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Ken Reid


For Ken Reid, the past, present and future are inseparable. As the Idaho state archeologist, working with the Idaho State Historical Society, it's Reid's job to uncover Idaho's history—literally. In his more than 30 years as an archeologist, Reid has focused on the lives of the earliest inhabitants of the West. Since taking the post in 2000, he has not only run excavations himself, but worked to protect sites across the state. Through partnerships with the three state universities and numerous public agencies, Reid is trying to show how our past defines our present and foretells our future.

What interested you in archeology?

I got interested in it when I was an undergraduate, and I ended up getting my degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. Before I could go to graduate school, I got called up to join the Army. My initial interest was more cultural anthropology or ethnography, but the employment opportunities were so much better in archeology.

What takes you from journalism to archeology?

I think I was just confused. I went from school straight to Vietnam in the '60s, and I felt that a journalism degree was probably a good all-around credential for whatever I did when I went back to graduate school.

Why were you drawn to it?

Psychologists say that we study other people to understand ourselves better. Anthropologists study other cultures to understand our own culture better. Archeologists study other times to get a better handle on our present. It gives us a sense of orientation—an idea of where we've been and maybe a little more preparation or readiness for where we're going to go. There's so much uncertainty right now with environmental change—what the world's going to look like in 100 years—it's probably useful to know how things have changed in the last 100 years.

What do you think would most surprise people about Idaho's history?

Probably that it just goes back 130 centuries. People have been here for that long and they've left traces of how they interacted with the environment, which was changing much more dramatically than we have now. So we're looking at pretty exciting global warming shifts and temperature and precipitation, but it's all happened before.

Are there many sites dating that far back in Idaho?

We find them more and more often. We really don't know how many because we've got such a small fraction of the sites surveyed. We've been doing this for about 50 years in Idaho, and we've only got about 10 percent of the state actually examined. We've got about 45,000 sites recorded.

Are there many protections?

It's a little frustrating because the only protection at archeological sites in Idaho is on federal land. There's only one restriction on archeological sites on state or private land, and that refers to graves. You can't deliberately disturb an unmarked human grave on private or state land.

So do you believe in the human influence on global warming?

There's a real good argument that the impact that humans have had on the environment starts about 5,000 years ago. Changes in irrigation and agriculture—not in Idaho, but in the Southwest and places in Mexico, and certainly in Asia and Europe. Increases in methane concentrations date back that far that are also caused by humans and domestic animals. But it's accelerated so quickly in the last 200 years that it's almost certainly been part of the industrial revolution, all the changes that people have begun.

What else does your office do?

My office spends quite a bit of time in what's called Section 106 review, where we evaluate the adequacy of the work done under the National Historic Preservation Act, which covers all the sites on federal land. It basically says that any development or undertaking has to take into account where the impact would be on a historic site. So we're kind of watchdogs.

What sort of preservation issues are we facing in Idaho?

More of the impact comes from negligence and development of the environment. A road goes through, a parking lot or a housing development.

I'm working with colleagues across the state to keep the county law enforcement folks aware of the state law that covers graves that are disturbed inadvertently on private land. We've had a couple of instances over in eastern Idaho where developers put in a house foundation and exposed a grave site completely by accident, and they've called us.

We really don't know what sort of habitation sites or non-burial sites are on private land that are just being ground up by constant development and urban sprawl.

What would you like to see happen?

A state law modeled after the federal law that just asks that the effect of these developments be taken into account. Let's just see what's happening, and if we can plan in advance, we can often find a way to avoid the impact. The federal law doesn't stop development, but it participates in a way that offsets the impact.

Is it a matter of getting people used to the practice?

And educating people and trying to deal with that libertarian impulse in Idaho culture. They always think that you're coming in with a black helicopter to tell them what they can and cannot do. It's not that, so much as becoming involved in the planning process and trying to see what compromise we can work out.

What do people say when you tell them you're an archeologist?

There's certainly an interest out there. And I guess part of my job is to reawaken or rediscover that early interest and show them how much things have changed. It's not a bullwhip and a leather jacket.

We don't have any pyramids, and we don't find any Holy Grails or buried sword in the stone or anything like that ... [but] a little bit of showmanship is good. I do have a leather jacket.

But you don't carry the whip around?


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