From Mohawk Ironworkers to Living the Ancient Southwest

Celebrating 35 Plus Years of TAC - Behind the Scenes with the People of the Archaeological Conservancy

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David Noble, The Author, and Head River Guide Marcus Buck on the Conservancy's San Juan River Trip. Photo by Sid Davis.
David Noble, The Author, and Head River Guide Marcus Buck on the Conservancy's San Juan River Trip. Photo by Sid Davis.

By David Grant Noble

I came to archaeology unexpectedly, through a side door. The word, archaeology, never came up at home when I was growing up nor did I ever hear it at school. As it happened, when I was a teenager I learned to speak French and pursued that language (plus Latin and Italian) in school and college. At the time, the diplomatic service seemed a possible career. However, the Army had other plans for me, French, being the second language of Vietnam.

I was stationed in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1962-63 in a region inhabited by Jarai and Bahnar tribespeople, generally referred to as Montagnards. Meeting these people opened the door to anthropology. I also became acquainted with two Christian missionaries, who were avid amateur photographers. They got me interested in photographing and helped me get a good camera.

Back in the US, with the Army behind me, I taught French in New York City and in my spare time spent untold hours photographing: street scenes, people, Central Park, anti-Vietnam War protests and, well, anything that caught my eye. I taught myself how to use a darkroom, too, and found work writing and photographing for a weekly newspaper in the city.

One day, by chance, I found myself photographing Mohawk ironworkers, who were doing the high steel work on a tall building in Manhattan. (They went on to build the World Trade Center.) They invited me to go up, up and up, as the building rose from street level to continue photograph them. (See photos at: http://www.davidgrantnoble.com/images/mohawks/index.html.) I got to know them, which led to my girlfriend, Ruth Meria (now my wife of forty-plus years), and I to go to Iroquois country in upstate New York and Canada. We then headed west to Menominee, Ojibwe, Sioux, and Cheyenne country, meeting people and photographing. We even joined in the Ojibwe wild rice harvest along the shores of Lake Superior. (Photos: http://www.davidgrantnoble.com/images/ojibway/index.html.) Eventually, we landed in Santa Fe. All these travels, of course, in a rehabbed Volkswagen bus.

One day, in 1972, the photographer Laura Gilpin, with whom I had become friends, told me the School of American Research was looking for a photographer for its Arroyo Hondo Archaeological Project. “Go down there and see about it,” she said, knowing I needed a job. I did and was hired for three summer field seasons and then joined SAR’s staff for 18 years. It was at Arroyo Hondo Pueblo that archaeology and I first met face-to-face and became friends. I also became friends with archaeologists and learned something about the Southwest’s deep cultural history and native peoples.

Ruth and I began to explore ruins and rock art sites and discover Southwestern parks and monuments. Along the way, I got the notion to write a guidebook to archaeological sites in the Southwest—not a travel guide, an archaeological guide. That project involved finding sites that were appropriate for a guidebook, meeting more archaeologists, and reading, reading, reading. The book took several years to complete but what a great project. French teaching was now way in the past. When it was done every publisher I showed it to said Yes. It was the right book at the right time and is presently in its 4th revised and expanded edition – Ancient Ruins and Rock Art of the Southwest: An Archaeological Guide.

While at SAR, I started a series of publications that focused, each one, on the archaeology of a particular park in the Southwest. I persuaded archaeologists who had done the primary research to contribute chapters and, as editor, helped them write about their work in a way that general readers would enjoy reading. The first to take full book form was New Light on Canyon (1984) and the most recent is Living the Ancient Southwest.

At some point in the very early years of the Archaeological Conservancy I met Mark Michel and Steve LeBlanc. I remember, a realtor was advertising land for sale in Galisteo saying it included the remains of an ancient pueblo. This caught Mark and Steve’s attention and we three went to check it out. The site, in fact, was Pueblo Blanco and it was clearly located on State Trust land. Mark and I began a long association and friendship then, which has been a much valued part of my life ever since.

2015 San Juan River Trip – Happy Campers! David Noble, the author, second from right front row. Photo by Chaz Evans.

In 1990, Mark asked me to be the archaeological guide on a Conservancy trip down the San Juan River in southeastern Utah. I’d already organized several of these trips for SAR with the noted archaeologist Alden Hayes doing the interpretation. Al had been doing archaeology since the world was young and I was rather in awe of his deep knowledge and long experience. Now I, an ex-French teacher, photographer, and writer was being asked to do that job? With some trepidation I agreed; I did my homework and gave talks afterward Mark asked me to do it again. And again and again. We’ve been doing river trips and other trips now for 26 years and still counting. I love introducing people to archaeology and history and have met such varied and interesting people from all around America.  Jay Last, an original and continuing board member and major supporter came on an early trip. And for several years, we enjoyed having a lizard expert with us: she was Mark’s daughter, Alex, who was about eight to twelve years old.

On The River at the Yampa Rover Tour 2014.
On The River at the Yampa Rover Tour 2014. Photo The Archaeological Conservancy.

After numerous runs on the San Juan, I scouted a trip on the Green and Colorado through Cataract Canyon and the following year we did that. In 1999, I scouted the Yampa and Green rivers for a potential Conservancy raft trip and we’ve being doing that float trip in Dinosaur National Monument every other year since. Along the way we stop at Archaic and Fremont sites and even an old horse rustler’s cabin. Occasionally regional directors have come with me in place of Mark—Paul Gardner, Jim Walker, and others. I just added up the number of participants in these river adventures—more than seven hundred, some have come multiple times. One Conservancy member, in fact, signs up every year!

Visiting Amazing Petroglyphs along the Yampa River Trip 2014.
Visiting Amazing Fremont Petroglyphs along the Yampa River Trip 2014. Photo The Archaeology Conservancy.

Participants in the trips learn about the ancient history and archaeology of the regions these rivers flow through.  I give talks at sites and in camp on various topics including the history of the Native Americans who live along the rivers today. And Mark brings everyone up to date on the Conservancy’s mission, sites recently acquired, and sites that need saving. Archaeology aside, we spend our days and evenings in the awesome beauty of the river canyons. We drift quietly through placid waters, splash through a few rapids, and see towering rock formations twisted by continental forces. Our river guides are expert at handling the challenges of high an low water flows. They treat us very well, indeed, always looking out for our health and safety, not to mention preparing delicious Dutch-oven meals.

Geese along the calm waters of the Yampa River. Photo David Noble.
Geese along the calm waters of the Yampa River. Photo David Noble.

There are a couple of experiences I especially remember. One was a downpour that began while we were at a cliff dwelling half a mile up Chinle Wash. Oh boy, did it rain! We got back to the boats safely just as the wash flooded big time and the sun broke through the clouds. We all watched in awe as waterfalls poured off the cliffs around us—a true Southwest weather event. Another time, while we were in camp along the San Juan, a dozen bighorn desert rams appeared across the river and began showing off—chasing each other up and down the bank, standing on their hind legs, and butting heads. This amazing display lasted a couple of hours while we watched, took pictures, and had a few beers. You can see a few minutes of their performance below.

To sum up, it’s hard to put in words how much I’ve enjoyed being a part of these archaeological river adventures. Not only the rivers but our camping/hiking experiences in Chaco Canyon, too. Part of The Archaeological Conservancy’s mission is to build public appreciation of America’s deep history, communicate the work of archaeologists, and encourage people to value archaeological sites. Its extensive field trip program contributes to this goal. I feel privileged to be a part of that effort and to assist the Conservancy in its valuable work.

Group Photo of the 2017 San Juan River Conservancy's Trip. Photo by David Noble.
Group Photo of the 2017 San Juan River Conservancy’s Trip. Photo by David Noble.

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