Answering the Call to Dig

Archaeology Field School Unearths History at Native American Rockshelter

If there’s one thing archaeologists love, it’s digging in the dirt. In June and July 2013, students of Weber State University’s Archaeological Field School gleefully got their hands dirty excavating a Native American site in the Birch Creek Valley of eastern Idaho.

The team — anthropology professor Brooke Arkush and students Jeffrey Page, Sariah Horowitz, Kallie Gross and Timothy Alger — worked hard unearthing Bobcat Rockshelter, a prehistoric big game hunting camp in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Each year, field school students spend about 21 days in the summer excavating archaeological sites. The past two years’ trips have been spent studying Bobcat Rockshelter.

Because prehistoric humans used rockshelters — cave-like overhangs carved by weathering and erosion — as temporary shelters or permanent family dwellings, archaeologists can study the remnants and learn about ancient ways of life.

Three times a month, the team met at 6 a.m. and drove four to five hours to the project area. Once there, they camped near the excavation site for seven days at a time, driving home for three-day breaks. While at the rockshelter, students started bright and early, working from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. every day, rain or shine.

Page recalled weathering a rainstorm with thunder so strong it nearly knocked him out of bed. Daytime didn’t bring much improvement. “All the dirt turned to clay as we were trying to sift it out. That was a lot of fun,” he said.

To excavate, the team dug straight down and maintained flush side walls so sediment layers were clearly delineated. In total, the team dug about 10 vertical feet deep within a 16 square meter grid and marked 20 major layers of sediment near the rockshelter’s limestone wall. A radiocarbon date on hearth charcoal indicates the lower levels of sediment date between 5780 and 5660 B.C.

“It was really nice to get my hands on real data coming out of the earth,” Page said. “It made the 4-year-old in me very happy.”

Bobcat Rockshelter was an exciting excavation because its well-preserved animal remains provided information about ancient hunting and butchering practices along the Continental Divide, Arkush said.

In Bobcat Rockshelter, students found few stone tools but thousands of bone fragments, so they infer that the shelter was an overnight camp for small hunting parties, not a permanent residence. The rockshelter was used to prepare for hunts and butcher large game like bighorn sheep and bison.

The team unearthed several thousand bighorn sheep bone fragments and various artifacts including an exotic marine shell bead. The bead probably originated near the mouth of the Columbia River and was traded from tribe to tribe until making its way to eastern Idaho. This find contributed to previously documented evidence of a widespread inter-regional trade network for ancient northwestern America. According to Arkush, the Birch Creek Valley tribes probably traded obsidian, a popular tool stone, for raw materials and finished products from the west.

Though they found plenty of artifacts, the whole team agreed that archaeology is really all about rock and dirt — lots of it. The work can be grueling at times — Gross said the experience was not as glamorous as archaeology is portrayed in film — and Horowitz laughed, “It just proves Indiana Jones is a wuss because he never dug up anything in his life!”

All the students rolled their eyes at the mention of archaeology in film. They were fervent in allaying the misconception that archaeology is all about digging up dinosaur bones.

For now, the team is satisfied with bighorn sheep. They plan to continue work in the Birch Creek Valley for at least four more years. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Idaho State University archaeologists surveyed 135 potential excavation sites in Birch Creek Valley. The area hasn’t gotten much academic attention since the mid-1960s — only about 15 sites have been investigated.

“Many of the areas where we work have not been intensively studied by archaeologists, and there is still much to learn about the prehistoric peoples who lived there,” said Arkush. “Helping improve our collective understanding of prehistory in these areas is something I find extremely rewarding.”

The students will tackle Cottontail Rockshelter next, as well as some springs and seep areas (places where groundwater seeps through to the surface, creating little puddles). They hope studying these areas will help archaeologists understand ancient human ecology in high desert and montane ecosystems.

Maintaining the integrity of places to study the past is a responsibility for scientists and the public alike — when visiting an archaeological site, do not collect artifacts, Arkush said. “Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources that should be respected and treated with care. Whether they occur on county, state or federal lands, everyone should be mindful to tread lightly on them.”

Preserving archaeological sites for study can have life-changing effects — it did for Alger, one of the student participants. Alger said that participating in the field school was a turning point that made him decide he wanted to pursue archaeology as a career. Before the field school he only knew that archaeologists excavated artifacts and studied them. He had no grasp on the “how” of what archaeologists did. But he had always been fascinated by archaeology, and the field school gave him the hands-on experience he was missing.

“The field school was the most fulfilling experience I've had dealing with archaeology,” Alger said. “Being able to find and handle artifacts that hadn't been seen for thousands of years just gave me an overwhelming amount of joy. After field school was over I thought to myself that if I could enjoy work like that to that extent, it would be great to make a living doing something I love.”