Archaeological Services

Full Circle Heritage Services provides archaeological services (records searches, tribal consultation, survey and evaluation, monitoring, excavation), most often to clients who need to comply with state and federal regulations for protecting archaeological resources.  We are happy to consult with anyone who has questions or concerns about understanding, managing, and protecting archaeological sites (including potentially unmarked human burials) on private or public lands. 

Consult with an archaeologist in the planning stages of a project—as early as possible—to determine what must be done to comply with the laws.  Records checks are easily and cheaply done and can often show what kinds of archaeological sites are in an area.  This can provide an idea of whether a project location should be moved or how much archaeological work is needed to clear a project area. The major land-holding agencies (Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, State Lands Office, military bases) have staff archaeologists who handle these matters and who can provide a list of qualified archaeological service providers, if needed. Feel free to call or e-mail us for advice.  Initial consultations and project estimates are free of charge. 

Read below (or click on the links) to find out more about archaeology and how the process of archaeological consulting works.

What is archaeology?

In the Americas, archaeology is a subfield of anthropology—the study of humanity.  Anthropology’s strength comes from its holistic approach.  It employs a variety of sciences and disciplines to address questions about human origins, history, and behavior.  Archaeologists study the materials (artifacts) and structures (features) that people put on the landscape and how their patterning reveals past people’s relationships to the land, each other, and, sometimes, even their philosophies of life over time—from 50 to at least 12,500 years ago.

Why do archaeology?

Two reasons.  First, archaeology is a discipline that gives insight into all of the past, the distant parts before written history, as well as the historic past.  Archaeological study often highlights aspects of people’s heritage not covered by other historical studies.  It most often involves the past of  “common” folks instead of that of rulers and “elites.”  

Second, in many situations, an archaeological study is required by the laws and regulations protecting historical and archaeological resources.  The major laws include:

Typically, any project that involves federal or state lands, funding, or permitting is required to comply with such laws by consulting with the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) about the project (  We, as a nation, have agreed that a deep understanding of the past is essential for a productive future. 

Consider the following words:

The spirit and direction of the Nation are founded upon and reflected in its historic heritage. The historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved… to give a sense of orientation to the American people. The preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.

These words, taken from the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (Section 1) reflect the importance that the nation places upon its unique heritage.  It is a heritage derived from thousands of years of people living on the land, sometimes lightly, sometimes heavily, sometimes in cooperation, and sometimes in conflict.  It is a legacy that forms the foundation for our evolving ideals and values as passed on orally from parent to child over generations (oral history), as transmitted through books (written history), and as preserved in the sites and landscapes that hold the imprints and residues of people and their cultures (the archaeological record).

The archaeological record can be as obvious as giant pyramids, 400-room pueblo ruins, or historic ghost towns.  It can also be as subtle as a group of shattered rocks used in a fire pit, a pot sherd, a flake of chipped stone, an old fence line, a can, the ruts from an old road, and even landscapes with no obvious signs of human activity that people hold as sacred or as traditional use areas.  The archaeological record is embedded in and marks the landscape.  It bears witness to the lives of people throughout time: people about whom we usually have little or no living testimony or written description.

The National Historic Preservation Act (or NHPA), and conforming laws passed at the state and local levels, mandate that sponsors of projects involving public lands, public funds, or public permits “take into account” the effect their project may have upon prehistoric and historic sites and landscapes (Section 106).  Project managers assess the potential impacts their project may have on archaeological or historical properties by first consulting with agency archaeologists and/or the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO).  If the state or agency officials decide there is potential for impact, they may ask for an archaeological study on the project area.  That is where we come in.

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How it works

Consulting is probably the most important concept to keep in mind for efficiently complying with historic preservation laws.  Consult with land-agency archaeologists and/or the SHPO in the initial planning stages to determine whether an archaeological study is needed and at what level of intensity.  Also, feel free to call or e-mail us for guidance on whether consultation is needed and with whom to consult.

The practice of archaeology depends upon two essential components: competent research and diligent reporting.  When compliance with historic preservation laws is required, typically, the first stage of research is a records check to see whether previously recorded sites are in or near the project area.  If no recent archaeological inventory of the area has been performed, then the second stage is to conduct an archaeological survey—an intensive inspection of the ground surface to identify and evaluate any materials present.  The third stage may be excavation—small-scale hand or mechanical digging (“testing”) to determine the presence and nature of buried materials—or large-scale excavation (“data recovery”) to collect a significant amount of material and information from a site before it is impacted by the project. Archaeological monitoring can sometimes supplement or substitute for survey and excavation and is usually less expensive.  A monitor observes project construction activities to check for artifacts that may come up during earthmoving activities or to ensure that known sites are not damaged.

Research may additionally include tribal consultation with Native American or other groups who may have an interest in the project area, oral history interviews with long-term residents who have deeper familiarity with the area or about specific sites, archival research* to flesh out the details of recent occupations or environmental changes, soil studies to understand the contexts of buried archaeological deposits, and other specialized studies and analyses (see History Services).

Archaeological reports vary depending upon the size of the project and the requirements of the agencies.  Typically, full reports include a project description; a review of current knowledge about past cultures of the area; a summary of the environment; a description of field methods employed; a thorough description of all finds (sites and artifacts) including maps, photographs, special analyses, and recording forms; and evaluations of the scientific significance of archaeological sites, including recommendations on whether further steps should be taken to protect them.  Short reports suffice in many cases where little or no archaeological material is found. 

In either case, reports then form the basis for consultation with agency officials and the SHPO, who review them and either make recommendations for further work or conclude the process by concurring with the archaeologist’s recommendations. 

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Records Search

The first stage of any archaeological investigation is to check what has already been done in an area.  Full Circle Heritage Services has full online access to the New Mexico Cultural Resource Information System (NMCRIS).  This database keeps track of all archaeological projects done in New Mexico and the 150,000+ sites that have been recorded to date.  Many agencies keep their own records in addition to what they file with the NMCRIS database.  We can also access these when it is necessary. 

Tribal Consultation

Usually consultation with tribes is conducted by state and federal agencies on a government-to-government basis.  Sometimes agencies or private organizations need a qualified liaison to discuss projects with tribal governments and members, to seek input from them about an area that may be important in their history or to their ongoing traditions.  Full Circle Heritage Services can provide ethnographic research and tribal consultation.

Survey and Evaluation

We conduct archaeological survey in accordance with federal and state guidelines by having qualified personnel systematically walk over an area to inspect the ground surface for evidence (often referred to as “cultural resources”) of past human activity.  All finds are documented and mapped with current GPS technology, evaluated for their scientific importance, and summarized in a report submitted to the appropriate agency and SHPO.

Archaeological survey is our most common service.  Full Circle Heritage Services is listed as a qualified Cultural Resource Consultant in the state of New Mexico and has permits to conduct survey on privately-owned, New Mexico state trust, Bureau of Land Management (in southern New Mexico), and Gila and Lincoln National Forest lands. 

Archaeological survey is simply a walk-over inspection of an area to determine the extent of evidence of past (50 years old or older) human activity.  This evidence, or cultural resource, usually consists of artifacts (items made by people, such as stone tools, pottery, cans, glass) and features (non-portable structures that are part of the landscape, such as fire stains, habitations, fences).  Artifacts and features found clustered together are designated as sites.  Sites are the basic units by which archaeological remains are managed.  When found, we fully describe, map, and evaluate sites using the appropriate agency-developed forms and our own in-field analysis methods.  This process includes documenting a site’s artifacts and features and their relationships to each other as well as to the landscape setting, soils, and vegetation. 

We then evaluate whether a site or project area has potential to yield important information, as stipulated by regulations (such as 36CFR60.4).  This potential is usually indicated by the types of artifacts and features, by aspects of the setting that suggest whether additional material might be buried, and by the current state of archaeological knowledge.  This step largely determines whether further steps for protection or archaeological investigation are needed. 

An area (site or landscape) may also have importance because of its role in the history and ongoing cultural practices of a traditional group.  Such Traditional Cultural Properties are usually identified from the input of a relevant community ( (often Native American or other ethnic groups with historical ties to an area).  They may or may not also have obvious artifacts or features in them.

After survey is completed, we submit to a report to the land agency and SHPO that describes the survey and its finds and presents our evaluations of any sites.  We make recommendations, based on our evaluation as described above, as to whether a project should be allowed to proceed or whether further archaeological work is warranted.  When sites that have information potential are present, we usually make a recommendation for how they can be avoided by the proposed project, or for what steps should be taken to further evaluate the sites or collect the information from them before the project impacts them. 

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When ground-disturbing activities are planned in or near known sites, or on landscapes with potential to hold buried sites, archaeological monitoring is a strategy sometimes recommended by an agency and/or SHPO.  An archaeologist monitors the activity to ensure that known sites are avoided or to inspect disturbed areas to determine if cultural material is being uncovered.   If buried material is exposed, the archaeologist documents, evaluates, and reports for further consultation, so that the find can be avoided or further investigated. 

Full Circle Heritage Services’ permits cover monitoring for the same areas as our survey permits.

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Archaeological excavation is carefully controlled digging to find out what is underground.  Typically, we use two strategies: small-scale test excavation, and more intensive data-recovery excavation.  Excavation often involves additional studies, such as assays to determine the ages of materials or soil studies to understand the landscape setting as it was before the site became buried. 

Full Circle Heritage Services has 25 years of experience conducting archaeological excavations in the southern Southwest.  Permits for excavation projects are drawn up on a case-by-case basis depending upon the land ownership and consultation with the SHPO. 

Test Excavation

Test excavation is used to investigate the subsurface layers in a site or landform to determine whether buried artifacts and features are present, how deep they lie, and how well preserved they are.  When survey data is insufficient or inconclusive about an area’s information potential, a testing plan is discussed with the land agency and SHPO to further evaluate it.  Test excavation may involve small hand-dug pits and/or mechanically dug pits, such as backhoe trenches, to explore larger areas.

Data Recovery Excavation

Data recovery (sometimes called mitigation) is intensive digging designed to recover the maximum amount of buried material possible.  If an area cannot be avoided by a construction project and when earlier stages of investigation and evaluation prove that a site has significant information, archaeologists develop a data recovery plan in consultation with the land agency and SHPO to collect as much material and information from the site as is reasonably possible before it is destroyed. 

Human Remains

In New Mexico, state law protects unmarked human burials whether on public or private land (Cultural Properties Act 18-6-11.2).  Human remains have been found in all settings and contexts, and their presence cannot always be easily predicted based on the surroundings.  Because of past abuses by looters (and some archaeologists) and the concerns of Native American groups, historic-era-settler descendants, and military units, the treatment of human remains is a very sensitive issue that must be handled with great care.  Full Circle Heritage Services holds an annual permit for excavation of unmarked burials.  We can provide this service when it is necessary to move remains, whether they are found accidentally during a construction project or during an archaeological excavation.  Please contact us with any questions about dealing with human remains. 

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