Summer Field School in Archaeology Under the Rock Shelf

Paynes creek
“We expect to see land surfaces perhaps as early as five to seven thousand
years old or older,” said Greg White, far right, about discoveries from the
trench shown here at the Payne’s Creek summer field school. (photo ZV)
Anthropology Professor Greg White's passion for achaeology came to life this summer at Payne's Creek near Red Bluff. Here, tucked away in the foothills beneath the cool shadow of a rock shelf, his archeological field school unearthed a surprising extension of the record of early human habitation.

Previous archaeological studies in the region had failed to identify any cultural activity dating before 3,500 years ago. Were there no people here prior to that time, or were the archeologists simply not finding older materials? White had been spearheading a three-year search for answers.

It was a puzzle with a large missing piece—until Payne's Creek. Part of the problem had been the rocky terrain, so unforgiving and exposed that most artifacts were swept away.

For centuries the soil beneath the rock shelf protected a living area that has now yielded evidence of both rich indoor and outdoor use dating back seven thousand years or more. This fact students discovered by first peeling careful layers of soil from an 8-by-10 foot trench.

Surprisingly, at the base of this trench, they found the top of yet another living chamber, making this the deepest rock shelter discovery yet in Northern California.

This was an exciting moment for the school, which thrives under the auspices of the Archaeological Research Program directed by White, and the Department of Anthropology at CSU, Chico. Comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, it's funded through university as well as government agency grants totaling upwards of $70,000.

White's goals for the yearly field school are threefold: to join research, student potential, and government cooperation.

"Nine out of ten students will get jobs with federal or state agencies, or private companies that provide services for those agencies," White explained. "We give real on-site experience that enables them to step into that job market."

This experience is much more than just sifting for artifacts, and includes managing the entire spectrum of details for a dig, from organizing camp chores to negotiating with bureaucracies.

The field school success rate is high. Five of last year's twenty participants now work for fed-eral agencies full time, and five consult privately.

Research is another important aspect of the field school, and students have sifted a record of human occupation from that 8-by-10 foot trench through a kind of "window of chronology," as White put it.

"We're reversing the order of deposition," White said, "pulling out the dirt in layers the same way it was laid down."

A sense of respect is inherent in such an act, where one hour of field work becomes twenty in the lab. Discovery of human remains would, White said, close the dig.

So far, this "window of chronology" has revealed three phases of occupation, from the earliest inhabitants who lived in large scale settlements, to smaller scale extended family units, to the final stage of habitation beginning just before white fur trappers and trading posts.

This last stage came to an end quickly after the gold rush, with a massive ethnic cleansing that still has its aftershocks in present day looters who threaten such sensitive sites as Payne's Creek.

To protect the site, White's field school received a $50,000 grant from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to work at Payne's Creek, and the school in turn is assisting the BLM in nominating portions of this land for the National Register of Historic Places.

This cooperative agreement shows how much agency priorities have shifted in the last ten years. Along with ecological concerns, "They are responding to recrea-tion and historical values now," White said.

In fact, agencies such as the BLM are more than pleased by the school's performance, and are almost "competing with each other," White added. "We're already booked for the year 2001 in our summer field school undertakings, with very, very solid funding."

That funding means the school has a dating lab in the field and access to nightly slide shows and satellite lectures.

Yet no matter how state-of-the- art, White never forgets his anthropologist's strongly held connection to humanity.

Each student in the group, he noted, was touched by a pair of handprints left on the rock wall.

Hundreds of years ago, two people pressed their palms to stone, blew pigment from a bone tube, and etched their hands for eternity—an individual monument that speaks eloquently, for White, of the hundreds of thousands of lives lived in this spot over sixteen thousand years.

"These are people who lived and loved, laughed and cried, just like we all do. And that truly puts a human face on things."


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