Daily Dispatches
An oil rig in North Dakota's oil patch.
Associated Press/North Dakota Petroleum Council
An oil rig in North Dakota's oil patch.

Archaeology and oil go boom in North Dakota


Archaeologists are in high demand again thanks to the upsurge in oil exploration and related businesses in North Dakota.

Archaeology itself might just be the polar opposite of business: Processes are slow, meticulous, and at times seem frivolous or quixotic. But archaeological experts are essential for estimating impact on sites of potential historical significance. Most federal drilling permits require such a survey: Before crews land permits to drill, build roads, or dig for construction, an archaeologist must survey and protect any artifacts buried near oil and natural gas deposits.

But the resulting job bonanza for U.S. archaeological experts also brings a tension: They are hired to find treasures of the past, but the companies paying them would prefer not to turn up anything that might pit their profits. If evidence of past human habitation or significant discoveries emerge, most oil companies change plans to avoid the hassles of drilling in a sensitive area. 

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Construction projects related to the oil business, such as road, bridge, and airport improvements also generate work for archaeologists.

Without the U.S. oil boom, a lot of young archaeologists would “never get the experience,” said Tim Dodson, who endured a long job search that eventually brought him to North Dakota.  Like many U.S. archaeologists, he was highly educated but went nomadically from project to project across multiple countries, struggling to find well-paid work. After getting his master’s degree in maritime archaeology in 2009 from England’s Southampton University, he moved back in with his parents in St. Louis and worked as a bartender and bouncer while searching for a something in his specialty. 

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

Seven months later, he landed a short job in the United Arab Emirates, then two others in Virginia and Colorado. Last year, he headed to Bismarck, N.D., to join KLJ, an engineering and planning firm that also does what specialists call “cultural resource management.” Unlike his previous positions, oil business jobs are with larger companies and come with higher salaries.

Even before the Northern Plains oil boom, archaeologists made headlines in North Dakota with an almost complete fossil of a duck-billed dinosaur—skin, bones and tendons—all preserved in sandstone. Other regional excavations have revealed old trading posts, military forts, battlefields, forgotten settler cemeteries, abandoned homesteader farms, and even stone circles put in place by American Indians long ago, according to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

With the increase in archaeological activity in the oil fields, North Dakota’s register of historic sites went from 846 in 2009 to nearly 2,260 in 2013, according to the state’s Historic Preservation Office.

“A lot of that wouldn’t be happening without the boom,” said archaeologist Richard Rothaus, who heads Trefoil Cultural and Environmental Heritage, a Minnesota-based archaeology firm.

Area firms now hiring archaeologists number around 50, nearly double that of a few years ago. Metcalf Archaeological Consultants’ Bismarck office has almost doubled each year for the past three years, according to Damita Engel, regional director of operations at the Golden, Colorado-based firm. In 2011, Metcalf had around 10 employees. Now is has 53.

“And we’re still hiring,” Engel said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rob Holmes
Rob Holmes

Rob is a translator and linguist in northern Africa. His five children love it when he reads to them and does “the voices,” especially in Hank the Cowdog. Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.


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