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Ackerman-Estvold archaeologist Cameon Eisenzimmer holds items she's recovered from a sifting screen, one of the tools of her trade. IMAGE: Ackerman-Estvold

Prairie archaeologist Cameon Eisenzimmer: ‘I'm always walking with my head down’

Editor’s note: Cameon Eisenzimmer is an archaeologist, cultural resource manager and GIS or geographic information system analyst for Ackerman-Estvold, a Minot, N.D.-based architecture and civil engineering firm.

In this Q&A, she talks about her work.

Eisenzimmer has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, archaeology and geoscience from Minnesota State University Moorhead, a master’s degree in anthropology and biological anthropology from Wichita State University and a graduate certificate in historic preservation from the University of Kentucky.

When did you develop your interest in history?

I’m a fifth-generation North Dakotan, and I actually grew up in a house with four generations: my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and myself all lived in the same house. So history has always been important to our family.

Furthermore, it was the house that my great-grandfather had built from a railroad car. Back in 1903, my great-grandfather actually worked for the railroad, and he lived one block north of the tracks.

So, when they decommissioned an old railroad car, he got a whole bunch of his railroad buddies to bring that railroad car one block north. They all got together, pulled it by horse, got it up the street, and it still stands today.

Wow!

Right. The house has been added on to, but it has been standing since 1903. My grandmother currently lives in it, and I co-own it.

Did you pursue your interest in history in college?

Yes. All the way through high school, I had that interest. I thought I might want to be a history teacher, but Minnesota State University Moorhead was at a career fair here in Minot, and they had a booth set up about archaeology.

The staffer talked about not just studying history, but being able to go out in the field and pick up an artifact, a piece of the past – and that when you do so, it's almost like being transported back to that time. So instead of just teaching history, you become a part of it. And that's what really fascinated me.

I figured I'd rather be out in the field doing something different every day than being at the front of a classroom. So I decided to go the archaeology route instead of the teaching route.

Do you remember the first time you were able to go out in the field?

At MSUM, where I majored in archaeology, we used equipment to not necessarily dig under the earth, but to see underneath it, like ground-penetrating radar.

And I remember working out in a farmer's field; he was saying that he had been coming across some artifacts. We went out there with some of our equipment, which detects depressions by letting you see where the soil had been disturbed. We saw row after row of what ended up being graves.

We’d actually found a cemetery that no one had any idea was there. We were able to mark it off, let people know about it and bring closure to some of the families who had no idea where their loved ones were buried.

And at that point, I knew I was in the right profession.

Now you’re working with Ackerman-Estvold, an architecture and civil engineering firm. Do many engineering firms employ archaeologists?

Normally, archaeologists open their own consulting firm and will have experts in archaeology, prehistoric archaeology and historic preservation. So, what makes us unique is the fact that I have all of those degrees as one, which means you're kind of a one-stop shop.

So not only can I do archaeology – which spans the period from European contact to about 50 years ago – but also I can do prehistoric archaeology, which is pre-contact and earlier. That means I could do Native American sites and sites that are much older than that.

And now I have my graduate certificate in historic preservation, which lets me analyze structures and buildings and bridges, see what their historic potential is and recommend whether they should be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

What stage of a project do you get involved in?

I start at the very beginning, because in the planning stages and if there is any type of federal money or permitting involved, we have to go out to the site and do a field survey to get an initial impression on whether there may be a prehistoric or historic site there.

Eventually, we may do a pedestrian survey, which is where we walk the entire site.  We’ll mark with flags everything that we find, and if it starts to look like we're finding a pattern, we’ll contact the State Historical Society, and we'll come up with a game plan with them.

Because not every site needs to be excavated. At some sites, you just need to mark where things are at, and you're good to go from there.

What kinds of things do you find?

It really depends on where we're at. In North Dakota, what we encounter quite a bit are lithic (or stone) artifacts from Native Americans such as broken arrowheads. Pottery is another big thing that we find – pottery shards from Native Americans.

We also encounter a lot of stuff from the farmsteads that were here – nails, old farm equipment, foundations of old buildings. And all of that stuff has to be recorded and marked.

Coins?

Coins, rusted cars, an old tractor – we have to mark all of that down, fill out a form and submit it to the state.

So a rusted car on the surface needs to be reported?

Yes, but very often, they just want to know that it's there. It doesn't mean that it's going to do anything.

What kinds of finds would  be especially significant or maybe even delay construction?

Any type of human remains is going to put a stop to any type of construction. If it's especially old – such as, say, when the Canadian fur traders came through – we might end up having to detour a road around it, for example. Or if there are burial mounds,  construction is going to have to move.

When you’re holding a tool or other artifact that you’ve found, it must be fun to imagine it being used.

That's exactly right. Like I said, picking up an artifact is almost like traveling through time. You can picture what it was in its day, and you’re wondering, who left it there? Why was it dropped? Why was it abandoned?

There's a whole story that's told in each one of those relics.

At times, you must have to get dirty in the course of your day.

Yes, but I’m lucky, because I’m one of the few who gets to wear blue jeans to work! I never know when I'm going to get a call to go out into the field. I go from having clean clothes to being covered in mud because I'm trying to find something out in the field.

Does your knowledge of archaeology change the way you look at landscapes?

Absolutely. I’ve taken a couple of our engineers out in the field, for example, and it’s great to compare notes on how we see things.

For example, I see features in the ground – an old prairie trail here, the depression of a house there. I’ll see a small rise and think, “That would be a perfect place for a camp, while they wouldn't build down here because it’s too low and they're into the wind, so it's not going to be the best protection for them.”

Those are the things that I pick up on, while they’re looking with their engineers’ eyes and seeing such things as whether the soil is stable enough to build on.

Are there sites in the world that you'd like to visit?

Not really. For me, prairie archaeology has always been where it's at. It's in my blood, it's part of my history.

That’s why, during my weekends and evenings, I take old quadrangle maps and locate old churches, because where old churches were, normally there are old cemeteries that have been forgotten. I'll mark them, get all the information, GPS it, and send the information to the state.

It sounds like there are artifacts everywhere you look, including on seemingly empty farm fields across the Great Plains.

More than likely, there are. Think about the fact that even today, we drop coins out of our pockets, we lose a pencil. Well, the same thing happened a hundred years ago, and 500 years ago and a thousand years ago.

There are artifacts all over. That’s why, while people always say they walk with their head up, I'm always walking with my head down.