Pre-Mazama Discoveries - Passport in Time

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Editorial: Scientists, volunteers open window to county's past

Umpqua National Forest, Oregon, 2009
By The News-Review

Most of us don't equate rain and mud with kids in a candy store (we usually clean the little tykes up first).

But then most of us aren't archaeologists up to our elbows in artifacts from centuries ago at a Douglas County dig where each find linking the site to evidence of the earliest residents of the Umpqua Basin is met with unbridled glee.

Scientists and volunteers at the excavation near Williams Creek east of Glide have been sifting through layers of earth and silt for several years. By all accounts, the effort has been worthwhile.

The forest floor is giving up artifacts that are older than the Mount Mazama volcano blast 6,600 years ago, and some researchers believe that the oldest evidence of human settlement found so far - now estimated at 7,680 years ago - will ultimately be bested. Brian O'Neill, senior staff archaeologist with the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History and the Oregon State Museum of Anthropology, thinks the depth and amount of obsidian arrowheads and other tools found so far lead researchers to believe the site may be older than 10,000 years.

There have been bumps along the way for those working in the area.

Last summer, triple-digit heat kept things warm for the researchers, and then the Williams Creek Fire prompted evacuation of the excavation for a short period. No damage to the dig occurred, but the fire came close enough to scorch trees on its perimeter.

Then came near-freezing weather and cold temperatures, but the crews kept working. More than 1,300 volunteer hours have been logged by those who are assisting the scientists.

The aim of the work is to recover artifacts that will help determine eating and living habits of the former residents of Williams Creek.

A protein analysis of the items found will provide anthropologists with clues on the pre-Mazaman dwellers' diet.

"We hope to learn why this site is so special," O'Neill told News-Review reporter DD Bixby recently. The site's proximity to several miles of easily accessible steams suggests historical fishing grounds.

Debra Barner, an archaeologist with the Umpqua National Forest, said the pre-Mazama site is one of the most interesting she has worked on.

The second leg of their dig has been largely completed, and she and O'Neill hope to return in about two years to see what other discoveries await them.

The area will be protected in the meantime, with looting a concern.

Thefts of artifacts have occurred at other digs, including a 1998 case at sites near Tiller that led to the prosecution of four men.

Looting of archaeological sites is a felony, carrying a hefty fine and potentially years in prison.

It's also wrong to steal history, which is what the archaeologists and volunteers have been preserving: a window to the past.

We commend all of those involved for their efforts. We wish them lots more "candy store" moments, muddy or otherwise.
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