Early Native American artifacts found in landowner’s yard
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.