX.HTMsaa.org/publicftp/PUBLIC/home/home.html, archaeological.org/