After a forest fire, it's the thrill of the hunt for this Forest-Service archaeologist

At first glance, Bill Matthews appears to be on post-wildfire clean-up duty. He reaches into the back of his white, government-issue pickup truck, pulls out a broom, then walks across the scorched earth to a particular patch of blackened dirt and begins sweeping. Vigorously.

Last month, this part of the Sequoia National Forest was razed by an intense wildfire, and the forest floor is now covered in charred brush and incinerated pine needles. But this sweeping is hardly custodial work. Mr. Matthews is an archaeologist with the US Forest Service, and he is here looking for signs of American Indian habitation.

Sure enough, underneath the cloud of dirt and ash lies a rock with large, smooth holes ground into it. These holes, he explains, were used as mortars. Holding a rock as a pestle, women in the local Kuaiisu tribe sat on this spot and crushed acorns into mash for food. Nearby, men fashioned spear tips out of obsidian. If you look closely, you can still see flakes of the black, volcanic glass glinting in the sunlight, lying where it fell more than 1,000 years ago.

When Matthews is done examining the stone, he stands up and walks back to his truck, stopping abruptly every few paces to examine a piece of obsidian.

Fires make an archaeologist's job much easier, for rich sites like this one are usually obscured by thick undergrowth. "It opens a window," says Matthews as he gets into his truck and begins driving back over the unpaved road. "We can see into what the forest floor has been covering."

Fire can be a mixed blessing, however. "Sometimes," he says, "for looters in the know, it helps them find sites, too, and they'll pillage. It's a push-me, pull-me kind of a thing."

That is precisely why Matthews is currently working with the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) team. The team consists of a group of local specialists - from soil scientists and hydrologists to engineers and ecologists - who survey an area after a fire, assess potential problems, and suggest ways to avert disasters like downstream flooding or the destruction of an archaeologically important site.

After a fire, he and the other archaeologists on the BAER team survey the area of the fire to examine known heritage sites and look for new ones. A few weeks earlier, however, he was part of the firefighting effort itself.

One of the more common ways to stop a fire is to create a firebreak, using bulldozers to clear a wide swath of land down to nonflammable, mineral soil. When dozers rumble through, however, they can seriously damage an archaeological site.

This is where Matthews comes in. During fire suppression, he walks the terrain in front of the bulldozer lines, directing them around sites that might be of archaeological importance.

These days, he says, are long and difficult. "You're hot, thirsty, and tired because you have to keep up with a machine.... It's a lot of time. It's tedious. It's hard." He also notes, however, that he loves it.

"It's the thrill of the hunt. I really enjoy going out there when I'm doing this because you never know what you're going to find." He guns the engine to help his truck over the rocky terrain and the Mardi Gras beads hanging from his rearview mirror swing crazily.

Interestingly enough, it was a fire that made Matthews realize that he wanted to spend his life in archaeology. But this fire was thousands of years old.

After his freshman year of college, he participated in an archaeological dig near Seattle. It was a 12,000-year-old mastodon elephant-kill site, where a local tribe had hunted down one of the giant beasts and then set up camp and lived off the animal's meat.

On that site, Matthews found the hearth that these people had used for their fires so many years ago. And in the hearth, lay bones left over from many evenings' meals.

"I sat there in that position, right there on the edge of the campfire, touching bones which no human being had touched in over 12,000 years," he recalls, then pauses.

"I went through the roof, and I realized from then on that that was what I was going to do. It was one of those life moments."

Even now, he says, when he finds a new site, "I literally crackle - the hair on my arms stands up. It's such a thrill for me, touching something that no one has touched for thousands of years."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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