By Sharon A. Waechter
Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc.
Damage from fires, vandalism, road construction, timber harvesting, and other activities—legal and illegal—is a common theme at archaeological sites, including those in the north-central Sierra Nevada of California. It is one of the biggest challenges facing those who manage cultural resources for agencies like the Forest Service, Parks and Recreation, and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). Every archaeologist knows that the real value of cultural sites lies not in the individual artifacts they contain, but in the placement of those artifacts within a site: their depth relative to one another, where and how they cluster across the site, whether they are found in association with particular natural or cultural features. This is why archaeologists make careful maps, records, and photographs of every step in the excavation process—to preserve these fragile clues to how and when ancient people lived in a particular place. The undocumented mixing and movement of archaeological remains that happens during "pot-hunting," road work, logging, and other earth-moving actions can destroy thousands of years of human history in a single day.
The prehistoric village of CA-PLA-689 (Dad Young Spring) is an example of these disturbances. This ancient site lies on Nevada Point Ridge overlooking the canyon of the Rubicon River, at the boundary between Placer and El Dorado Counties California. This very broad, east-west-trending ridge is a major landform separating the Rubicon canyon on the south from Long Canyon to the north. It ranges in elevation from about 2,500 feet at its western end to more than 6,000 feet on the east, and would have served as an obvious travel route for native people moving between the foothills and the high Sierra.
Archaeology of the Area
We do not know for sure who the first human occupants were at Dad Young Spring. At the time of historic contact, Nevada Point Ridge lay within territory claimed by the Southern Maidu or Nisenan. Archaeologists and linguists have debated for years about when the Maidu arrived in the region, and from where; the native people themselves assert that they were created on this land and have always been here. Linguists and archaeologists, on the other hand, have argued that Maiduan people entered central California rather late in time, perhaps as recently as 1,500 years ago. If they are correct, then some other group was living at PLA-689 for most of its long history. Some scholars speculate that these earlier people were ancestral Washoe, a group that today is centered around Lake Tahoe.
Other prehistoric sites have been recorded on Nevada Point Ridge. Most of these are milling stations, usually in association with scatters of flaked stone tools and debris, and sometimes reportedly with midden, or organic-rich soils that indicate long-term occupation. One unusual site is an open cave or rockshelter on a steep ledge overlooking the Rubicon River. The shelter, found by John Betts in 1989, contains bedrock mortars—possibly for pounding acorns or pine nuts—and a small, flat rock with several smaller "cupules" whose function is unknown. Some 50 yards from the rockshelter is a possible hunting blind that could have been used at the same time.
These sites indicate the high density of prehistoric use of the area, probably in large part because of the abundance of oak, pine, and other nut trees; the many springs and drainages found along the ridge; and the use of the ridge as a natural travel corridor. Judging only by the site records, PLA-689 appears to be one of the most extensive and heavily used of the known sites in the area. Dad Young Spring is also the only site on the ridge from which we have a collection of ground-and flaked-stone implements available for analysis, as well as obsidian and basalt for source identification (which helps us to understand trade and travel patterns) and obsidian-hydration dating.
Although we have no record of site PLA-689 in 1977, it was during that year that forester John Pricer, working for the Yuba River Lumber Company prepared the land on and around the site for reforestation; before that it was covered with manzanita and other brush, as well as oaks and conifers. The forestry crew used bulldozers to clear the brush and trees, inadvertently churning the cultural deposit and leaving piles of slash and midden in their wake (only after the vegetation was cleared did they realize that it was an archaeological site).
A decade later another forester, Ken Somers, who had training from CDF in recognizing archaeological sites, contacted the agency's head archaeologist Dan Foster in Sacramento and described to him "the richest site" he'd ever seen—the Dad Young Spring site. Somers also told Foster that the place was being vandalized. The two men visited the site together, and Foster reported that the preparation work "probably disturbed 100% of the surface deposit extending 5 to 30 cm deep," but left the base of the deposit intact. The "narrow dirt road" was widened and improved; this road work probably also removed some of the site deposit. Despite these impacts, Foster felt that "the site still possesses tremendous excavation potential and may prove to be one of the most significant archeological sites in the entire area," and that something needed to be done to preserve the scientific information in the site before it was destroyed completely.
Two months later, Foster returned to PLA-689 with a small, volunteer excavation crew that included Francis (Fritz) Riddell, one of the founders of California archaeology; CDF archaeologist Rich Jenkins; CDF consultant John Betts; and volunteers Don McGeein, Brad McKee, and Lissa McKee. At that time, most of the site was owned by Fruit Growers Supply Company, based in Hilt, California. Three Registered Professional Foresters working for Fruit Growers also visited during the excavations: Ken Somers, John Eacker, and Mike Garcia.
The 1989 Excavations
The excavation crew, led by Dan Foster and Fritz Riddell, placed a single 2-x-2-meter unit (subsequently decreasing it to a 1-x-2-meter unit) near the center of the midden, between two of the looters' pits. The excavators passed the deposit through 1/4-inch screens, picking out any cultural materials, and bagged these by level. The crew also collected several projectile points, bifaces, fired-cracked rock, and pieces of ground stone from the site surface.
The excavation revealed that the midden in this area was 120 centimeters (about 50 inches) deep and contained a variety of materials: projectile points, bifaces, drills, gravers, flake tools, cores, and debitage; steatite bowl fragments and dart-shaft straighteners; handstones and millingstones, pestles, and at least one portable mortar. The points ranged from early dart points to late arrow points, indicating a very long period of prehistoric occupation at the spring.
The 1998 Excavation
Nearly ten years later, CDF archaeologist Linda Sandelin returned to Dad Young Spring for several days with another group of volunteers. They excavated a 1-x-2-meter unit on the southwest side of the road, roughly 15 meters from the 1989 unit in an area which (at that time) was relatively undisturbed. The unit went to a depth of 80 centimeters (total of 1.6 cubic meters of deposit) and produced several projectile points, among other artifacts. Many of these were large, dart-sized points made of vitric tuff, obsidian, and basalt. Unfortunately, the artifacts and field notes from that work have been lost.
As noted earlier, Sandelin had intended to write a Master's Thesis on PLA-689. Her intent was to determine the full areal extent and depth of the site; document the range of disturbance from past logging, replanting, pot-hunting, and natural processes (and, at the same time, understand how much integrity remained); look for evidence of changes in the archaeological record over time; and determine what the prehistoric inhabitants had done there. Her studies met with some difficulties, however—not the least of which was that an assistant moved out of the country and took the artifacts and field notes with her. To this day, PLA-689 has not been fully investigated.
The Age of the Site
In many cases, ancient people returned to the same location year after year, on their annual round between the valley, the foothills, and the high Sierra. They moved seasonally to follow the ripening plants and the migrating animals: in the valley were abundant fish, waterfowl, and grasses; the foothills held vast tracks of oaks that provided acorns, an important staple; in the summer, people moved up to the high country, following the deer herds. When the winter snows began, they traveled back down to lower elevations and lived off the food they had collected and stored over the previous months. On each annual round, they may have camped in the same spot—especially one with a good water supply, like PLA-689—each time.
When a site is occupied and re-occupied this way for thousands of years, the remains left behind by the inhabitants all begin to mix together, as rodents, worms, frost-heaving, and human actions all churn the soil. A millingstone left at the site 2,000 years ago may lie side-by-side with an arrow point dropped there only 300 years ago. The more an archaeological site has been disturbed, the harder it is to separate the artifacts belonging to different time periods. This is important, because it hinders our understanding of what people were doing at the site at any particular point in time, and how those activities may have changed over the course of prehistory.
This is what happened at Dad Young Spring. Native people camped here every year—perhaps even living here year-around during some periods of time—for several thousand years. We know this because the artifacts include both early-period spear/dart points and much later arrow points. Also, the obsidian tools and waste flakes left at the site provide clues to its age. Obsidian, a volcanic glass, absorbs water over time; the older the tool, the thicker the band of water (archaeologists call this process "hydration"). By measuring this band, we can get a general idea of the age of the artifacts, and of the site where they are found. At PLA-689, obsidian hydration measurements ranged from 6.3 microns (roughly 6,000 years ago) to 1.7 microns (about 350 years ago).
Exotic Tool Stone: Clues about Trade and Travel
Obsidian and basalt are two of the most common tool stones used by native people in California. They do not occur everywhere on the landscape—only in the vicinity of active or ancient volcanoes. And every major volcanic flow has its own unique chemical signature, which means that obsidian and basalt tools found at archaeological sites can be traced back to the original quarry where the stone was collected. Quite often these quarries are hundreds of miles away. At PLA-689, three-fourths (72.2%) of the obsidian came from Bodie Hills in Mono County, more than 150 miles to the southeast. Bodie Hills obsidian is by far the most common type found at archaeological sites in the Sierran foothills and mountains from the American River drainage south to the Tuolumne. Clearly, prehistoric populations had a well established trade network that distributed this valuable raw material over such a broad area. The obsidian sample from PLA-689 also included a few pieces from the Napa Valley, nearly 200 miles to the west.
While the obsidian at the site came from the southeast and west, the basalt tool stone is from the north—the Alder Hill quarry near Truckee, and Gold Lake in the highlands of Plumas County. Alder Hill is a mere 60 miles from Dad Young Spring, along the northeast/southwest-trending ridges that connect the foothills with the Sierran crest and the east slope. It is quite possible that the inhabitants of PLA-689 made seasonal forays between the foothills and the higher elevations, and that the Alder Hill quarry was one of the main stops along the way. Gold Lake is a good deal farther north, and this material may have come to the site as a trade item.
Summary and Interpretations
The very limited excavations and surface collections at PLA-689 have only begun to tap its data potential. The information gathered from the site so far tells us that it was occupied over thousands of years by people with strong cultural and/or trade relationships with the east side of the Sierra, as far south as the Mono Basin. The fact that obsidian from the Bodie Hills quarry was brought to the site as early as 6,000 years ago, and continued to be brought there as late as 350 years ago, means that these relationships were ancient and enduring.
We also know that the site is one of many on Nevada Point Ridge, and we speculate that this broad, flat ridge, with its many springs, served as a major travel corridor between the eastern Sierra and the western foothills in prehistoric times. Since obsidian was a primary trade item, people traveling from the obsidian-rich east side would have carried it to the west slope, where obsidian does not occur naturally. Apparently they also brought basalt (or, at any rate, basalt projectile points), since most of the basalt points from the site are also made of eastern materials.
The quantity and variety of artifacts from Dad Young Spring, together with the many milling features, identify it as a habitation site, rather than a temporary or task-specific camp. Obviously large-scale plant processing took place here (mortars, pestles, millingstones, handstones), and darts or arrows may have been manufactured here, as well (shaft straighteners, late-stage bifaces, point blank). The location of the site in an oak/conifer woodland, and the presence of at least 57 mortars, suggests that acorns were a target resource for the inhabitants; no doubt the reliable water source was also a major draw. How long people stayed at the site at any one time we cannot say. The large-scale collecting and processing of acorns would mean a fall occupation, but other seasonal indicators (e.g., animal bone, charred seeds) are not available, so the picture is incomplete. If more work is done at the site in the future, hopefully it will include a methodical search for hearths and other features that might contain dietary remains (and charcoal for radiocarbon dating).
It is clear that the Dad Young Spring site and others like it need to be protected from vandalism, logging, and other damage, to preserve the information they hold on the ancient people of the region. Moreover, such sites are of great cultural and sometimes sacred value to the living descendants of these people, who struggle to keep their history and traditions alive. Today's foresters—often the first to come upon these archaeological sites—are much more aware of how and why these places need protection, thanks in no small part to training programs like CDF's Archaeological Site Recognition Training, about which you can learn more from the web site:
CA-PLA-689, the Dad Young Spring site, has a sad history. For perhaps as long as 6,000 years, native people of the northern Sierra camped here, probably because of the spring and adjacent creek that provided a dependable source of water. They may have used the spring location as a base camp, from which they forayed into the nearby mixed-conifer forest to hunt game and collect wild plants. From the surrounding oak groves they would have gathered bushels of acorns, carrying them in woven burden baskets back to the bedrock milling stations along the creek. A few of their unshaped stone pestles still lie in or around the bedrock mortars where the native women last used them, a few hundred years ago.
We may never know why these people abandoned the site, although it probably was related to historical events like the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the coming west of thousands of settlers with their strange animals and their new diseases. Within a few generations, the traditional hunting and gathering grounds were sectioned off with barbed-wire fences, and the native population was forced to abandon much of its deep-rooted way of life. Sites like Dad Young Spring soon became the Old Places, imbued with special meaning to those whose ancestors once lived and worked there.
Sadly, the modern world does not always recognize the special values these places hold. They are important not only for the cultural heritage of native people, but also for the educational and scientific information they contain about the human history of California . All of these values are diminished or lost when the sites are disturbed. This has been the fate of PLA-689. For decades, this ancient camp has been impacted by road construction and use, cleared and re-planted with trees, and looted time and time again by "treasure hunters" looking for artifacts to add to their illicit collections. Thanks in part to the training efforts of CDF, foresters and other land managers are beginning to understand the need to protect archaeological sites; if the same could only be said of the looters.