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Digging The Grand Canyon

Published: June 16, 2014

Sachiko Sakai's students doing research during recent visit to the Grand Canyon

Sachiko Sakai’s students doing research during recent visit to the Grand Canyon.

Archaeologist Sachiko Sakai investigates the Puebloan adaptation to marginal environment in the Arizona Strip.

Sakai, a lecturer at CSULB and also a graduate of CSULB with a Master of Arts in anthropology, is an expert in the archaeology of the American Southwest, ceramic production and exchange as well as the ceramic sourcing and dating. Every summer for more than nine years, Sakai has led more than 10 CSULB students to her research area in Mt. Trumbull in Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument. During recent years, she has taken students to this study area to teach an archaeology field school through CSULB extension.

“It’s the middle of nowhere,” said Sakai, who filed her dissertation at UC Santa Barbara in May. “The only way to reach there is driving on a dirt road for several hours. This is very remote area with no cell phone connection, so I have to carry a satellite phone for emergency contact. However, the students can use a Bureau of Land Management lodge. It has everything but cell phones, TV and the Internet. That actually makes the work easier because there are no distractions. There’s nothing there now but many people lived there more than 1,000 years ago.”

Between AD300 and 1350, a community that traded and grew maize survived in the marginal environment.

“The focus of my research is the social interaction patterns of this small-scale society,” she said. “They were successful in agriculture with a limited amount of water. Seasonal migration was involved in the early time of their occupation when population density was low and the exchange played a more important role to buffer the risk associated with agriculture later on when population density became large.

“To understand that, I study the pottery in this area in order to reconstruct economic interaction patterns and how they changed over time,” she added. “I want to know more about the interaction between the population who lived in the 7,000-foot Mt. Trumbull area and that in the distant lowlands through the study of the wide distribution of olivine-tempered ceramics in this area. I want to know how people adapted in this marginal area by looking at social interaction patterns in addition to change in subsistence pattern.”

Sakai sees the site as something special for its high elevation.

“The areas on high elevations with no permanent stream are not usually the best place to grow maize,” she explained. “There is a limited amount of water. However, the mountains are often covered in snow and the soil there is puffy, which absorbs the snowmelt more readily. It is more like a sponge which holds on to the moisture long-term. This is very good situation especially in early spring when maize germinates.”

Sakai first arrived in the U.S. in 1996 after a career in banking. “I was a banker for seven years but it never, ever made me happy,” she recalled. “But when I came to the U.S., I discovered that there were many opportunities that I could accomplish anything that I wanted such as going back to school which was not easy thing to do in Japan during the time. ”

Sakai’s students enjoy the field research.

“My students learn the basics of archaeological field work, as well as initial lab work, to take care the artifacts and field data when they join my field study,” she explained. “They learn systematic archaeological survey, mapping and recording of archaeological sites including completing site forms. For further understanding of the artifacts, we bring them back to CSULB’s Integrated Research in Materials, Environments and Society lab (IIRMES).” The IIRMES lab is a collaborative research center that allows the researcher to conduct chemical compositional analysis of artifacts, dating of ceramics and other archaeometry research.

In her research, Sakai has confirmed by chemical compositional analysis conducted in IIRMES, the traditional argument that olivine-tempered pots were produced in Mt. Trumbull and distributed over a long distance. In addition, she discovered that olivine-tempered pots were also produced in the distant area using imported olivine from Mt. Trumbull. Based on chemical compositional analysis together with luminescence dating (also conducted at IIRMES), local production of olivine-tempered pots increased over time. These results provide new insight into the evolution of ceramic production and distribution patterns in the remote area of the American Southwest.”

Students are pleased by their field experience. “There are some students who repeat this field school class (ANTH450) which is worth three credits since they can take this class for up to 10 credits,” she said. “They really like the archaeology and environment in this area. It is the kind of place that yields many things.”

Sakai received her B.A. in history from Rikkyo University in Tokyo and her M.A. in anthropology from CSULB in 2001 and has been a part-time lecturer at CSULB since 2005.

Knowing the research site so well affects the way she sees it. “Looking at the volcanic site, it is hard to imagine that many people once lived there,” she said. “But the more I study the area, the more I understand how it was possible. Even though the land looks very dry, after working there every summer for 10 years, I have found that the bimodal precipitation pattern, with summer monsoon rain and winter snow, may have provided sufficient moisture for small-scale farming.”

She hopes to continue her research for years to come.

“This is the area I want to study for the rest of my life,” she said. “I’m glad I came to CSULB. It has changed my whole life.”