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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT

Oregon / Washington

Ancient Aeronautics

In search of prehistoric civilizations, antediluvian artifacts, and a hill with at least two bars of cellular service.

story by Maria Thi Mai
photos by Corey Plank & Maria Thi Mai


Exposition

Do you Remember the childhood game "rock, paper, scissors"?

That's what comes to mind as I circle the ancient Medicine Wheel some 40 miles outside Burns, Oregon. I wonder if the sons and daughters of the people who built this terrestrial rock bracelet played games like we do.

Archaeologists tell us the Medicine Wheel is thought to be less than 2,000 years old whereas the oldest human inhabitants in Oregon lived almost 14,300 years ago. Interesting. Were the people who made the Medicine Wheel their descendants? Was the Medicine Wheel a place to play, dance, and tell stories? Did they convene council here to make crucial decisions? Who sat around the circle? Men? Women? Were children allowed? (Did rock beat paper?)

Rising Action

Ancient Aeronautics

These and a plethora of other questions are what a team of field researchers from the BLM and the University of Oregon are here to explore. Joining us are Oregon Public Broadcasting producer Vince Patton and photographer Nick Fisher to film for an upcoming Oregon Field Guide story. And lugging seven tanks of helium is the BLM's own cartography crew: Corey Plank, Ed Zigoy, and Orrin Frederick. Local guides include BLM Burns archaeologist Scott Thomas along with Chuck Morlan.

Draining two tanks of helium, we fill our big yellow balloon to suspend a camera that will capture images of ancient symmetrical carousels. A Global Positioning System records our coordinates. And, as I ponder how ancient people oriented themselves, I wonder how our own technology will be studied by spaceage archaeologists in the future.

Our cartography crew raises the balloon to film the BLM's version of a Google Earth™ image of the Medicine Wheel. Satisfied with our photos, we plan to move to the University of Oregon Archaeology Field School at Sheep Mountain, a hundred miles away.

Coming Down

Ancient Aeronautics

When we arrive the next day, I squint to see Professor O'Grady halfway up the hillside sitting lotus style. He reminds me of Yoda from Star Wars contemplating how to travel through time and hyperspace. But actually, he's sitting in the only spot where we get cell reception. As we look toward the ancient past, our modern world continues.

The Sheep Mountain landscape is peppered with colorful tents and meandering cows. Enthusiastic twentysomethings in the high desert landscape create a cacophony of swishes and arrhythmic drumming as they pound and sift the dirt searching for Clovis-age artifacts. Hunched over large screens, they speculate who's going to be bumped off next on the reality show Survivor.

Dénouement

In the end, I believe children from the societies of Paisley Caves some 14,000 years past to Clovis 12,000 years ago to more recent millennia at the Medicine Wheel did indeed play games. And they told stories. Just as we do today, the mystery of life cycles forward. Each generation is born into their own world, a sovereign intersection of time and space, while the universal path marches ever on.


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