Archaeology and the Highway 88 Fire

By Sharon A. Waechter
Senior Staff Archaeologist
Far Western Anthropological Research Group
January 2002


One of CDF's primary missions is to protect California's forests and rangelands, private property, and human life, from possible catastrophes caused by wildfire. CDF also administers many resource-management programs on private property, including the review of Timber Harvesting Plans, controlled burns, and reforestation. Under state law, all of these activities require an environmental-impact analysis, to determine what effects they will have on natural and cultural resources. "Cultural resources" are significant historic and prehistoric remains such as old homesteads, mines, and Indian camps. The environmental analysis includes on-the-ground surveys to find and record these remains, before they are damaged by the proposed activities.

Unfortunately, wildfires and emergency fire-suppression efforts do not allow for careful environmental reviews or archaeological surveys beforehand. Once a wildfire erupts, it usually burns so rapidly that there isn't much time to worry about the cultural resources that may lie in its path - CDF's main concern is the protection of lives, homes, and property. Fire suppression usually means clearing flammable vegetation ahead of the fire, often with bulldozers and other heavy equipment. While it may not be possible to avoid all damage to archaeological sites during these activities, CDF tries to minimize the damage by staying clear of sensitive areas whenever possible. Often, CDF archaeologists are assigned to a fire to provide technical advice on areas to be avoided.

The agency employs six professional archaeologists and retains archaeological firms (including Far Western) and several state universities under contract to provide assistance, but these are not nearly enough resources to cover the thousands of acres that burn every year in California. To aid the professional staff, many CDF foresters and firefighters are trained to recognize prehistoric and historic remains and, whenever possible, to protect them from the bulldozers. Once the fire is out and the emergency has passed, the professional archaeologists will record and photograph the sites, and try to assess any damages that may have occurred.

The Highway 88 Fire

On a hot August evening of 2001, CDF Forester Phyllis Banducci got a call from the Emergency Command Center about a wildfire - probably caused by arson -- on State Route 88, near the Amador County town of Ione. CDF firefighters had put out the 20-acre fire, using a bulldozer to cut a fire line. It was now Banducci's job to determine whether the dozer had done any incidental damage to natural or archaeological resources.

Early the next morning, Banducci and Fire Captain Dave Mclean mapped the boundaries of the Highway 88 fire. As they walked along a stream course at the southern edge of the fire-blackened area, Banducci began to find large boulders that had been overturned by the dozer. Several of the boulders contained bedrock mortars - cups that had been formed in the rock long ago by Indian women pounding acorns and other foods. She also noticed an area of darker, more organically-rich soil, or midden, characteristic of a Native American village or camp. It was clear that, in the rush to put out the blaze, the bulldozer had cut through an archaeological site.

The Miwok

The Highway 88 fire burned through an area that falls within the traditional territory of an Indian group called the Miwok ("the people"). Long before the Gold Rush brought huge numbers of Euro-Americans and foreigners to the Sierra Nevada, these people were living in the mountains and foothills here, practicing a lifestyle that was thousands of years old. Their descendants continue to live in the area today, although their lives are very different from those of their ancestors. It is almost certain that the archaeological site found by Banducci was an abandoned Miwok encampment.

When the newcomers arrived, the Sierra Miwok were living in many villages, mostly along rivers and streams, from the Cosumnes River on the north, to the Fresno River on the south (see map above). Heavy snows kept them in the foothills during the winter months, but in summer they traveled into the mountains in smaller groups, to take advantage of the abundant plants and animals there. The people hunted, fished, and collected various plant foods - deer meat, trout, acorns, roots, and grass seeds were staples of their diet. The Miwok also traded with neighboring tribes for goods they could not find locally, such as obsidian (volcanic glass) for making tools, and marine shells to make into beads and ornaments.

The native people made everything from natural materials: tools of stone, bone, and wood; clothing of animal skins and shredded cedar bark; medicines from certain plants. Traditional Miwok houses usually were conical in shape, and covered in tule mats or bark slabs over a framework of poles. Winter houses and larger assembly or "dance" houses were built over shallow, circular pits dug into the ground. Examples of traditional Miwok dwellings and dance houses can be seen today at Indian Grinding Rock State Park (Chaw'se) in Amador County, where traditional dances and other gatherings are still held at special times of the year.

With the arrival of large numbers of Euro-Americans and foreigners in the 1850s and 1860s, the eastern Miwok and neighboring groups were forced off much of their ancestral territory; many died of diseases carried in by the newcomers or were killed outright. Others survived and have remained on the land right down to the present day, and are working to protect and maintain their tribal identity and their cultural heritage

The Archaeological Site

CDF hired archaeologists from Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Davis, California to record the Miwok camp that Banducci had found during her reconnaissance of the Highway 88 fire, as partial mitigation for the damage caused by the bulldozer. Far Western archaeologists Sharon Waechter and Allika Ruby visited the site, along with CDF archaeologist Linda Sandelin, less than a week later. What they found was even more exciting than they had expected.

In addition to eight boulders containing mortar cups - sometimes several mortars on one rock - the archaeologists found a few pieces of battered stone that had been used as pestles or hammers, probably for cracking and pulverizing acorns in the mortars. But the most intriguing find was a large, shallow depression dug into the dirt on the flat above the mortars: a "round house" or "dance house" that would have served as a place for the Miwok and their neighbors to gather on special occasions.

The Dance House

We have many old photographs of dance houses from all over California and western Nevada, taken around the turn of the 20th century. These show what the structures looked like when they were actually being used. Remains of dance houses can be seen today, but only as foundations; the entire superstructure - the sides and roof - is gone. They probably collapsed when the site was abandoned, and either disintegrated or burned during an earlier wildfire. Sometimes Indian people set their structures on fire when they abandoned them.

The dance house recorded by Far Western is about 12 meters (40 feet) in outer diameter and roughly 40 centimeters (16 inches) deep at the center. The Miwok dance house was built of large posts set around the edges of the depression and covered with thatch and earth. The roof was supported by more posts and had a hole in the center to act as a chimney, directly over a fire pit.

During a dance, the people would have built a fire in the pit, and the dancers would have moved to the rhythm of a drum made by placing a hollow split log over a small pit dug in the earth. Spectators would sit or stand around the edges of the house on a bed of pine needles. It would have been dark inside, except for the light of the fire. If you close your eyes, you can almost feel the pounding of the hollow drum, and smell the wood smoke...

CDF and Archaeology

Federal and state agencies, including CDF, have a mandate to protect archaeological and historic sites whenever possible. Sometimes - as in the case of a wildfire - protection is not feasible, and the next-best thing is to try to mitigate, or make up for, the damage. This usually means learning more about the site, through archival records, oral history, thorough survey and mapping, and sometimes archaeological excavation. It also may include recommendations for future management of the site, to reduce erosion, discourage illicit relic-hunting, and otherwise preserve the remains.

In the case of the Highway 88 Fire, CDF initiated a careful survey, mapping, and recording effort at the damaged archaeological site, and tried to arrange limited test excavations to fully document the extent and nature of the midden and the associated features. Although the private landowners at first agreed to allow the excavations, they required that CDF sign an access document containing legal provisions that the State could not accept. This eliminated the possibility of an archaeological excavation. Instead, CDF hired Far Western to prepare this article designed to inform the general public about the agency's efforts to preserve important cultural resources.

America's prehistoric and historic heritage is represented in these physical remains, and it is up to all of us to help preserve and protect them.

The laws protecting historic and archaeological remains on public lands include, among others:

  • The Antiquities Act of 1906
  • The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended 1999)
  • The California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 (amended 2001)
  • The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979
  • The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990