The Trump “Wall” probably won’t be that bad for archaeology

Posted on January 3, 2017


Ughhh, shoot me now, another article on Trump. But, a change in government means a potential change in the management of heritage so we need to discuss it.

There is a lot to talk about on the subject of heritage and the new administration but I want to take on only one potential issue for archaeology in this post, Trump’s proposal to build a “Border Wall” along the US-Mexico border. Howard has written about it (The Trump Wall in Archaeological Perspective), The Women in Archaeology Podcast had a special episode that mentioned it (Nasty Women in Archaeology Special Episode 12.5), Kristina discussed it in the spring before it looked like a reality (How Trump’s Wall Would Trample Hundreds Of Archaeological Sites) and that does not begin to cover the conversations that have been happening on Twitter and Facebook. Most archaeologists are concerned about what “The Wall” will do to archaeological sites — I have some good news and some bad news about the border wall. First, let’s start with the bad.

It’s Worse Than You Thought!

There is a saying ‘It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the landing’. To horribly mangle that saying in a not very clever way- it’s not “The Wall” that will destroy archaeology it’s the support roads. For every mile of “Wall” there will probably be 10 miles of support roads, if not more. There is not a single road running along the US-Mexican border that one can take to reach all areas of the border. To actually make it to the border one has to take many different roads, in most places that is a single track dirt road. To get bulldozers, trucks, cranes, people, etc. to the border to build “The Wall” those single track dirt roads will need to be bladed, expanded, and in some areas probably rebuilt and reinforced as they go over Arroyos (waterways that are only active during flash floods or part of the year). This is not a 2,ooo mile long project, this is a 10,000 mile+ road and wall project.  Which means we are not looking at a few hundred archaeological sites being destroyed, we are looking at thousands.

The Incredible Shrinking Wall

Now some good news. Let me tell you the story of the incredible shrinking wall. It started out as the full length of the border ~2000 miles but then at the October 2015  Republican Primary debate that shrank to 1000 miles. Trump said, ‘

‘They built the great wall of China. That’s 13,000 miles. Here, we actually need 1,000 because we have natural barriers. So we need 1,000.’

Then right after the election it changed from a “wall” to a “wall” and some fencing. Then it went down to 400 miles. There is a reason I keep putting “The Wall” in double quotes. Don’t get me wrong, I full expect to see a wall built along the border. We have seen how Trump operates with “saving” jobs in Indiana. I would be willing to bet that he will take photo in front of a newly built wall along the border but how long that wall is…? You guess is as good as mine but it is looking to be only a couple of hundred miles, if that. I am guessing they will build a small section near a town, Trump will fly down, get a photo taken (post it to Twitter) and that will be that.

Some more bad news…

Usually, archaeologists are pretty excited about construction by the Federal Government. There is the obvious reason – it means paying work to survey and, if necessary, excavate archaeological resources. Furthermore, much of the border area is not well researched so this has the potential to greatly increase our understanding of many under researched areas of the US.


In 2005 the Real ID law was passed. Why do we care that a law about IDs that was passed? Well, because part of that bill waved all laws that would normally apply to building border barriers. This means the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act, etc. etc. don’t apply. That’s right if Trump builds his “wall” no archaeological work will be required… at all.

So even if it is only a few hundred miles long, with the support roads it will destroy hundreds, possibly thousands of archaeological sites.

But, its not actually that bad

At first glance that seems to be a horrendous outcome for archaeology, except that all of the border Wall area has already been surveyed and some of the archaeology has been excavated. Do you remember the Bush “Border Fence”? Yes, all the way back in 2006 the Secure Fence Act was signed by Bush, to build hundreds of miles of border fence. After of course passing the House, and in the case of the Senate a 80-19 vote. For those of you doing the math in your head, yes, 80 out of 100 votes means that more than half of Democrats voted for it. Oh, and recent Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Perry, now potential head of the Department of Energy, but you probably know him from Dancing with the Stars, criticised the fence in a speech delivered in Spanish. Oh, what a difference 10 years makes.

Even with the Real ID act eliminating the need for all environmental and cultural work on the border the Customs and Border Patrol still conducted environmental and cultural heritage surveys (you can read short reports at the link). Not, just on the wall but on the support roads too. I couldn’t find exact numbers but rough back of the envelope calculations of mine puts 80-90% of the border surveyed. I couldn’t find mileage for the support roads but most of them appear to have been surveyed. Unless Trump goes for a wall on 100% of the border, which he has said he won’t do, then “The Wall” won’t destroy many site archaeological sites as they have already been dug or the roads moved around them as part of previous project to build a “Border Fence”. It too was a mix of fence, walls and vehicle barriers. Actually half of it is Normandy style vehicle barriers and not meant to stop people. If the land was too unsuitable to support a fence then it won’t support a wall. “The Wall” is only likely to replace fence and not cover new areas.

images of US/Mexico fences and vehical barriers

Now with CRM we usually resurvey areas because you never know what will pop up. This is not because the first archaeologists who conducted the survey were incompetent but shifting sands and erosion always reveal new sites. So inevitably some undiscovered sites will be destroyed if no archaeology work is undertaken but not many.

The Bigger Picture

Really, the impact of “the Border Wall” will not be the impact on a few potentially un-discovered sites, (in that case not too bad for archaeology) it will be how the Trump administration deals with heritage aspects of the project. Like the promise to save jobs in Indiana, the “Border Wall” was one of the few tangible promises made by Trump and one that will make a good photo-opp. Rather then the complicated and un-glamorise task of writing legislation it could also be accomplished relatively soon. I suspect “The Wall” will be the soonest example of how the new administration will handle heritage. It will be a harbinger of things to come. The Bush Administration did not have to conduct any environmental or cultural work and yet they still did the work. Will the Trump administration do the same?

Or, as I suspect will happen- will they be involved enough in the details of the construction to even know there are cultural heritage laws or will the civil servants manage it as they always have? Your thoughts?

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