PIT project held in Malheur National Forest
Malheur National Forest, Oregon, 2015
by Steve Howe, Burns Times-Herald
Volunteers help to shed light on stone toolmaking site
Posted on August 26th, 2015 in News
The Passport in Time (PIT) program flag flies, with the archaeological testing site in the background. (Photo courtsey of Steve Howe)
Thousands of years ago, people were regularly visiting – and making tools at – an upland Silvies River site in what is now the Malheur National Forest (MNF).
That’s what archaeological surveys and testing, conducted by MNF archaeology staff and volunteers with the Passport in Time (PIT) program, have indicated.
“This beautiful location, nestled among willows and large Ponderosa pine, may have been a customary stop for early inhabitants as they moved within the forest,” said Pete Cadena, district archaeologist on the Emigrant Creek Ranger District of MNF.
Recently, United States Forest Service (USFS) professionals discovered “a relatively old American Indian spear point estimated to be seven to eight thousand years old,” said Don Hann, archaeologist and heritage program manager at MNF.
PIT volunteers helped staff archaeologists complete archaeological testing at the site this past week, Aug. 17-21, and the information learned will contribute to a better understanding of how the local area was used in the past, said Hann.
The PIT program
PIT is a volunteer program through the USFS. Participants can apply for a variety of archaeological and historic preservation projects in locations around the country. Once selected, they spend one week working with USFS officials and learning about the local area and subject matter.
Cadena described PIT as an “extraordinary program,” and he praised work done by volunteers.
Volunteers at MNF are most often retirees and university students. They receive a “passport” and a PIT passport number. Each time the volunteers help on a project, the project leader stamps the volunteers’ passports and documents their hours.
Cadena said there are usually two PIT projects per year on MNF. One involves lab work with previously-collected artifacts, and the other is field work.
Last week’s project was the latter. Ten volunteers and five archaeology technicians participated throughout the five days, uncovering evidence of a prehistoric toolmaking site.
The week began with a general project overview, as well as safety reminders about staying hydrated and taking breaks during the work. Following that, the group spent a few hours conducting an initial survey, which involves walking across the site in a line, scanning the surface for debitage (rock flakes resulting from the manufacture of stone tools) and other artifacts and placing pin flags at those locations.
The survey continues with shovel test probes. Several spots are selected to examine the subsurface content of the site. Each probe is 50 centimeters by 50 centimeters (about 20 inches by 20 inches) square, and is carefully tested. As each test unit is dug further down, the volunteers and technicians carefully examine the upturned soil, looking for debitage or partial or complete tools. The soil is then placed into buckets and hauled over to one-eighth-inch wire mesh sifting screens, where others work to scour the dirt for smaller flakes remaining.
For every 10 centimeters of depth, a report is filed by one of the archaeological technicians. They note on a grid where larger items were found, soil types encountered, and a variety of other information. The process is repeated until they hit “sterile” soil – the point at which they stop finding the artifacts – or the information needed is acquired.
All collected flakes are bagged and labeled. Cadena said the next step is to start typing them. Obsidian flakes make up the majority of what is found on MNF. They are measured and divided into three categories – primary, secondary, and tertiary. These categories indicate the amount of cortex (the original, rough outer surface of the obsidian) present on the flake – from primary with the most to tertiary with none.
Cadena said this categorization indicates what stages in the manufacturing of projectile points were completed on the site. Primary flakes are those that are taken off first when carving a point. Secondary flakes result as the process progresses, and tertiary flakes are the product of the finishing stages.
If there are an even number of flakes found in each category, it can be inferred that people were starting and finishing tools at the site. That appears to be the case at this site, Cadena explained. A wide range of flakes were found.
Cadena said everything that’s found is archived, and a final report is written. This provides a baseline of information for those wanting to do further research on this site in the future.
“The reality is, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, somebody could utilize this information even more, so the work [done by the PIT project participants] will just keep going for years and years,” he said.
And Cadena would know. He did his graduate research on MNF. He said the site he studied had five or six PIT projects conducted on it, and that data allowed him to formulate his question and pursue his research.
“For a graduate student, that’s pretty awesome, because you usually don’t get all of that support. In this case, I was able to have my own site and look at data – all because of years and years of PIT volunteers’ hard work,” Cadena said.
But it’s not just the professionals who find value in the projects.
Rick and Mary Gant of the Richland, Wash., area are no strangers to the PIT program. But up until now, they had only done historic preservation projects.
“This is our first adventure in archaeology,” said Rick.
He noted that a complete Elko point had been found during the week.
“It’s pretty humbling, when you find something that was created for hunting a couple thousand years ago, and nobody’s seen it since,” he said.
“It’s been very interesting,” Mary said. She added that in the future she’d like to try other archaeology projects looking at different historical periods. In terms of the work tasks, she said she preferred the digging to the sifting, as she didn’t feel as confident in identifying the smaller pieces to pick out.
“I like to learn new things, but I also want to feel like I’m doing something useful,” she said.
Mary, a retired computer programmer, said she and Rick have not only personally enjoyed participating in PIT projects, but see a bigger meaning behind that participation.
“For years, we have backpacked and done a lot on Forest Service lands, and we felt [volunteering with PIT] was a way to kind of give back a little for all the enjoyment we’ve had,” she said.
Jim Goertzen, a retired counselor from St. Helena, Calif., came to this year’s MNF PIT project with 11 archaeology projects already under his belt. He said he has participated in between one and three projects per summer for the last six years since his retirement. Most were located in California, but PIT has also taken him to Nevada and Arizona. He said there weren’t as many projects offered in his home state this year, so he came to Oregon.
“The projects are a lot of fun, and you get to meet a lot of fun people,” Goertzen said.
He added that he’s enjoyed learning about the ingenuity of prehistoric peoples in the manufacturing of stone tools.
“I just have nothing but respect for them,” he said.
Goertzen said he’s always had a strong interest in history, and after retiring, he thought about going back to school. However, he didn’t want to sit in a classroom – he preferred hands-on experiences. So after reading an article about PIT in American Archaeology magazine, he went for it.
“Here I’m surrounded by university-trained people, and I’m getting way more from them than I would in a classroom in six months. In one week’s time,
I’m getting more than 40 hours of classroom time, as far as I’m concerned. It’s really good,” said Goertzen.
On Thursday, volunteers took a break and made a trip to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and at the end of the day on Friday, Cadena provided instruction on using an atlatl, or spear-thrower.
This year was special because it marked the 25th anniversary of the PIT program, and volunteers went home with commemorative pins.
The PIT program offers a number of opportunities to volunteers. According to its website, this includes: “archaeological survey and excavation, rock art restoration, archival research, historic structure restoration, oral history gathering, and analysis and curation of artifacts.”