PIT Project – Part I: Breaking Ground

Monday morning.  The sun spills over the mountains, bathing the meadow in a warm, orange hue.  People of all ages march single file towards a large barren mound in the center of the pasture.  The sound of clanking shovels and plastic buckets draws the attention of a few free ranging cattle who call this small section of land beneath Mount Lassen home.

The equipment is deposited in a pile, cups of coffee are finished off, sunscreen is applied vigorously in preparation for the day’s undertaking.  Volunteers and Forest Service employees exchange names and handshakes.

“This is my third PIT project this year,” says a proud middle-aged man in a bucket hat, “I’ve been up since 5AM ready to go!”

Work begins with a keen set of eyes and a good deal of walking.  Surface survey, or pedestrian survey as it is often called, is the first step in the archaeological process.   In this preliminary stage, archaeologists scour the surface of a site in search of cultural remains.

“Here is another one… and another,” shouts Dave, a former Land Surveyor and long time PIT veteran.  He points to a shiny black chip that shimmers in the sunlight: an obsidian flake, “They’re everywhere!”

It is primarily this lithic debitage that these archaeologists seek; pieces of jet black obsidian or steel-gray basalt.  Obsidian is of particular interest in that the stone is not available in the nearby area.  The appearance of foreign materials is a good indicator of human activity, in this case tool making.

“We know it’s cultural because this particular obsidian comes from Kelly Mountain, which is about a half a days walk from here,” a senior Forest Service archaeologist says of the black volcanic glass, “It didn’t walk here on its own.”

There is also ground stone and a sizeable number of projectile points littered about. 

“Got it!” shouts Tim Van der Voort, a Forest Service archaeologist who is tasked with mapping the site.  The volunteer holding the prism moves to the next flag which marks a broken basalt projectile point and the process is repeated.  With over a hundred pieces of debitage flagged, it’s a job that requires an extreme amount of patience and precision from both individuals.  All of the surface finds are recorded with the total station and then tagged and bagged for collection.

Mapping the surface finds provides archaeologists with a sense of where concentrations of artifacts are located and where best to place excavation units on the site.  The site is initially setup with six excavation units, widely dispersed around the mound to get the most representative sample.

“Stringing units: it’s almost zen-like,” says Forest Service archaeologist Madeline Ware as she weaves the chartreuse string over and around a series of iron nails to form the meter square unit.  The unit is carefully measured to the centimeter: 100 across.  “I think every archaeologist enjoys it.  It’s relaxing and a nice break from survey.”

She pounds in the final nail, establishing a unit datum, or reference point, from which all of the measurements will be based.  Only then can excavation can begin.

Three forests have combined forces for this particular project; Lassen, Plumas and Mendocino, bringing together nearly a dozen Forest Service employees.  This allows one archaeologist to work with two or three volunteers at each excavation unit.  It is this close ratio of professionals to volunteers that contributes to such a rewarding experience.

Thousands of cubic centimeters of soil begin making their way from the tip of a shovel to the bottom of a screen.  Each person plays a part in the excavation process either digging, screening or recording data and the work alternates as the levels progress.  It is dirty work.  As the soil is shaken through the quarter-inch mesh, great plumes of dust take to the sky.  It’s not long before everyone is covered in a fine layer of grime.

“It’s terrible getting so dirty so quick, but it’s all part of the job,” a female volunteer admits.

All of the surface finds and EUs are mapped in with the total station.

Within minutes flakes and projectile points begin to materialize in the screens.  One unit even produces a mano, a type of handstone used in association with matates, or grinding slabs.  All of the artifacts are carefully bagged and will be taken back to the lab at the end of the day.

Of course, some excavation units are more successful than others.  My first unit on the furthest edge of the mound yields a measly 6 flakes in four levels.  Meanwhile, units at the top of the mound are producing nearly two hundred flakes per level!  Still I stay positive, it’s only the first day.

“Even when you are not finding anything, you are still learning something about the site,” says an observant first-time volunteer.  It’s true that less productive units help archeologists understand where activities were and were not occurring on the mound.

It’s hard work, but it is good work and everyone is happy to be there.  I can’t help but smile as the first day draws to a close and the crew boss shouts for us to pack it up.  Eight hours of hard work and everyone is still smiling.  It’s a satisfying sight and has me anxious to see what tomorrow will bring.

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