ANCIENT ARTIFACTS, FRESH CLUES
Research Insights from the Collections Vaults
By Tom Connolly
Director of Archaeological Research
The museum’s archaeologists are a well-traveled bunch, hitting the road dozens of times each year to undertake fieldwork at sites around Oregon and beyond. 2019 was no exception, with a full schedule of field projects that took us into 20 of Oregon’s 36 counties, California’s Channel Islands, Florida, Barbados, and Palau.
But not all of our work takes place in the field. Sometimes it involves a journey into the museum’s collections vaults, where our artifact studies continue to reveal new information about Oregon’s ancient cultural past.
Our fiber artifact dating project is a key example. For several decades I’ve been working with museum archaeologists Elizabeth Kallenbach and Pam Endzweig, along with our colleagues at the Nevada State Museum and University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), to sample and date perishable artifacts—including basketry, sandals, netting, and cordage—in our own and other museums’ collections. The project, generously supported by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, focuses on cultural materials from the northern and western Great Basin—a high desert region that straddles Oregon, Nevada, and California.
In recent months we have received 34 new radiocarbon dates on artifacts from Oregon sites, including items from Catlow and Roaring Springs caves collected in the 1930s by our museum’s founding director, Luther Cressman; a fragment of decorated basketry from Plush Cave in Warner Valley that was donated to the museum in 1943; and materials from the Connley and Paisley caves recovered by museum archaeologist Dennis Jenkins over the past twenty years. I also sampled artifacts, now held at the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, from Cougar Mountain Cave in the Fort Rock Basin, as well as a handful of other fiber, hide, and wood artifacts.
Two of the items were fragments of netting—a 900-year-old specimen from Catlow Cave (pictured at left), and another from Roaring Springs Cave dating back 1,875 years. These artifacts are now among some two dozen dated net fragments from southeast Oregon and western Nevada that range in age from about 350 to 8,800 years old. The growing collection of dated netting builds on work I published with Kallenbach and Nevada State Museum colleagues in 2017, which identified distinctive net-making traditions in the western and northern Great Basin.
The Cougar Mountain Cave artifacts were uncovered in 1958 by a private party and produced a remarkable but poorly documented collection of materials. A small crew from the University of California, Davis conducted additional digging at the site in 1966 but their findings were never reported. Our UNR colleagues recently revisited the assemblage and dated a number of items; the results were published in 2019 in a study coauthored by several members of our archaeological research team.
My recent visit to the Favell Museum produced an additional 14 artifact dates from Cougar Mountain Cave, including Fort Rock-style sandals dated at 9,800 to 8,600 years old—a range that is generally consistent with the other two dozen-plus dates on this sandal type from multiple sites. In addition, we have several items newly dated at about 12,000 years old, including fragments of three-strand braided cords, rawhide cord, and sewn leather artifacts.
Artifacts from more recent excavations at Paisley Caves include a small basketry fragment dating to more than 14,000 years old—right in line with the age of the site’s famous human coprolites.
The new dates—which we’re making available to the public through our searchable Northern Great Basin Archaeological Perishables Catalog—add to an increasingly detailed map of Oregon’s ancient heritage and technologies, further refining our understanding of how and when people first settled western North America.
Importantly, none of this would be possible without the work museums do to preserve significant collections. By safeguarding these highly perishable artifacts against environmental exposure and other potential sources of damage, museums like ours ensure that generations of scholars can access these items and apply new technologies to uncover fresh clues about the deep cultural past.