There really wasn't much to see at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center campus when then-Washington State University graduate student Peter Mills arrived for the 1986 field season.
"In 1986 the campus was just starting to get the feeling of something big going on. The hogans had just been built, and the lodge was here, and some of the interpretive trails had just been completed," says Peter, who spent that field season sleeping in a 1972 Volkswagen bus in what is today the Center's visitor parking lot. "But it was much less developed."
Today, Peter is a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where he founded a master’s program in heritage management in 2015. He stopped by the campus for a visit during a family trip through southwest Colorado in June and reminisced about his time here at Crow Canyon over 30 years ago. He says that it all began when he enrolled at Washington State to study under Crow Canyon Trustee Bill Lipe, who had a reputation as one of the preeminent scholars in Southwestern archaeology.
"(Bill Lipe) had formed a partnership with Crow Canyon and was doing excavation work at Sand Canyon and some other sites," says Peter. "In my first year of master’s work at Washington State, he walked into a room where I was doing flint knapping and handed me a stone axe from Sand Canyon and said 'Peter, I know you're looking for a topic related to stone tools for a master's thesis. How about you do something with this?' And that was the beginning of it. Bill helped me with course work for the first year, then we set up a plan for me to come down (to Crow Canyon) for the 1986 field season."
Peter says that he had two projects in the 1986 field season—the first to examine stone tools from Sand Canyon, and the second was to plant some experimental gardens with different varieties of Native American corn, beans, and squash to examine dry-land farming techniques. He also assisted with excavations and survey work with Bill Lipe, Bruce Bradley, and others at Sand Canyon. But he says that it almost didn't happen, thanks to a nearly-catastrophic theft while camping in Utah.
"Since I had the big bus, Bill had asked me to bring down all of the field equipment to run the field camp, including these 10x14 canvas tents," says Peter. "I had about six of these tents jammed in the back of the bus. On the way down I stopped in Richfield, Utah, where my girlfriend (now wife) worked and we went backpacking for a weekend. When we got back to the bus, everything had been stolen! So here I was, a brand-new grad student, and Bill Lipe had entrusted me with the all the tents for the summer field season, and they had just been stolen in this tiny town in Utah. All of the windows of the bus had been broken out and nothing was working."
Mills says they hitchhiked back to town to get the sheriff, and after searching the area they finally found the tents stashed under a juniper tree a few hundred yards away from the bus. The thief was caught a short time later when he returned for his stolen gear.
"So at least I showed up at Crow Canyon with all the tents, but my VW bus had all of its windows broken and the ignition harness had been torn out from where (the thief) had tried to hotwire it," says Mills.
|The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center campus, circa 1986. (Photo: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center)|
And that bus—broken windows and all—is where he lived for most of that summer.
"Occasionally I'd get to use a shower in one of the hogans," says Peter with a laugh. "During the week we'd camp in the canvas tents at Sand Canyon, then on weekends we'd return to Crow Canyon—which was like a big city in comparison—to do our laundry and talk about the work."
Fortunately, Peter's anthropology career has gone a bit smoother since that first field season at Crow Canyon. He later earned his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, and has worked as the Assistant State Archaeologist in Massachusetts and a teaching position in Vermont. He has been at the University of Hawaii in Hilo since 1998, where much of his work has involved analyzing and sourcing stone tools from across the Pacific.
But Peter still credits his time at Crow Canyon some thirty years ago for getting his career started.
"Crow Canyon was like a crucible where I got to experiment and try out some things, and that launched my career off into other places," says Peter. "I really appreciate having gotten to work at a not-for-profit research institution that's focused on community all the way back in the 1980's. I feel very lucky to have had a chance to be here and have this serve as a foundation to my graduate work."