Signs point to oil well locations near the historic Killdeer Mountain battlefield, where a utility firm sought to run power lines through the site.

Charles Rex Arbogast • Associated Press,

ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 15 AND THEREAFTER - This photo taken June 9, 2014 shows the mailbox of local resident Joann Aramillo standing near an oil and gas rig on a well pad a few hundred yards away, top left, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. Four in 10 new oil and gas wells near national forests and fragile watersheds or otherwise identified as higher pollution risks escape federal inspection, unchecked by an agency struggling to keep pace with America’s drilling boom, according to an Associated Press review that shows wide state-by-state disparities in safety checks. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

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North Dakota oil boom produces jobs bonanza for archaeologists

  • Article by: Josh Wood
  • Associated Press
  • June 11, 2014 - 9:23 PM

– Drilling crews are eager to plunge their equipment into the ground. Road builders are ready to start highway projects, and construction workers need to dig.

But across the hyperactive oil fields of western North Dakota, these and other groups have to wait for another team of specialists known for slow, meticulous study: archaeologists.

And that requirement has produced a rare jobs bonanza in a field that forces many highly educated professionals to hop from project to project around the world and still struggle to make a living.

Without the oil boom, a lot of young archaeologists might “never get the experience,” said Tim Dodson, who endured a long job search before finding work overseas and then coming to North Dakota.

The positions also come with a constant tension: The archaeologists are trained to find evidence of the past, but the companies that pay them would prefer not to turn up anything that gets in the way of profits.

Archaeological surveys are intended to protect any historical treasures that might lie buried atop the region’s oil and natural gas deposits. Although not required on all oil projects, they are a mandate for most federal drilling permits.

The work involves inspecting a site for any artifacts or evidence of past human habi­tation and cataloging the effort. If significant discoveries emerge, most oil companies will change plans to avoid the hassle of drilling in a sensitive area.

Where is the next fossil?

Long before the oil boom, archaeological digs had uncovered a nearly complete duck-billed dinosaur fossil with skin, bones and tendons preserved in sandstone. Other excavations have focused on old trading posts, military forts and battlefields, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

With more archaeologists working in the oil fields, the number of historic sites in North Dakota jumped from 846 in 2009 to nearly 2,260 in 2013, the state’s Historic Preservation Office said. Those sites include forgotten settler cemeteries with graves marked in foreign languages, abandoned homesteader farms and stone circles put in place by American Indians thousands of years ago.

“A lot of that wouldn’t be happening without the boom,” said Richard Rothaus, an archaeologist who heads Trefoil Cultural and Environmental Heritage, a Minnesota-based firm that offers “cultural resource management,” an umbrella term for this kind of archaeological work.

While the oil boom is the engine behind the speedy growth, the archaeological work is not focused entirely on drilling sites. Much of it targets building projects designed to support the oil business, such as road, bridge and airport improvements.

Over the past decade, the number of firms authorized to do surveys in North Dakota rose from around 30 to 50, said Paul Picha, chief archaeologist at the Historical Society.

No one in the field keeps track of exact archaeology employment numbers, but the oil boom has almost certainly expanded the ranks of North Dakota archaeologists from as few as a few dozen to several hundred, if not more.

For instance, the Bismarck office of Metcalf Archaeological Consultants has doubled in size every year for the past three years, according to ­Damita Engel, regional director of operations at the firm, based in Golden, Colo.

Three years ago, they had 10 to 12 employees. Now they have 53.

“And we’re still hiring,” Engel said.

The added jobs have helped scores of archaeologists such as Dodson, 30, who received a master’s degree in maritime archaeology in 2009 from England’s Southampton University. After graduating, he moved back in with his parents in St. Louis and worked as a bartender and bouncer while searching for a position in his specialty.

“I couldn’t find a job to save my life,” he said.

Bouncing around

After seven months, he finally landed one in the United Arab Emirates, which led to jobs in Virginia and Colo­rado.

That’s a common path for archaeologists. Most jobs are short-lived and are limited by either budget or scope. The profession is nomadic for many starting out, requiring frequent moves over long distances. The pay is low, the benefits few.

Unlike Dpdson’s previous positions, the oil-patch jobs were with larger companies for higher salaries. Last year, he headed to Bismarck, the state capital, to join KLJ, an engineering and planning firm that also does cultural resource management.

When a site needs to be surveyed, teams of archaeologists walk across the area scanning the ground for historic objects, which are defined as anything more than 50 years old. When team members come across something, they mark its location on GPS and photograph it.

One such survey was conducted on a battlefield where American soldiers clashed with Indians in 1864. A utility company wanted to run power lines through the Killdeer Mountain site, but Indian tribes feared that the project might disturb the remains of native people who were killed there.

A spokesman for the Basin Electric Power Cooperative said archaeologists had found “nothing of consequence” along the 150-foot right of way.

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