Prehistoric History Unearthed !
By Debbie Miller Marschke
Located in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve, in a drainage basin east of the Hackberry Mountains, lies a private inholding of land owned by Dennis & Jo Ann Casebier. Some years ago, Park Archeologist Dave Nichols declared that the property contained a potentially important historic Native American midden site that had been discovered under a natural rock shelter. During the week of April 5 – 10, 2015, volunteers gathered for an archeological survey of the artifacts. I was fortunate to participate on this historic dig for two days. We camped on site after having been escorted in past a locked gate. The route in was not difficult, but a little tricky in the sandy spots. I think this is the most beautiful part of the Mojave Preserve I have ever seen due to the blending of various plants and geology. This area was alive with birds and jackrabbits. The DE was also represented there by Bob & Sue Jaussaud, and Glenn Shaw, and their contribution lasted through the end of the week and the restoration of the site and environs.
I am a neophyte when it comes to the proper terminology to use in the archeology field. So bear with my rudimentary descriptions. By definition, a midden is “A mound or deposit containing shells, animal bones, and other refuse that indicates the site of a human settlement” ( my thought – dumpster diving!) An area within the rock shelter was demarcated for excavation by archeology professionals Tony & Christa Torres, who had also volunteered their time to this endeavor. Then the pit was methodically scooped out using hand tools into twelve equal levels, with the bottom level striking “sterile dirt” which was indicated by hitting bedrock. Buckets of dirt were distributed to the group for processing. Processing the dirt was a filthy job; each bucket had to be sifted in a series of screens and painstakingly scrutinized for artifacts. The screens graduated from ¼ inch to 1/8 inch. I will estimate that the site was about 8 x 8 feet wide and 5 feet deep when completed.
My temporary profession was on the “Sift & Search” team. There were two screens, the top screen being of larger size mesh than the bottom. I would estimate that there were 6 screen stations in operation at a time. After vigorously shaking the screens and creating an unwelcome dust cloud, one or several people would extract any item found in the mesh that could potentially be an artifact. Everything plucked out was placed into a specimen bag, with attention to which level we were working within. After exhausting our search of the screened material, our specimen bag was turned in to be sorted by the archeology team.
Most of what we found were chips left behind by the flintknapping of tools. It’s important to collect sample of the chips because potentially the materials were imported from another area. Notably, we found arrowheads whole or in parts, pottery sherds, stone hand tools, animals bones & teeth, charcoal from cook fires, and Olivella shell beads. We found some “Elko” points, and a bighorn sheep tooth. Nichols was most ecstatic by the find of a “trade bead” which would help significantly in definitive learning about the peoples who used this site and who they interacted with. We collected charcoal samples from several levels for carbon dating. It was my understanding that the most desired item would be antelope bones, which would provide historical evidence of the presence of these animals within the Mojave Natural Preserve. Why is that important, you say? It has now fallen into fashion to restore native species in areas where they have been extirpated, such as the wolves in Yellowstone. In order for the Preserve to be funded for such an endeavor, science must first provide proof that this species populated the area prehistorically. Of course, we grubbers and diggers were interested in finding tools and artifacts. Mostly, I found baked rodentia bones; seems that these native people consumed an abundance of them ( Aw, Mom, rat AGAIN?!)
Ultimately, all the collected materials will be scrutinized and studied by California State Archeologist Russ Kaldenberg who will prepare a report within the next year. I believe I heard that this site is believed to date back 4000 years or more. But it could go back as far as 8000 years!
I found this project to be very fun and educational. The folks participating were volunteers from many groups including the MDHCA, Desert Explorers, and Desert Survivors with an admirable esprit-de-corps. I must say it was an eclectic collection of folks. I had a close encounter with a very vocal San Franciscan liberal, and proved that I have actually matured enough through the years to keep my trap shut (at least if I didn’t want to be booted off the project) One of the many pontifications was this lady’s idea for solving California’s water shortage - simply stop taking showers and wear the same outfit for a week ( I am not making this up. Can you imagine the workplace issues this would result in? UGH). Sue Jaussaud was nearby and she later said“ How did you keep yourself so quietly restrained? I could smell your emergency brake burning from where we were working…” Everyone worked hard with smiles on their dusty and charcoal smeared faces. It was difficult to tear myself away to return to my “day job” , I would have stayed the entire week if it was possible. The DE contingent made me proud, we all worked diligently and represented our club well.