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Contrary to popular belief, I don’t dig for dinosaurs. Nor have I ever uncovered troves of gold left behind by pirates, bootleggers or Spanish conquistadores. The reason why I dig is so much more valuable than that. I’m looking for the hidden pieces of information that tell the story of our community and the people who made San Antonio what it is today.

Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the recovery and analysis of material culture. My team and I at Raba Kistner use systematic methodologies to look for artifacts and other clues that reveal something we didn’t know before, from 50 years ago to tens of thousands of years in the past. San Antonio has more than 300 years of written history, with so many generations of prehistory that came before. To me, my job is an incredible opportunity for discovery and preservation in a way that respects the past while allowing our city to grow.

It’s no wonder how I ended up where I did. Born and raised in San Antonio, I was always the out-of-doors kind of kid. While studying at UTSA for my undergraduate degree, I hadn’t declared a major by my third year. But as it turned out, I had enough courses in anthropology, a four-field approach to the study of humanity, past and present. A field course in Belize helped me solidify my love for archaeology and I landed back in San Antonio after pursuing a master’s degree from Texas Tech University in the same field.

Eventually, I ended up here, at Raba Kistner, Inc., a company that is incredible in every way — especially when it comes to leadership. Cultural Resources Program Director  Steve Tomka has helped me grow professionally in the study of Spanish Colonial archaeology and cultural resource management. 

Rhiana Ward is assistant director of cultural resources at Raba Kistner.
Rhiana Ward is the assistant director of cultural resources at Raba Kistner. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

People who want to go into archaeology need to understand that you will start at the bottom — in snaked-infested swamps or barren oilfields in the middle of nowhere with just a screen, five gallons of water strapped to your person and a shovel. Today is a little different for me. I’m 14 years into this wonderful career, five of which I’ve spent at Raba Kistner, where I am now an assistant director with a current workload of about 30 projects on my plate. I spend about half my time in the field serving as a principal investigator, and the other half in the office working on reporting and business development. 

Construction crews see me as a “frenemy.” I don’t want to halt their progress, but it is important that we document and assess cultural resources for their significance and potential to contribute to the known history/prehistory of the region. If you visit any downtown construction site today, chances are an archaeologist isn’t too far away, helping developers and construction crews navigate the rich history of our city. We build relationships with contractors, both on and off the job sites so that we all can appreciate each other’s work in a better way.

Archaeology is for preserving our history. Our goal is to allow projects to move forward with minimal impact on our cultural resources. If we do have to impact those resources, there must be testing and research that takes place before any construction project can continue. 

Human remains have been uncovered below the Alamo Church, pictured above is dig performed below the long barracks.
Archaeologist Rhiana Ward uses a device to 3D scan an excavation site in the Long Barracks at the Alamo in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Archaeology is my life’s work, and it is important from a company standpoint to have a robust team with a wide range of experience to be able to navigate sensitive and significant pieces of history. I am proud and humbled by our team and the work that we have accomplished together at Raba Kistner. With our collective knowledge, we have contributed to some significant projects important to San Antonio, including preservation efforts at Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), the development of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, and the renovations at City Hall in Military Plaza. 

There are no dinosaur bones that I’ve discovered yet, and I’m not a millionaire from finding gold. But I could think of no better way to live my passion than how I’m doing it right now.

Rhiana Ward is the assistant director of cultural resources at Raba Kistner.