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Central Connections Magazine

Anthropology Students Uncover, Preserve History

CWU's hands-on program prepares job-ready archeologists

Patrick Garrison

The seemingly sterile landscape between Ellensburg and Yakima is hiding a culturally significant site. Amid the ridges that border each city, in the shrub-steppe just beyond the four lanes of freeway, CWU archeologists and anthropology students are carefully uncovering and preserving history.

The smell of crisp sage rises on the wind as Dave Davis hunkers over a small handful of lithic flakes that were long ago chipped away from rocks by earlier people. He points to the edges of the flakes, describing what sets them apart from more ordinary rock chips.

        Services offered by CWAS

  • Native American consultation and involvement
  • Proactive planning
  • Blanket archaeological permit and curation agreements
  • Data management
  • Advanced geospatial technology (GPS and GIS development) and mapping
  • Non-destructive remote sensing
  • Public interpretation
  • Artifacts and geologic and sediment sample processing
  • Temporary and permanent artifacts storage
  • Performing and reporting on systematic pedestrian surveys
  • Test/full-scale excavations
  • Lithic analysis
  • National register nominations
  • Literature reviews
  • Development of archaeological resource management plans

"Once you learn how rocks break, you'll notice the difference," said Davis, a 2014 CWU graduate who's working with the university's Central Washington Anthropological Survey (CWAS).

Robert Holstine, a resource management grad student who also is working with CWAS, points out that the lithic flakes are shinier. And they make a slightly different sound when struck by a shovel, says Holstine, who is excited to apply his knowledge out in the field on his first paid gig. "It was weird getting out here and knowing what I was talking about," he said.

The site, on the US Army's Yakima Training Center (an installation of Joint Base Lewis-McChord), is estimated to be between 4,000 and 8,000 years old, said Shane Scott, an archaeologist and environmental and cultural resources coordinator at CWU. A green stripe of vegetation tucked between the sagebrush reveals the Hanson Creek Watershed which discharges into the Columbia River and sits along what once was a travel route for American Indians.

Interagency cooperation

CWU has provided culture resource services for more than three decades. The projects are funded through external grants and contracts in cooperation with state and federal agencies, Native American tribes and nations, professional archaeologists throughout the state, and state and local archaeological societies.

CWAS is both a public service facility and a research facility, conducting regional archaeological research while promoting the protection of archaeological resources. It is one of the only programs of its kind, giving undergraduate and graduate students a chance to learn and participate in all phases of a project under the direction of experienced archaeologists. Students get to work in the field on real jobs with real clients.

A layer of ash

At the Yakima Training Center site the team is digging square holes, uncovering information, and capturing it before it's lost. On a Friday in June, Sydney Hanson, a recent CWU grad now working for CWAS, measured one such hole with an orange string and a folding stick. The onemeter by one-meter opening revealed the layers below the surface, including a thin gray band toward the top of the hole. CWU geology professor Lisa Ely explained that it was ash from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The hole is a test pit. Inside Hanson found charcoal and rocks cracked by fire—clues that humans had once camped at the site, she said.

Elsewhere within the 327,000-acre Yakima Training Center, the team has found wildlife remains and small datable stone tools, such as spear points. They also are performing soil analysis and magnetic testing.

The fieldwork is then followed by weeks or months of report writing. "There's a lot of data to crunch," Scott said, adding that some items are shipped to a lab for testing, and collections are inventoried and stored.

Dave Davis (l) and Shane Scott (r)
Dave Davis and Shane Scott

Not your typical office

Working out in the field comes with its own set of variables. First, there's the sometimes-unpredictable weather. Rain or shine (or hail or snow or wind or dust), they've seen it all—and sometimes all in the same day.

Then there's the heavy artillery.

"One day, we're eating lunch and someone started dropping bombs the next training section over," said CWU archaeologist and principal investigator Sarah Steinkraus, describing an especially lively day at the Yakima Training Center. "Or, all of a sudden there'll be a helicopter hovering over there five feet off the ground."

Other less controlled events also make the job interesting, such as the time Scott was chased and cornered by a wild horse. Or the job where he was chased by a bear. Then there was the time Steinkraus was chased by a bull. And once a disgruntled property owner fired a warning shot when Scott got too close to his property line.

"There’s a lot of moving parts," Scott admits.

Culturally valued items

The team takes great care in their work and emphasizes to students that the objects they're dealing with are important. "These are culturally valued items. When we do our work, that's in our mind. It's not science for science's sake," Scott said.

Davis, who as a 10-year-old knew he wanted to be an archaeologist, appreciates the importance of the items they uncover. "Since we can't study the future, looking at the past can give us an idea on how to have a safe and sustainable future," Davis said.

"We can see from the archaeology record which strategies worked and which didn’t," Davis said. "I think it's important what we do. We come to work every day and feel like we're adding to the sum total of human knowledge."

Sydney Hanson
Sydney Hanson

A square hole

Archaeology is physically demanding, and many newly minted archaeologists spend a few seasons shovel bumming—often in extreme environments—to hone their hole-digging skills and earn their stripes. A shovel bum is a professional excavator on cultural resource management projects.

"Shovel bumming is a very important part of becoming an archaeologist," said Steinkraus, who worked in Ohio, Nevada, Indiana, Oregon, Washington and other places before going to grad school in the United Kingdom.

"It's a unique skill to dig a square hole with a round shovel," she said. "You have to build a perfectly square hole 10-20 centimeters deep and if you can eyeball that, you're worth your weight in gold."

"Archaeologists take a lot of pride in their walls," Scott said with a grin.

For more information about CWAS, visit Central Washington Anthropological Survey.


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