The Time Travelers
How BLM Archaeologists are Bringing Ancient History Back to the Future.
story by Candy Harmon
main photo courtesy of The Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University
Archaeologists at the BLM's Burns District are time travelers, dusty Indiana Joneses scouring the high deserts of southeastern Oregon.
Each year they brave sand, sun, and wind to sift through layers of earth hoping for a glimpse of the ever-distant past.
And what does our past look like? Well, if a picture is worth a thousand words, an archaeologist's findings are a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular screened in sparkling Technicolor. Ancient artifacts serve as tactile touchstones brought forth from eons gone to allow us to shake hands with our prehistoric ancestors. And it's from this antediluvian refuse that we can paint a picture of long-lost civilizations.
Particularly impressive, BLM archaeologists and their partners have uncovered 27 Clovis spear points over the last decade. These are tools made and used at the end of the last glacial period - over 11,000 years ago. And though this number of spear points may not seem large to a lay person, it is actually quite massive relative to the total number found in Oregon. Any researcher will feel lucky to find one Clovis spear point a year - which makes the BLM ecstatic to have averaged almost three times that number of discoveries.
But how did the BLM begin bringing forth souvenirs from our ancient America?
Thar's Gold! Or at least Obsidian...
In the beginning, Dianne Ness, a seasonal archaeology technician for the BLM, launched Clovis Quest, a program to connect this ancient civilization with our 21st Century. Her efforts found the BLM joining forces with volunteers from the Oregon Archaeological Society, the University of Oregon Field School, and hardy community members from eastern Oregon. Together these groups comb the high desert each year for elusive evidence. And with the support and assistance of the BLM's Burn District's archaeological division, this group has been able to study approximately 1,000 acres each year.
So what in the world is Clovis anyway? Actually, Clovis isn't a "what." It's a "who." Clovis is the name given to the ancient people who created and used the distinctive weaponry and tools during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene eras some 13,000 years ago.
Pure Clovis, Honey
Currently, the BLM and Clovis Quest are focused on four sites: Sage Hen Gap, Sheep Mountain Clovis, Trout Creek Paleo Camp, and Lake on the Trail. Two of these sites, Sage Hen Gap and Sheep Mountain Clovis, appear to hold the greatest potential for evidence.
Due to its unique landscape, Sage Hen Gap is the perfect spot for an ambush. "We think that the Sage Hen Gap site is near a kill site for big game animals. Most likely some of the now-extinct species," says Scott Thomas, Burns District Archaeologist. Thus archaeologists are confident they'll find direct evidence of hunters here. And because this site is pure Clovis, archaeologists expect to find strictly Clovis technology.
A Tourist Attraction for 12,000 Years
The other premiere location, the Sheep Mountain Clovis site, has been a popular location for human inhabitants for over 12,000 years - which is good news for the BLM and Clovis Quest. Across the millennia, inhabitants of this area as well as nature itself have covered over previous cultures by building new ones on top. It's like a prehistoric version of the city of Budapest which saw ancient cities enveloped by newer ones. And so archaeologists feel Sheep Mountain Clovis' deeply-buried soils will yield well-preserved evidence of its Clovis-bearing human inhabitants.
"This site is super important, because it may contain hearths and other living spaces used during the Clovis era. And they may contain charcoal to date (its age). If we find charcoal, it will be the only site in Oregon and the Northern Great Basin with a dateable Clovis period occupation," says Scott Thomas.
Finding additional artifacts beyond spear points may open the possibility of dating this region. The actual timeline of the arrival of Oregon-found Clovis technology can then be compared with data from other regions of the country. And because the Clovis culture arrival date remains a worldwide topic of debate, the BLM's archeological team is determined and hopeful to find relics that can help the world reach a final answer on the timeframe.
So while the BLM's archaeologists in the Burns District continue to happily find the most Clovis-bearing sites in Oregon, their goal is far more global. They hope future discoveries will unearth evidence of the Clovis people's vibrant life. Then they can answer bigger questions. What kind of activities did they perform? What was their social unit like? And, most mysteriously, what happened to them? Finding Clovis points is but the first step to identify potential campsites and kill sites - areas which archaeologists hope will provide greater detail to telling the story of these ancient humans.
To learn more about Clovis Quest and archaeology at the BLM, please contact Dianne Ness at 541.573.4400 or visit the BLM's cultural heritage homepage at blm.gov/or/resources/heritage.