The Bear Valley Winter Lithic Analysis Project
Malheur National Forest, Oregon, 1999
by Donald Rotell, FS Archaeologist
The rolling hills and plateaus between the Great Basin and the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon are dotted with numerous obsidian outcrops that were important sources for tool stone to the peoples of the Archaic period. This is evidenced by the abundant waste flakes, cores, and large bifaces that are frequently found in the 100-square-mile area occupied by the obsidian deposits. Long-running obsidian studies projects funded by the forest, such as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) obsidian characterization and obsidian hydration, have begun to shed light on these important obsidian quarries. Lithic analysis can also contribute to the development of prehistoric land-use hypotheses.
In March 1999, 14 highly motivated and enthusiastic PIT volunteers arrived in John Day from all over the Pacific Northwest to help analyze huge assemblages of obsidian flakes recovered from the Malheur NF. Scott Byram, an archaeologist from the Oregon State Museum of Anthropology, and Alex Atkins, an expert flintknapper and lithic analyst, supervised as participants analyzed assemblages containing thousands of flakes recovered from nine archaeological sites. After a day or two of training, demonstrations, and a lecture led by Scott and Alex, the analysis was up and running. The system entails identification and measurement of approximately 12 separate technologically diagnostic attributes present in samples of lithic-reduction flakes. Collectively, these data can illustrate the stages of tool manufacture employed at given localities and provide insight into the technological organization of the groups that occupied them. This invaluable information can be retrieved only when capable analysts are willing to risk eyestrain and glass cuts during examination of specimens often smaller than one centimeter in length.
In addition, this hard-working group was successful at compiling information on several hundred projectile points for a database and organizing district artifact collections. Metric data, XRF assignments, and obsidian-hydration measurements for projectile points were entered into the database, which will eventually be linked to the forest’s geographic information system (GIS). Many of the volunteers participated in evening flintknapping sessions, and some were able to take examples of their newly acquired skill home as souvenirs. The close of the project was celebrated with a dinner party at one of John Day’s finest eateries, where each participant was awarded a genuine Alex Atkins–crafted arrow or dart point. The Bear Valley Lithic Analysis PIT volunteers were quick studies whose skills, interest, and determination were truly appreciated!