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Douglas County, Oregon site yields ancient artifacts

By DD Bixby
Williams Creek, Oregon (AP) 12-09

The summer fire that charred the area along the North Umpqua Highway east of Roseburg was just one of many events that have branded the Umpqua National Forest for millennia.

Last month, in near-freezing weather, volunteers and scientists sifted rubble and layers of forest floor in search of artifacts that predate the Mount Mazama volcano blast – which occurred 6,600 years ago and later formed Crater Lake – and provide a record of the oldest evidence of humans in the Umpqua Basin.

The firmest date linked to evidence found at the archaeological site near Williams Creek is 7,680 years ago, said 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.

However, the depth and amount of obsidian arrowheads and other tools dug up lead O’Neill and others to believe the site may be older than 10,000 years.

Mud and rain couldn’t dampen the excitement the archaeologists felt for the site.

“They got into that pre-Mazama stuff – you should have been here to see Brian – he was like a kid in a candy store,” said Tooter Ansures, cultural resource committee site representative for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

With cold, muddy fingers, O’Neill and others sorted through rocks and debris on a Wednesday in November, looking for the few rock-like pieces or the polished glint of an arrowhead people might have used long ago.

The site, located east of Glide, is on the edge of the Williams Creek Fire.

In late July, excavation was under way at the site and volunteers were toughing out the then triple-digit heat. Debra Barner, archaeologist with the Umpqua National Forest, said once the fire grew to the point at which it was named and moving toward the site, she told everyone to pack up and move out.

Scorched trees can be seen just beyond the site and O’Neill counts it as lucky the site wasn’t disturbed by the fire or crews staging in the sites small turnout.

The evacuation left about one week of work yet to be done.

In November, a few volunteers with the U.S. Forest Service’s Passport in Time program came back to the site, this time in the rain and cold.

More than 1,300 volunteer hours have been logged by volunteers primarily from Oregon, but including a few other states, Barner said.

Eugene resident Jerry Boucock, 64, is one of about a dozen volunteers who have participated and was down in the pit last month chipping away at ash, clay and rocks, centimeter by slow centimeter.

“I prefer to dig,” he said. “Production’s the name of the game; the more dirt we can move the more information we know, so as long as the sifters can keep up with me, I like to dig.”

Boucock is a 1963 graduate of Roseburg High School and drove the North Umpqua Highway often for his summer jobs during college.

Artifacts found in the pit didn’t strike Boucock as particularly different or spectacular, but, like others, he was impressed by their apparent age. He was also enjoying camping with his wife, Barbara, at a nearby campground in an area he referred to as “my backyard.”

Work on the site began several years ago when the Forest Service discovered the site and conducted studies close to the surface.

In 2008, the Oregon Department of Transportation contacted O’Neill because the road department was planning some changes to the area that might have disturbed the site. O’Neill said ODOT’s plans have since changed, but the dig has continued.

This year’s dig went deeper into the pre-Mazama layers.

O’Neill said it will take a while to study the many artifacts to determine eating and living habits of former residents of Williams Creek, mostly because he and other volunteers will have to squeeze in time off the clock.

Some of the more interesting aspects of the site have been the discovery of a high amount of the tool flakes and other anthropologic material. O’Neill said generally it’s good to find 10 or 15 pieces in a small section of soil.

The Williams Creek site has yielded 2,000 flakes of obsidian and tools at times. Some of the obsidian still carries its rougher shell, indicating the volcanic glass was hauled into the area unprocessed from Eastern Oregon.

Charcoal has been unearthed much deeper here than the few other pre-Mazama sites in the Umpqua Basin. O’Neill said evidence from the charcoal cache will more accurately date the site.

He also hopes that protein analysis of the shards will give anthropologists clues as to the pre-Mazaman dwellers’ diet.

“We hope to learn why this (site) is so special,” he said, explaining that the narrow site’s proximity to several miles of easily accessible stream suggests historic fishing grounds.

Barner was equally excited about the site.

“For pre-Mazama, it’s the most interesting site that we have worked on,” she said.

Barner said in about two years she and O’Neill hope to return to the site and see how the terraced area “shapes up.”

For now, the site has had filter cloths placed in the hole and Barner said she expected ODOT to backfill the area to keep it safe from the elements and to thwart would-be looters.

Williams Creek is under the surveillance of the U.S. Forest Service.

The Umpqua National Forest has dealt with looting of archaeological sites, with the most recent case being prosecuted in 1998 where four men pleaded guilty to plundering sites near Tiller.

Looting of such sites is a felony and carries a hefty fine and several years in prison.

Jessie Plueard, tribal archaeologist with the Cow Creeks, said the offense happens more often than people might think and is often a way to fund drug use.

The archaeologists hoped people would respect the resource, appreciate the window it opens into the past, but leave it alone.

“It’s exciting in the sense that it does present the antiquity of the native groups in the area,” Plueard said.

The artifacts will go to the Oregon State Museum of Anthropology and Natural History, but Barner said there was a possibility the Douglas County Museum could use locally found artifacts on a limited basis.

Gardner Chappell, director of the local museum, was keen to learn about the new discovery and the stories it might illuminate.

“The way I like to see it is, artifacts that come from digs like this, they’re like pieces of a puzzle, a puzzle of history. The more pieces you get the more you understand the past,” he said. “And this one apparently is going to tell a very powerful story.”

The local museum has no pre-Mazama artifacts because it is not a research facility.