Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 | 2 a.m.
She’s neither the Indiana Jones of Hollywood’s imagination nor the aged, white-haired archaeologist with a British accent and a pith helmet. Smart, spunky and casually dressed, Annette Neubert represents the next generation of archaeologists. After spending four and a half years working in North Dakota, Neubert is seven months into her new position as the archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Southern Nevada.
Neubert’s job is to identify, manage and protect archaeological sites within Red Rock Conservation Area and Sloan Conservation Area. Then she develops some of them for the public to see and experience.
• Archaeology: The study of human history via artifacts
• Paleontology: The study of plant and animal fossils
• Anthropology: The study of human culture and society
What makes the archaeology of Southern Nevada special?
Southern Nevada and the greater Mojave Desert are unique in that the environment is harsh and inhospitable. And yet humans not only survived but thrived here. Neubert says that the fascinating thing about archaeology is that you can see how humans made the unforgiving desert work for them. They used natural rock shelters—caves and outcroppings of rocks that would protect from the elements. They were in harmony with the seasons, knowing which water sources existed when and where. For example, in the summer, ancient Southern Nevadans would migrate from the Valley floor to what is now Red Rock National Conservation Area because it’s cooler and water was available year-round.
Neubert fell in love with archaeology in a college physical anthropology class. The instructor laid out replica skulls of human ancestors, revealing the patterns of evolution through the ages. “That’s what snagged me onto it,” Neubert says, “seeing millions of years of changes that lead to who we are now.” She had a second moment of inspiration when she was sitting in the middle of an archaeological site in northern Montana. The area was so remote, so free of any sign of modern human technology that the Southern California native had an epiphany.
“I realized in that moment that the people who had built their campsite in their teepees on this hilltop would have seen almost exactly the same thing as I did. It was kind of this really cool connection to people who lived there anywhere from 200 years ago to possibly five, 10,000 years previously.”
How to help protect archaeological sites
• Stay on designated trails. If you wander off, you may accidentally step on or destroy artifacts without realizing it. Do not climb on or near the rock art.
• Don’t touch rock art. Just like with contemporary art, the natural oils in your hands hurt the artifacts.
• Don’t take souvenirs. If you take it home, future visitors can’t enjoy it. And if every one of the millions of visitors took a souvenir, there would be nothing left.
Being an archaeologist is one of those dream jobs, alongside being an astronaut or president of the United States. But how does the real-life career compare with the dream? Neubert says that the gig is “exciting in its own way,” but not as flashy or glamorous as depicted in the media. Harrison Ford as a dashing adventurer has yet to make a cameo. Neubert says her job involves a lot of dirt and heat. It best fits “a geeky outdoors person,” she says. And there’s “legitimate blood, sweat and tears if a cactus stabs you.”
“We get excited over rocks on the ground or etched circles in a rock. Who gets excited about a plain circle etched in the rock? Archaeologists!” Neubert says. “At the same time, you have to be very comfortable outdoors, you have to be very comfortable getting into these remote areas where a satellite phone may be your only way to contact out.”
As the sole official archaeologist for Red Rock and Sloan Canyon, Neubert has a lot of freedom to develop her own projects. But overall, everything is directed toward identifying, protecting and learning about cultural sites and then sharing that knowledge with the public.
Because of the extreme heat of Nevada’s warm months, summer is Neubert’s “office season.” She writes reports and analyzes archaeological sites that she’s already identified.
When the heat breaks—in mid-September or October—Neubert spends more time out in the field, doing pedestrian surveys and trying to identify new sites. She also does a lot of public outreach, spending a portion of her weekends in the Red Rock visitors center, telling guests and students about the archaeology of Red Rock.
When learning about the ancient past of Southern Nevada, children and adults have different but similar interests, Neubert says. Kids are interested in the tactile objects—stone tools, arrowheads, etc. Adults want to know “who was out here, who made this stuff,” Neubert says. “It’s an interesting way to go about it because both topics are the same. It’s just a matter of how you interact with it.”
Neubert says that everybody is looking for a mythical past, but the truth is less glamorous and more real. “People expect this exotic, otherworldly, primitive concept, but they were humans just like us,” Neubert says. “They had their stuff just like we do. They were living their lives. They had the same environment to live in that we do here now. The difference is the way they interacted with it.”
This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.