UA Student an Award-Winning Archaeologist
Anthropology doctoral student Bill Reitze lives and works at the Petrified Forest National Park. He recently received the John L. Cotter Award for excellence in National Park Service archaeology.

By Alexis Blue, University Relations - Communications
July 27, 2016


Bill Reitze  talks with interns and staff about future work in the park's expansion lands.
Bill Reitze talks with interns and staff about future work in the park's expansion lands. (pointing)

University of Arizona student Bill Reitze isn't afraid to get his hands dirty.

For the past five years, he has been doing just that as park archaeologist for Petrified Forest National Park, while at the same time juggling his studies as a doctoral student in the School of Anthropology in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Located in northeastern Arizona, the Petrified Forest, which extends partially into Arizona's colorful Painted Desert, is perhaps best known for its unique and wide variety of fossils, especially the petrified wood found there. Paleontologists and archaeologists have worked since the early 20th century in this unique area, where dinosaurs once roamed.

As park archaeologist, Reitze is most interested in the park's 13,000-year human history.

From 2013 to 2015, Reitze led an archaeological inventory of about 45,000 acres of park land acquired by the National Park Service since 2004, when Congress signed an act to expand the boundaries of Petrified Forest National Park. The act will allow the park to eventually double in size from 93,000 acres to more than 218,000.

During the three-year project, Reitze and summer survey crews of interns, volunteers and other National Park Service employees walked more than 1,000 miles, surveying approximately 7,000 acres of previously unexplored park lands.

As part of the effort, Reitze started an archaeological internship program, now in its fifth year, to train college students from across the country to survey and record archaeological sites and analyze and preserve artifacts.

For his work, Reitze this summer received the John L. Cotter Award for excellence in National Park Service archaeology. The award recognizes excellence in scientific archaeological research, community involvement and public education.

"I was really excited," Reitze said of the award. "We've been working pretty hard, and it's nice to see people recognize that and see that what we're doing is interesting and unique. It's special to Arizona, and it's special to the Park Service."

Petrified Forest National Park has been a major transportation corridor for thousands of years — and remains so to this day, with Interstate 40 running right through it. Archaeological finds in the area indicate a human presence there since the end of the Ice Age.

"The thing that makes the Petrified Forest the most unique is that it's this major transportation corridor, so we have the highest diversity of different kinds of ceramics, and we see movement of material goods and artifacts from pretty long distances, all moving right through the center of our park," Reitze said.

Reitze and his team have uncovered hundreds of pueblo sites, as well as well as large pithouse villages from what is known as the basketmaker period of 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. They have found a wide variety of rock art and artifacts such as spear points, ceramics, and knives and other tools fashioned from the area's petrified wood.

The finds provide a better understanding of how people survived and thrived in the region over the years.

"We're getting a much better idea of how people really dealt with their environment and lived in this area," Reitze said. "It's pretty hot, it's dry, there are no trees, but there was a pretty significant population of people who were able to live there. So with every site that we record, with every bit of data, we learn a little bit more about how people lived in this kind of region and worked together."

While some artifacts are recorded and left in place, others become part of the park's museum collection for future study. Visitors to the park, which welcomes about 800,000 tourists a year, can see some of the artifacts in behind-the-scenes tours.

As park archaeologist, Reitze also works with tribal neighbors, assesses the impact of construction projects on the park and communicates archaeological findings to the public, through tools such as signage, educational videos, handouts and exhibits.

"I really like finding new stuff, and I like working with people to show that stuff to other people and show them how neat and unique this is. I love that part of my job," he said.

Reitze also is working to set up a future UA field school at the park.

He became interested in archaeology as a child growing up in Colorado. His family took summer vacations to Utah, where he became fascinated with rock art and pueblo sites.

Before coming to the UA to complete his doctorate, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico and his master's from Colorado State University.

He landed the park archaeologist gig — a student position — through the federal Pathways job program, which connects college students and recent graduates with career opportunities in federal service. He lives on site in park housing and is the park's only full-time archaeologist.

In addition to his day job, Reitze continues to work on his UA degree. Twice a month, he makes the five-hour drive to Tucson and sets up shop in the UA's Haury anthropology building to work on his dissertation, which focuses on Paleo Indian populations in central New Mexico.

Reitze's plan is to complete his degree at the end of the fall semester and transition into a full-time permanent position with the National Park Service.

In the meantime, he will continue to balance his work as a UA student with his work at Petrified Forest National Park.

"We're trying to change the whole image of the Petrified Forest," he said. "We were one of the earliest national monuments, in 1906, and we're really trying to show the government and show the public that there's a lot going on up there, and part of that is to bring archaeologists in to start interpreting and researching and showing people what's happening."


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Alexis Blue

UA University Relations – Communications