INSIDE Chico State
0 October 16, 2003
Volume 34 Number 3
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Photo: This is a prehistoric obsidian projectile point found on the Bitner Ranch, located near California's northeast corner.

This is a prehistoric obsidian projectile point found on the Bitner Ranch, located near California's northeast corner.

Photo: The Bitner Ranch property is near California's northeast corner, just across the Nevada border on the high plains near Cedarville. Don Coops (on horse), a local rancher, talks with Penni Van Ornum, BLM archaeologist, in front of the ranch house.

The Bitner Ranch property is near California's northeast corner, just across the Nevada border on the high plains near Cedarville. Don Coops (on horse), a local rancher, talks with Penni Van Ornum, BLM archaeologist, in front of the ranch house.

Photos by Antoinette Martinez.

CSU, Chico archaeologist and BLM team up to discover recent past

Prehistory's ancient glamour might offer a universal appeal, but out West, especially in the Great Basin, it's protohistory -- the period when native peoples hadn't yet set eyes on whites -- that's currently intriguing anthropology professor Antoinette Martinez and the Bureau of Land Management's local archaeologist Penni Van Ornum. They're working on a project situated near California's northeast corner, just across the border in Nevada on the high plains near Cedarville. The site offers intriguing glimpses of what life might have been like for the area's hunter-gatherers as they rubbed shoulders with European settlers, circa 1860.

During the next several summers, Martinez, the project's principle investigator, and a team of university and BLM specialists will explore a former ranch that covers a rich collection of Northern Paiute artifacts.

"The project is a cooperative agreement between the BLM and CSU, Chico," explained Martinez. "We finalized it in June and were out in the field for several weeks this summer. Although quite a bit of research has been done in the Great Basin -- prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived here, in some cases, for 8,000 and upwards of 11,000 years -- very little work has been done during the period when Europeans and the Native Americans came into contact."

Little documentation exists about the ranch, despite its relatively recent existence. Situated in cattle country, the Bitner Ranch was most likely established in the 1860s or 1870s. "It's right on top of an incredibly dense prehistoric site," said Martinez. "Just walking across the landscape, you see this mix of prehistoric Native American and Industrial Age European artifacts, all over the ground. We spent about three weeks surveying, putting in a few one-by-one-meter units to determine what's below the surface. Is there cultural depth and evidence of contact?"

Such evidence could confirm fighting or other violence between the cultural groups or cooperation and trade. History has shown that Native Americans often became laborers for Europeans, according to Martinez. "We have found some interesting mixes of traditional Native American materials like obsidian points mixed with European glass and metal objects. We think we have a couple examples of European glass fragments that have been used as scrapers," noted Martinez. "And, near the ranch house, we've found what we believe to be the main Northern Paiute temporary shelters, as evidenced by floors, hearths, grinding stones, and mortars."

The details of this protohistoric tale will unfold during future summer digs and a lot of lab work in between. "Patterns will emerge," predicted Martinez. "Why, for example, have we found only certain types of European artifacts? We've found virtually no trade beads, usually the first bits of evidence in culture contact situations."

Culture contact is a theme that runs through all Martinez's research. A graduate of University of California at Berkeley, she's also continuing archaeological work at Fort Ross, a project that is currently funded through a Ford Foundation grant. This site brought together Russian fur traders, Native Alaskans who were hired as hunters, and a nearby group of Kashaya Pomo.

"The native Alaskans had the technology to hunt sea otter, and these hunters lived with some of the Kashaya Pomo," said Martinez. "One of the things we looked for was whether the Kashaya Pomo adopted any of the technology, and, in fact, they hadn't, not even the maritime skills. They adopted some of the European raw materials like glass, but only to incorporate them into established practices or traditions." This evidence suggests to Martinez that where women were involved in cultural attributes, they tended to be very conservative. "Ultimately, this helped preserve their culture," she claimed.

Martinez is writing a book, tentatively titled "Two Thousand Years of Cultural Continuity," about her work at Fort Ross.

Taran March

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