Monday, July 3, 2023

Jason Cooper and the Highways of Hidden Relics

By Sean Quinn

It’s not well known but our agency employees archeologists. So, with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opening in theaters this past Friday, June 30, we wondered if we had our own Indiana Jones, the famous movie explorer and archeologist character, on our own team? It turns out, we do! Meet Jason Cooper.

Jason Cooper, one of our cultural resources leads, stands along the SR 203 Langlois Creek fish passage project work site

Indiana Jason

Jason was 11 when the first Indiana Jones movie – Raiders of the Lost Ark – came out in 1981. The old-timey feel of the movie, the wild stunts and the historical references as swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones battled Nazis to save historical treasures, hooked his imagination. It felt different than most movies he’d seen at time. He was already a history and science buff: his mom was a social studies and science teacher and childhood vacations were spent at historical missions in California. After watching the movie, though, whether it was collecting Indiana Jones comic books, trading cards and other movie memorabilia, he knew he’d found his passion.

In college archeology and anthropology classes Jason realized his love of Indiana Jones could become a career. Originally planning on being teacher like his mom, Jason said it was an easy jump in his eyes from history to anthropology and archeology.

Jason has a big collection of Indiana Jones memorabilia including comic books, trading cards,
stickers and even bubble gum!

After getting a BA in history and minor in anthropology at San Diego State University (and later a MA in anthropology from UNLV), Jason began his own Dr. Jones journey. His work took him all over the United States and across globe. He worked on archeological excavations in Jordan and Cyprus, studying the neolithic period (some 6,000 years before today) and, in Egypt, he focused on old stone age, early hominid survey work. Hominids are all modern and extinct Great Apes (that is, modern humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, etc. plus all their immediate ancestors).

A registered professional archeologist, Jason joined our agency as a cultural resources lead six years ago, bringing his 32 years of experience with him. He’s also the current President of the Association for Washington Archaeology.

Jason preparing to photograph stones dug up during the excavation of the Granite Falls Alternate Route project in Snohomish County

Leaving the bullwhip at home

Jason and the rest of our team of archeologists and cultural resource workers pretty rarely have to escape a giant boulder or run for their lives in a jungle – though they do see snakes now and then.

Instead, this team studies human history and pre-history on (and below) our roads and waterways, helping our construction and environmental teams preserve culturally important places. And now and then, they find some pretty cool artifacts. But why does a transportation department even need an archeologist? Great question.

Preserving our state’s important resources

Near our layers of asphalt and concrete lie remnants of human history, forgotten structures and forgotten lives and Jason’s work helps our agency acknowledge and help preserve that history.

Federal and state laws mandate that all our projects, particularly ones that disturb the ground we walk and travel on, be evaluated for their effects on cultural resources. It’s also our policy and commitment to avoid, minimize or mitigate our agency’s adverse impacts to cultural resources. Cultural resources include areas, structures and objects that are at least 50 years old. You may not even know that you’re walking on an archeologically significant site just below you!

Jason and the rest of our cultural resources team work closely with tribes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho as well as local cities and counties to preserve historical sites, landmarks and artifacts of cultural significance.

Jason and our entire cultural resources team work closely with tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, along with cities and counties across the state to preserve things like historic bridges and landmarks, archeologically and anthropologically sensitive sites and spaces/things of cultural significance. They research, for example, whether a highway project might trample on old tribal burial grounds or anything else of historical value.

Jason is driven by the belief that every artifact, no matter the size or shape, has a story to tell. Our cultural resources work provides valuable insights into the lives of those who came before us.

The work of an archeologist

So if he’s not dangling above a pit of angry vipers or swinging on a rope through an ancient temple, what does Jason’s work look like?

Our cultural resources team operates on a three-part system: Identify, Evaluate and Determine for Eligibility. While not quite as exciting as scrambling across a rickety suspension bridge, it’s vital pre-planning work that, trust us, even Indy does before heading out on an adventure (it just doesn’t make the final cut of the film).

  • Identification: Before any large-scale ground disturbance is planned, Jason and his team identify areas with possible archeological significance through desktop research (checking maps, combing through archives, reading books, scanning online records, etc.) and surveying (digging holes or test probes to examine a site). Frequently, Jason and a team of subcontractors will do several shovel probes of the ground. Sometimes only a few dozen probes are dug, other times there can be hundreds or thousands.
  • Evaluate: Next, our archeologists and subcontractors evaluate by screening the soils removed from these test probes or holes to see if they find anything historical or pre-contact (used to describe times before Europeans arrived and contacted Native Americans already living here).
  • Determine for Eligibility: Jason and the team determine if any items found during the digging process are eligible as an archeological finding. If so, he writes reports on which the culture the artifact/object belongs to and next steps, such as returning it to the ground, relocating the construction project or finding a new home for the object.

It’s important to note that while this system typically takes place before ground is disturbed, it can take place at any time, particularly if something unusual is discovered by our crews during excavation.

Jason, standing at the rear, watches Chris and Alana, two employees from Environmental Science Associates (one of our cultural resources subcontractors) complete a shovel probe dig

Noteworthy discoveries

Jason has written more than 150 cultural resources reports in our state and has come across numerous interesting archeological discoveries. Artifacts aren’t just cool things you can find when you dig. There’s always more work to determine what the artifact is, how it got there and how it was preserved. Here’s a small sample of some of the findings he and our cultural resources teams have made:

  • In 2022, as part of a debris flow project on SR 410 near Crystal Mountain Resort where the washed-out road was repaired, Jason and his team studied if the temporary repairs would affect cultural resources after the Nisqually Tribe requested a survey. During the work, Jason’s team found pre-contact impacts (such as a piece of a stone tool), culturally modified trees (a tree Native Americans had removed bark from) and a segment of the old McLellan Highway, which was the old state route to Crystal Mountain.
  • While new culverts were being installed under SR 169 between Renton and Maple Valley in 2021, Jason was called after on-site crews discovered a long section of buried wood planks. He determined the planks belong to an original road built by King County in the 1920s between Renton and Maple Valley.
  • Recently, at the I-90/SR 18 Deep Creek Interchange Improvements project work site near Snoqualmie, a bone was discovered by work crews. Jason was able to determine the bone likely came from a quadruped/ungulate (likely elk) and was not human. His quick response helped keep the project on schedule.
  • While the tree is no longer there as of July 2023, in 2018 Jason determined that a willow tree on Seattle Housing Authority land near I-5 and James Street was a cloned descendant of a willow tree that is near the French dictator Napoleon’s grave site at St. Helena's Island.
  • Historical records determined the site of SR 92 roadwork near Granite Falls likely had archeological sites, and the road was routed around the city instead through those sites. Jason – back when he was still an on-call consultant – and his team found thousands of human-made artifacts (human manufactured stone tools, arrow heads, cutting devices, etc.), many of them thousands of years old. The sites were part of the Olcott archeological sites, which predates the first known pyramids in Egypt!
An uncovered bone was found at the I-90/SR 18 Deep Creek Interchange project site this June. Jason’s quick work determining it wasn’t human – and likely an elk or deer – meant the project could stay on schedule.

How to archeology the right way – not the Indiana Jones way

While Jason remains an Indiana Jones fan – he saw the latest and final movie in the series this past weekend – he says the reality of the job is different than the movie. Movies are great for building interest in archeology, but when he does public outreach as part of his work, Jason points out that unlike Indiana Jones, he doesn’t just hear about a relic and go charging in. There’s lot of consultation and planning, teamwork involved – and most of the found items don’t end up in a museum.

So, what does Jason recommend for all your aspiring amateur Indianas?

If you ever do decide to dig, remember to always call 811 first. It’s state law to know what’s below before you go and dig. If you discover some sort of artifact or object that looks unusual or could be historic, you can always reach out to the Association for Washington Archeology online, , or the Burke Museum’s website, . You can learn more about our cultural resources on our website.