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Professional Hiker

July 16, 2004—What looked like snow in a Colorado field turned out to be an archaeological treasure for Rodney Denardo.

Archaeological Finds

As part of his job as an archaeologist with the USDA Forest Service, he was surveying an area north of Aspen, where timber removal was scheduled, for evidence of historic or prehistoric human habitation. The white material turned out to include thousands of pieces of chert and quartzite—remains of tools, projectile points, and other scattered remnants.

Denardo and his associate documented the site and took some samples back to their lab, where they discovered that the pieces were from the early Paleoindian era (approximately 9-10,000 B.C.).

Rodney Denardo in his gear for a subsurface survey

Rodney Denardo in his gear for a subsurface survey

“That’s why it’s great working out here,” said Denardo. “In Pennsylvania, there’s so much silt and sediment that you may have to dig a few meters under the ground, sometimes so deep you have to use a ladder. Out here, you only have to dig a couple of inches through sand or sediment and then you’re at bedrock. You walk around and it’s lying all over the place.”

Denardo currently works in the White River National Forest, deep in the Rocky Mountains. A large part of his job involves traveling to areas that are scheduled for development—trails, ski runs, building or dam construction, pipeline routes—and surveying the timber and fields for signs of past human habitation. As the areas are undeveloped, his travels are usually on foot.

Many of the sites found are related to the Ute Indian tribe. The level of trust between the tribe and the Forest Service has grown over the years. “The Indians visit us and tell us where their sacred sites are,” he said. “It’s their heritage, and it’s important that they trust us enough to release that information.”

The Forest Service tells the Utes immediately if they find something relating to their past so the tribe can decide what to do with the site and artifacts. “I can give my best guess as to what something is, based on the evidence at the site,” said Denardo. “But having the people help us who actually know is great.”

Rifle Falls is one of the many beautiful places where Denardo works.

Rifle Falls is one of the many beautiful places where Denardo works.

Sharing his education is a big part of the job, too. Denardo and his colleagues visit students in elementary schools and in college classes, not only talking about what archaeologists do but also about the history of the area. Subjects are primarily about pioneering, gold and silver mining, the Ute Indians, the prehistoric era, and of course the Forest Service. “The younger the audience, the more likely they want to hear about prehistoric times,” Denardo said. “That’s when we pull out the arrowheads and stuff.”

Denardo is also required to work as a firefighter during forest emergencies. “Being trained in that is a really good idea because of all the major forest fires,” he said. “You never know—we could be out there and there’s a lightning strike, and the fire starts ripping through the forest. We’d call it in and start digging lines.”

Growing up in Ford City foreshadowed Denardo’s closeness with IUP. His mother, Melissa Denardo ’88, M’90, works with technology support and training at the university, and his father, Rod, graduated this spring with a degree in Hospitality Management and may teach the subject while planning to open his own restaurant.

Denardo did his share of digging through Pennsylvania soil while at IUP. Before graduating in 1999, he was an elementary education major. After taking a couple of anthropology courses as electives, he switched majors during his sophomore year. “Phil Neusius was my teacher,” said Denardo. “He took us out on a couple of field assignments, and I really liked it.” 

The opportunity to work outside and find objects that hadn’t been touched in hundreds or thousands of years fascinated Denardo. “You’re always finding something new, you’re always learning,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to come up with.”

The Denardo family

The Denardo family

Denardo met his wife, Nicole, in Colorado. She is a registered nurse in the city of Rifle, where they live with their children, Kylee and Megan. “It’s funny, my main supervisor is married to a nurse, and his assistant is married to a nurse, and we’re not the only ones,” he said. “Maybe it’s because of all the walking, the leg and back pain, I don’t know…”

He’s not complaining, though, even though his walks have taken him through the Badlands of North Dakota and the cornfields of Kansas where, as he said, “you don’t know where you’re at because the corn’s ten feet tall and you can’t follow your map.”

Denardo believes he has one of the best archaeology jobs a person can get. “To listen to the Utes and relay their history to the public, plus the fact that I get to see some of the most beautiful country in America. I can hike through snowdrifts and alpine terrain to the top of a 14,000 foot mountain, or travel the whole way to the western part of the state where it becomes desert. Here I am, doing what I never knew that I really wanted to do.”

All photos courtesy of Rodney Denardo