On a cool, overcast June morning, a team of archaeologists and volunteers dug in the dirt, looking for tangible clues about historic Native American trade routes.
Suddenly, one of them saw a glimmer in the dirt. Something shiny and black. “Could it be?” she wondered. Yes, it could.
Megan Wonderly had discovered the 15th obsidian biface on this Willamette Valley property. The landowner had uncovered the other 14 while digging a pond on his newly-purchased property. He contacted the state’s Historic Preservation Office, a division of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
Assistant State Archaeologist John Pouley was ecstatic. He identified the collection as Native American artifacts possibly around 1,000-4,000 years old.
“Of approximately 35,000 recorded archaeological sites in Oregon, few—likely less than 25—consist of biface caches,” he said. “Of the known biface cache sites, this is believed to the first recorded in the Willamette Valley.”
What’s a biface and why was it in a cache?
The cache is primarily comprised of what appear to be blank trade bifaces: hand-sized, unfinished stone tools, largely unmodified from when first shaped at a distant quarry by early Native Americans using a process called flintknapping. The Willamette Valley obsidian bifaces have been sourced to Obsidian Cliffs in the central Oregon Cascades and were roughly shaped at the cliffs, likely for easier transport. Once traded, they would be worked into a finished tool, or provide an expedient source for making sharp flakes. Most of the previously documented cache sites in Oregon contain finished tools such as knives, spears, or arrowheads, according to Pouley.
Pouley and his team scheduled a time to visit the property in order to better understand the context of the cache. The landowner, associated with Abiqua Academy, had only one request: that he be able to invite a class of middle schoolers out to see part of the excavation. Of course, Pouley was happy to oblige and share his love of archeology.
On the morning of the scheduled field trip, a team of archeologists—including two staff, one intern, and four volunteers who came as far as eastern Oregon and Tacoma, Wash., to participate—gathered to dig 3’x3’ holes in the same area where the landowner had come upon the artifacts.
Lucky No. 15
Wonderly, 21, a recent graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, crouched in one of the holes with a trowel, methodically picking away at the dirt, looking for flakes of obsidian and any other clues to give context to the cache. Suddenly, something caught Wonderly’s eye.
“I realized, there’s something obsidian, something hard down here. Sure enough, it was a biface,” she said.
The entire crew gathered around as she carefully dislodged the object from the dirt, took measurements and recorded the data. It would be the only new biface the crew would find over the course of the 2 1/2-day excavation.
“We were pleased to find it in what’s possibly its original position, referred to as ‘in situ,” Pouley said. “The information can help us address a number of research questions, such as possibly refining the estimated age of the site.”
Often items are moved beneath the ground, whether by later human impacts, burrowing animals or repetitive freeze/thaw cycles. A biface in situ assists with establishing context, which allows for comparison with other items recovered during the process of a controlled excavation, he said.
Information gathered from the site will add to the knowledge of prehistoric trade networks.
“The archaeological site provides information on not only what prehistoric biface blanks brought into the Willamette Valley looked like, but also on the knappable properties of the stone, which may assist with developing hypotheses on their intended use,” he said. “Unmodified trade items of any kind typically do not survive in the archaeological record.”
Because of the importance of the site, Pouley received support from the archaeological community, including local universities, private archaeology firms, and Native American tribes. The site is in the traditional territory of the Santiam Band of the Kalapuya. The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation were consulted. The contributions include completed analyses; donated time and expertise to identify the source of the obsidian, 3-D scanning, replication studies to better understand how the bifaces were made, ethnographic references that includes a tribal place name in the immediate vicinity, a magnetometer survey to provide data to assist with the excavation, illustrations and donated gear for the excavation.
“This site makes you wonder how many archaeological sites within Oregon have been found before, and never reported, Pouley said. “Discoveries such as this have the potential to shed light on the history of human occupation. We encourage anyone who finds artifacts on their property to contact us.”
Archaeological sites found on private land are owned by the landowner and the land remains in the owner’s possession. At the conclusion of any state permitted archaeological excavation, all recovered artifacts remain the property of the landowner unless they consist of Native American human remains, burials and associated funerary objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Often, landowners choose to donate recovered artifacts to a museum or tribe. No one is allowed on private land without owner consent, regardless of the presence of an archaeological site.
After the excavation and analyses are completed, Pouley will produce a professional archaeological report on his findings with the intent to have it later converted into a peer-reviewed publication. Pouley and many of the archaeologists that contributed to the study plan to present their findings at a symposium during the 2017 Northwest Anthropological Conference in Spokane, Wash.
He and others involved in the excavation also will share their findings with Abiqua Academy. The cache gave them a tangible piece of history, said a teacher who accompanied the students to the site.
“When we study the history of ancient native peoples of this area, we can now speak more fully to a complexity of culture—trade routes, the manufacturing of goods, migratory patterns—and then point to artifacts like those found here and show our students the evidence,” the teacher said.
The State Historic Preservation Office is part of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Visit www.oregonheritage.org for more information about programs and services.
State Scenic Bikeway Coordinator Alex Phillips manages the 15 designated scenic bikeways in Oregon. The routes are some of the best bike rides in the state and showcase beautiful scenery, state history and local communities. They run past state parks on paved paths and roads, cross mountain passes and high desert plains, and meander through lush farmlands and covered bridges spanning sparkling streams.
Alex shares her passion for bicycling in this bike-alogue of her and a friend’s trip on the Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway.
The Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway is the perfect introduction to the world of self-supported bicycle touring. The ride can be split in two 35-mile days with a rest day of hiking at Smith Rock State Park in between.
To test my assertion, I invited an old friend from our 1980s college days who is a hiker, but not much of a cyclist. Melanie traveled from Massachusetts to my home in Salem. To start her Oregon vacation off right, I took her out to sample Oregon’s wines. She fell in love with a pinot noir, which ended up making the trip with us.
The next morning we woke early for the two-hour drive to the “old west” town of Sisters, the start of central Oregon’s Sisters to Smith Rock Scenic Bikeway. We parked the car near Village Green City Park in the middle of town after checking that overnight street parking was allowed. Mel was impressed by the newly remodeled restroom with cheap, hot showers. Sisters is a town that caters to people who love to be outdoors, get sweaty and then want to clean up to check out the town.
We unloaded our bikes and loaded up our panniers packed with gear for two nights of camping. Then we tested out the load on the short one-mile ride to Sisters Creekside Campground to do what is known in bike touring lingo as the “shake down ride”: a short ride to test that all our gear was packed correctly and that we had what we needed and not too much. We had packed Mel’s borrowed panniers carefully, putting most of the weight in mine.
After setting up our tents, it was just a short walk through the campground for a delicious pizza piled with large, tasty green olives and fresh veggies. Sister’s restaurants, bakeries and coffee houses are popular with bicyclists and visitors.
The next morning we headed out under partly cloudy conditions. In central Oregon, this means that the huge, puffy clouds covering the mountains in the distance would blow off momentarily, exposing a fleeting blue-sky mountain view, before returning to obscure the snow-tipped peaks.
We passed views of the huge and hulking snow-covered Cascades and the smaller and distinct-looking Black Butte, a perfectly round cone that used to be the inside of an ancient volcano.
We took a break for lunch and snapped some photos of baby alpacas grazing in the field. Then, at about mile 27, Mel started to get tired. We just took it slowly, stopping several times to eat gooey electrolytes from tiny packets.
We rode into Smith Rock State Park about five hours (and 35 miles) after leaving Sisters, not exactly record time. We just wanted to have fun, and I wanted to share my love of bike touring. Smith Rock is a great destination with its towering, sheer ragged cliffs of red rocks framed by blue skies and nestled between the curves and crooks of the Crooked River. The park’s majestic rock spires attract climbers from around the world, and its rustic “bivouac” camping area is designed to accommodate them. I felt like we were visiting another world, being among all of those climbers—a world of zero percent body fat.
Spending the night at Smith Rock
After our long day on the bikes, we enjoyed the bottle of pinot Mel had so determinedly hauled. We sat on the edge of the camping area, dangling our legs off the rock that dropped off into the river canyon. Across from us was a solitary ponderosa pine, the home of a bald eagle’s nest. We watched one adult feed the babies while the other watched us and all around, serving as a sentry.
The next morning we were awakened by the strangest screeching and yelling I have ever heard. Later that day, as we headed out to hike Misery Ridge at the park, an Oregon State Parks wildlife biologist told us that immature great horned owls were responsible for that odd wake-up call!
She also told us that some of the climbing routes were closed for a few months to give space and comfort to the Peregrine falcons that lay their eggs on natural ledges in the rocks.
After our impromptu ornithology lesson, we started the moderately difficult 5-mile loop up and over Misery Ridge. The top of the hike—after 900-feet of elevation gain—offers incredible views of the towering Monkey Face, a rock formation popular with climbers. You can also get great views of the Crooked River.
That night, after hiking all day, I worried I had pushed Mel too hard on her first bike tour. We still had the return trip. But Mel woke up before I did and was ready for her second day of bike touring!
A new view
The elevation profile on the Scenic Bikeway map showed that Sisters was about 960 feet higher than Smith Rock. We were going to have to climb back to Sisters. But, we found that with all the rolling hills with long flat sections, the return trip felt no harder than the trip to Smith Rock.
About five miles into our ride, Mel asked if we had missed a turn, since the road looked so different. That is the beauty of an out-and-back: the return trip always offers a new experience. We now had time to really see the places we had zoomed past on the downhill, and what we had seen on the uphill was now just a blur of ponderosa pines, sage, rabbit brush and mountains.
Soaking in the scenery, we even spotted a Great Blue Heron. During one of our short rests on the side of the road, Mel commented on the silence. She said she could hear a mourning dove a mile away. To me, this is one of the best moments of bike touring: the quiet you could never hear from a car.
We stopped to chat with other cyclists also loaded with panniers. Everyone we met had trained more than Melanie and I, and all were riding more miles per day and more days overall. We didn’t care. In Melanie’s words, “Who has time for that?”
Heading out on a first bike tour and with little training at age 50 can be daunting. The bikeway map and directional signage on the route made route planning easy. Melanie paced herself along the way and accomplished her first bike tour, enjoying just a taste and views of Oregon’s bounty along the way.
It’s time to have a safe flashback! Head on out to Milo McIver State Park with friends and family Aug 13 to celebrate the 46th anniversary of Vortex 1.
With Portland rock artist Jon Koonce and blues headliner Lloyd Jones, Vortex 2016 promises great music that harkens back to the original 1970 concert, but with way more clothing. This year’s celebration is family friendly, with activities such as face painting, giant bubble making, and hula hooping. Listen (or join) a “Best of Vortex” story contest. Special commemoration of Dr. Cameron Bangs, doctor-in-chief at the original festival.
The original 1970 rock concert is the stuff of legend. Tens of thousands of people descended on the park for a week-long, nearly impromptu music festival. Loosely organized, and undertaken with the tacit approval of then-Governor Tom McCall, Vortex 1 was created to divert protestors from an American Legion Convention in Portland.
So, grab a tie-dyed tee, dig out those cutoffs, and jump into your VW bus, even if it’s really a minivan. It’s August 13, 1970 again.
Who: For everyone! Family friendly activities.
When: August 13, 2016. Music starts around 3 p.m.
Where: Milo McIver State Park near Estacada
Why: Because rock and roll never dies
How Much: Free, with a $5 day-use parking permit.
Getting Around: Park in the Riverbend Day-use Area. Hop on the shuttle to Vortex Meadow. Shuttle starts 2:30 p.m.
What Else: Joe Daddy’s BBQ for the hungry! Or, bring your own food and drink, and yes, alcohol is OK that day.