Aqua Terra Cultural Resource Consultants – South Sound Specialists in History and Archaeology

Sarah Amell, owner of Aqua Terra Cultural Resource Consultants (ATCRC), considers the Pacific Northwest home turf, having moved to Olympia when she was nine. Early on she planned to study marine ecology, but while attending South Puget Sound Community College, she was introduced to Northwest coast archaeology and she was hooked.

Sarah’s first hands-on experience as an undergrad was participating in a wet-site field school on Mud Bay during the summer. The following year, she was hired back as the archaeological site manager and lab director. She continued studies that focused on Pacific Northwest native studies and Northwest coast archaeology, working in cultural resources for a local tribe and earning her bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College. As an advanced underwater diver, she reconnected with her love of the sea by going on to receive her masters in maritime archaeology from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, where she lived abroad. While there, she completed maritime archaeology studies and fieldwork throughout Queensland and Tasmania.

Sarah Amell
Sarah Amell is the founder of Aqua Terra Cultural Resource Consultants. Photo courtesy: Sarah Amell

Though she always planned on opening her own firm, Sarah assumed that wouldn’t be until she was closer to retirement, but after a few years working for a private consulting firm and then the Washington State Department of Transportation and the birth of her first child, she decided to take the leap. Sarah says, “It was a good time to try my hand at consulting.”

In 2011, Sarah opened Aqua Terra Cultural Resource Consultants, as just a one-woman shop at first. She did all of the assessments and survey work solo for the first year, based out of her home office. In her second year, Sound Transit Authority awarded her a year-long cultural resource project, which she says was a “game-changer.” It allowed her to grow her firm to a total of five staff, with everyone telecommuting, while meeting on-site for field work.

Aqua Terra handles cultural resource projects for government agencies, tribes, architecture and engineering firms and private property owners throughout Washington State. For the last three years, they worked on the Washington State Department of Transportation’s I-5 JBLM Widening Project, throughout Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Aqua Terra JBLM Project
Along with the Nisqually Tribe, Aqua Terra completed assessments along the I-5 corridor in preparation for the JBLM widening project. Photo courtesy: Aqua Terra Cultural Resource Consultants

Sarah says, “Within the I-5 corridor, we have completed cultural resources assessment for approximately eight miles of culturally rich landscape throughout JBLM. This piggy backed on a cultural resource assessment I oversaw for the WSDOT I-5 SR 16 Tacoma Pierce County HOV Program Projects, which covered about 79 miles of HOV lanes throughout Pierce County. So in total, I have been involved with cultural resource assessment of approximately 90 miles of highway corridor and connections throughout greater Pierce County.”

While most of Aqua Terra’s work takes place on land, they’re also skilled at doing underwater cultural resource assessments. While doing an in-water survey in the Columbia River, the team identified a submerged archaeological site, and successfully recovered archaeological materials, including an intact biface, or more specifically a “classic plateau pentagonal knife.”

Cayuse point
During an in-water assessment in the Columbia River, the team from Aqua Terra unearthed this important artifact. Photo courtesy: Aqua Terra Cultural Resource Consultants

Sarah says, “It was so exciting for our team to identify a site using in-water vibracore bore samples. This type of biface knife was used with big game hunt processing and is common to the Columbia River basin. They date from early in the late period of prehistory, are considered a hallmark of the Cayuse Phase, which was 500-1,500 years ago.”

Most of Aqua Terra’s projects are focused on identifying the presence of historic or archaeological sites that might be impacted by proposed construction projects. When looking at a site like the old Tumwater Brewery, for example, they start by determining where the direct impact areas for ground disturbance are. Then, they look at other recorded sites and structures in the area and conduct historical background research, to see if there are known sites in the vicinity of the project. They work closely with local tribes, seeking technical information regarding the project area. From there, hand shovel testing is done to identify any artifacts. Typically, findings include things like historic nails, cans and bottles, but they’re also looking for stone tools, charcoal fragments and fire-modified rock. After the fieldwork is complete, they provide a professional assessment and recommendation for the client and relevant agencies to review.

With the increased staff and capacity to take on larger projects, Sarah knew it was time to make some decisions about where the business was headed. She participated in Thurston Economic Development Council’s Scale-Up program, which she says is “geared toward small business owners who have been in business for two or more years. The program is tremendously helpful in assisting owners in identifying areas in their business model that may need further development and focus, and developing a growth plan. It was a great opportunity to work side by side with other Thurston County small business owners.”

Participating in the program supported her in honing in on the need to create a multi-use office layout and lab space that was suitable for use by multiple employees. She says, “I still want to provide telecommuting opportunities and flexible work schedules to my staff. It keeps people happy and helps us to put our families first. The staff we retain are motivated and self-directed. But this storefront provides a suitable place for our clients to meet with us in person, as well as staff access to our archival library, specialized equipment, individual workstations and our wet/dry archaeological processing lab. There is gained employee development benefit with our team working side by side.”

Aqua Terra Office
Aqua Terra’s new combined office and lab space houses all of the necessary equipment for their staff and projects. Photo courtesy: Aqua Terra Cultural Resource Consultants

Sarah’s vision became a reality last fall when Aqua Terra purchased a six-acre parcel with a large shop, outbuildings and an unfinished office space in Southwest Olympia. It had adequate room for equipment, multiple workstations and space for a wet/dry lab for archaeological processing. Renovations on the facility began last December and the new office was completed this May.

According to Sarah, it’s been fun to watch it evolve from a “concrete slab and plywood to adding all the personally designed and stained desk units, finishes and office equipment. I have been dreaming of this for years.  I’ve had staff members lend a hand in everything including painting the ceiling. It’s nice to see everyone supportive and excited about where we’re headed.”

The team at Aqua Terra are all settled into the new work space now and welcome new and previous clients that are seeking support with their cultural resource projects. Sarah says, “We’re here, we’re in the South Sound providing cultural resource services and we are excited and available to assist you with your cultural resource compliance needs.”

To learn more, visit the Aqua Terra Cultural Resource Consultants website.

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