CSU, Chico News

CSU, Chico’s Archaeologists Study Ishi Conservation Camp

Date: 07-03-2007

Kathleen McPartland
Public Affairs

For much of the campus at California State University, Chico, summer is marked by a pace that is a measure slower than the usual hectic pace of the academic semester. For the Archaeological Research Program, however, these are busy times. Program director Greg White, his colleagues and student staff are busy throughout the North State, helping state and federal agencies, communities and Native American tribes consider heritage values in everyday activity and long-term planning for land use and natural resources.

One of the research program’s summer projects is a field study at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (CalFire’s) Ishi Camp Forest Fire Station east of Red Bluff. Ishi Camp was named in honor of the region’s most famous Native American occupant, whose traditional homelands were located in nearby Antelope Creek, Mill Creek, and Deer Creek canyons.

While most Californians are acutely aware of CalFire’s fire-fighting efforts, many are unaware of the agency’s parallel efforts to protect archaeological resources threatened by fire. Ishi Camp Forest Fire Station, built in the early 1960s, has for years produced signs of prehistoric occupation, and these signs (artifacts such as arrowheads) have become well known to CalFire personnel and California Department of Corrections crews who share the camp.

The local district plans to use funds available to CalFire for capitol improvements to rebuild Ishi Camp. Aware that important archaeological resources might be impacted by this construction, CalFire asked White and the research program to conduct field and lab studies necessary to better understand the site and to minimize negative impacts to important cultural deposits.

In May and June, White assembled a team of seven graduate and undergraduate students and four Native American staff to conduct the study. White and his team members concentrated on proposed building sites and dug a combination of small, hand-excavated squares and deep exploratory trenches. With the trenches, the team will be able to establish the extent of impacts from previous construction, get a better understanding of the extent of the prehistoric site and search for buried soils and cultural deposits.

The team has found artifacts indicative of deer hunting and the collection and processing of plant foods, including spear and arrow points, small chipped-stone hand tools, stone flakes from tool making, grinding tools, and animal bone fragments representing food waste.

“While our studies are ongoing and dating results pending,” said White, “the prehistoric occupation appears to be between 1,000 to 2,500 years old, indicating no connection to Ishi, but perhaps to his ancestors.”

In the course of the project, said White, local author and tribal activist Beverly Ogle, a Yahi/Yana descendent, and James Hayward, Sr., Tribal Council Member and Cultural Liaison, visited the team for Redding Rancheria. Both Ogle and Hayward played a role in the repatriation of Ishi’s remains a few years back. The repatriation is described in Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn’s book “Ishi’s Brain.”

“Beverly and James monitored our progress and expressed their support for efforts to minimize impacts to the prehistoric site,” said White.

One of the Research Program’s primary goals is to supplement the Department of Anthropology’s classroom instruction by providing hands-on field and lab experience to undergraduate and graduate students seeking the skills necessary to build a career in professional archaeology. Seven CSU, Chico graduate and undergraduate students and four Native American staff participated in the dig and continue to be engaged in the project. The group is now sampling and studying materials suitable for special studies such as radiocarbon dating.

The project will conclude in winter 2007–2008 when White and his team produce a final report of findings, including an interpretation of the site and more detail on the boundaries of significant deposits that should be avoided during future construction activities.

For more information on CalFire’s archaeology program, visit NPR’s Capitol Public Radio (KXPR/KXJZ) Insight Web archives for an interview with CalFire archaeologist Garrett Fenenga and White at the web site.