Searching for signs of the past to protect areas for the future

01.18.24

By Kristen Pope

Autumn Cool. Photo by Devin Pettigrew

When you think of an archaeologist, you might envision Indiana Jones or scientists using paintbrushes to painstakingly remove grains of sand from dinosaur bones at excavation sites. These are common misconceptions, according to BCI’s Cultural Resources Field Lead Autumn Cool. She points out that paleontologists are the scientists who study what a T-rex or triceratops left behind, while she and other archaeologists study past humans. Cool is a vital part of the BCI team, working to save bats by looking for signs of past humans.

Since many of the locations where BCI works to protect bats are places like abandoned mines or remote areas, Cool’s job is to look for signs of past human activities to make sure significant historic and cultural sites are preserved during the course of BCI’s bat-saving work.

Every project that is conducted on U.S. federal land or uses federal funds, from highway work to abandoned mine closure projects, is required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act, which require cultural resource inventories to make sure the projects don’t damage important pieces of the past. Since some of BCI’s restoration projects involve heavy machinery and moving earth and rock, cultural resource inventories are vital to ensure no important cultural sites are damaged. 

When working on a project requiring a cultural resource inventory, from abandoned mine closures to agave planting and water resources restoration work, Cool must spend some time assessing the site. To do this, archaeologists will generally start by walking in a grid pattern with their eyes peeled, looking for artifacts and signs of continuous or repeated human use from more than 50 years ago. 

Autumn Cool. Photo by Devin Pettigrew

Many BCI sites are WWII-era uranium mines. While a small mine from that time may not be all that significant, an extensive series of mining tunnels used to contribute to the Manhattan Project could be worthy of a special designation. Archaeologists evaluate a site based on a number of different criteria, including its relation to important events and people, and what we could learn from the site. If a site is found to be significant, it could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and receive additional protections to preserve it. This could mean everything from banning vehicles and heavy machinery in the area to avoiding certain closure types on an abandoned mine that could degrade the sites.

Autumn Cool. Photo by Devin Pettigrew

When assessing sites, Cool has found everything from prehistoric projectile points, to a Puebloan roomblock structure, and a midden pile. When she spots something of interest, she records what she found and where she found it, taking photos and notes, and tracking the exact coordinates. Keeping track of each site and artifact, and learning about their significance, means that for every day Cool spends in the field, she spends several days indoors, researching, conducting analysis, and writing reports to share her findings.

Thanks to Cool’s work examining sites for archaeological significance, other members of BCI’s Restoration team can do their part conducting biological surveys, and the team can find the best ways to protect sites for bats and humans, while preserving important artifacts from the past.

WATCH: Bats and Archaeology Webinar featuring Autumn

About Autumn

Autumn Cool

Cultural Resource Field Lead

Autumn Cool – Cultural Resource Field Lead

Autumn Cool joined BCI in September 2021. As an archaeologist and BCI’s Cultural Resource Specialist, her role is to identify, document, and assess the material culture left behind by people as they interact with a landscape. She strives to find a balance between preserving significant cultural heritage sites and protecting important bat habitats.

Autumn attended graduate school at the University of Arkansas where she specialized in archaeological remote sensing and geophysical prospecting. She conducted original research into aerial thermography and worked on several geophysical surveys, including at a Bronze Age site in Iraqi Kurdistan. After receiving her masters in anthropology, Autumn worked in the private sector for five years, documenting prehistoric and historic sites across Colorado and surrounding states. Recently, she has conducted extensive research into historical mining and has worked on several mine closure projects. Originally hailing from Washington state, Autumn lives in Colorado with her husband and two rabbits. She loves hiking, podcasts, and science fiction.