Unearthing a gem at Whatcom

By Kelly Sullivan

A glass case of skulls sits menacingly off to the side in room LDC 215A, staring students down as they scribble notes during their tri-weekly anthropology lecture from teacher Al Reid. It may ease ones’ thoughts to know they are not real, but casts collected by the anthropology department over the years to show students some of humanity’s ancestors, including a replica of Lucy, everyone’s favorite Australopithecus afarensis.

Reid has taught anthropology at Whatcom since the fall of 1999, and has run his own company since 1991. His company surveys sites, mainly in Whatcom County, to assess whether there are historic or prehistoric materials that are threatened by potential construction.

Reid never envisioned himself as a teacher in his younger years, but his deep interest and passion in cultural studies and geography eventually led him to his position here at Whatcom.

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“I did archeology for a while and was accumulating knowledge, and started thinking that I should put that knowledge to use,” said Reid.

“It is really obvious how passionate he is about anthropology and archeology, and that passion really transfers over in class” said Katie Dec, 20. She is a student in Reid’s Anthropology 100 class.

Reid’s interest in anthropology came about while taking classes at Tacoma Community College. He had been taking some GURs (General University Requirements), and found an interest had been sparked in anthropology, the study of different cultures, he explained. An instructor of his had graduated from Western with a degree in anthropology and suggested Reid “give it a try.”

What has resulted from this is a long career in the research of cultures and archeological sites in the Pacific Northwest. One story in particular sticks out to Reid. In 1987, after graduating Western with a master’s, he found work on a site on the Hoko River as the field supervisor. His team found a beautiful wooden harpoon point with carving etched onto its surface. It was later determined, by the layer of earth in which it was found, as one of the oldest five wood-carved art artifacts discovered in the United States. It was a “very exciting find,” Reid said.

During this time he found work in surveying areas in Washington that contained lithic materials, or stone tools that “tell us something about their history.” It helps regional and local anthropologists re-create the histories and cultures of the Pacific Northwest.

After Western, Reid became a Mt. Baker Ranger District archeologist for six seasons and then eventually found work surveying areas in the North Cascades, and in 1988 helped survey Ross Lake. The task was to drain the lake, and during this time his team helped uncover 100 sites that ranged from 10,000 years old to the present.

Reid’s company is a manifestation of his time working as a surveyor in the Pacific Northwest. Alfred Reid Archeological Consulting is hired by companies planning to develop and build on land around Whatcom County. His company surveys them, before the structures are built, to make sure there are no historical or prehistoric sites where companies are trying to build, and to assess what kind of damage the new architecture will do to the land.

His company has located over 150 locations in the Birch Bay area, prehistoric and historic. Reid said that prehistoric sites are areas that contain materials made before there were written records in that area. For Whatcom County this was around the 1840s.

His work has taken him outdoors frequently over the past few decades. He has come away from it with a deep love of camping and canoeing. He admits unfortunately, he has found himself lacking the time to do these things in the last few years between working at the school and his second job.

Reid is one of nine siblings. He said he was an “Army brat” before he was 12, when his father left the Army. His family moved around quite frequently before settling down in Washington.

“We arrived in Tacoma between appearances of the Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ so I saw them in Laramie and Tacoma. They broke up my senior year of high school, but my sophomore and junior years were defined by them,” said Reid as a tidbit he remembers from that time.

He has more of an anthropological strategy when it comes to examining music on a daily level. Every quarter, Reid asks Chris Roberts to come in and explain the beginning of music in prehistoric cultures. For example, rocks and stones and sticks to create percussion. “The human voice was probably involved as well,” he added.

He is constantly reading anthropological and archeological texts, and doesn’t dedicate too much time to music or movies. He has seen two films in a “movie house” in the last 12 years; “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Saving Private Ryan”, Reid said. He did enjoy reading the novel of “Hitchhiker’s Guide.”

Reid uses some of his free time for speaking engagements around Whatcom County, including in elementary schools.

“I tell the kids my trowel is my time machine,” he said.

Reid also is spreading sustainability awareness through the community by what he has learned from his study of Pacific Northwest Cultures.

“When you fish you put your net halfway across the river, so you don’t take all of the fish. When you go take cedar bark you ask the tree and thank it afterward,” Reid said.

One thing is clear: Reid has a deep passion and respect for cultures here in the Pacific Northwest. His extensive knowledge of anthropology and geography is undeniable.

“I think he’s wonderful,” said student Beverly Snow, 63. “I really do.”


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