Pocket-sized plastic bags cover the workbench from end to end. Each one contains a handful of grubby stone flakes. These are the spoils of our toil.
Tucked away in the towering pines of a nearby campground is the PIT project field lab. Here volunteers scrub the finds diligently with specially pruned toothbrushes and pans of water. This is the time for archaeologists to eliminate anything that is not culturally relevant, “About 5% of what is collected in the field ends up being discarded,” says archaeologist and field lab supervisor Madeline Ware. It’s better for volunteers to err with the side of caution and collect something questionable rather than miss collecting something relevant.
The countless trays of lithic debitage are left to dry before being transferred to clean artifact bags for curation. Later, they’ll be taken back to the lab at the Almanor Ranger District for further study.
What can these artifacts tell us about the site and the people who spent time here?
Objects like this mano, for example, will provide clues to the different types of activities that were taking place at this site thousands of years ago. The styles of the projectile points and the materials from which they are manufactured can provide insight as to who these people were and where they came from. Even observations of the subsurface strata can provide clues about the ecosystem and the paleoenvironment of the mound. Information is everywhere, for archaeologists it is just a matter of interpreting it.
Back at the site, it is the final few hours of the dig. Despite five days of arduous digging, spirits are still high. By now everyone is well versed in all the different roles of excavation. Paperwork is taken with meticulous detail, unit walls are cut with exacting precision; the PIT project has become a well-oiled archaeological machine churning out fourteen excavation units in just a few short days.
The site has welcomed visits from a variety of individuals: local land owners, law enforcement, Forest Service employees, and curious passersby all interested to learn about the work at the mound. The project has recapitulated the broad appeal of archaeology. People love finding things in the ground.
The PIT has also highlighted the importance of public involvement in the field of archaeology. So much of today’s archaeology,especially CRM, relies on public funding. Keeping the public interested in what we do is part of our job and it helps to ensure that those jobs will continue to receive funding. The PIT project goes one step further by actually involving the public in the physical aspect of archaeology.
“I’m so happy I did this,” one volunteer tells me as we carry the last of the excavation gear back to the trucks, “I’ve learned so much about archaeology. I wish we could stay out here another week!”
So do we. The volunteers have provided more help to the Almanor crew than they could ever know. What was undertaken in five days would have taken over a month with our six person crew.
The 2010 Lassen Pit Project drawing to a close. It’s a bittersweet day. The past week has produced excellent data, happy memories and new friendships, but people are anxious for a shower and the comforts of home.
Over the next few months the data that has been collected will be carefully studied by the Almanor archaeology crew. A more thorough understanding of the mound site will begin to emerge, which in turn will contribute to a more detailed vision of Lassen Forest’s prehistory.
If you are interested in learning more about the Passport in Time program, visit the official website. There you’ll find information on past and future PIT projects as well as an application to apply. Most of the PIT projects have wrapped for the year, but 2011 promises to bring a whole new variety of volunteer opportunities.
More pictures of the 2010 Lassen PIT project are available on Flickr.