Found in the ashes
August 20, 2006
By Martin J. Kidston
IR photo by Martin Kidston – After sifting for artifacts, David Fincham, a member of the dig team who lives in Helena, discards his pan-full of dirt. ‘It’s exciting when you see a stone tool made by someone 9,000 years ago. There was no civilization back then. The people in Europe were doing pretty much the same thing that people were here in Montana.’ Top left: Among the oldest artifacts found so far at the site is an approximately 9,000-year-old knife or scraper.
HELMVILLE — Rubber galoshes rising to his knees, archaeologist Steve Platt shaves through a layer of concrete-colored ash at the bottom of a trench. The trench has filled with water from last night’s rain, but the ash has been here for 6,850 years, deposited by a cataclysmic eruption 900 miles away.
The eruption of Mount Mazama in the Oregon Cascades was the largest volcanic event to hit North America in at least 10,000 years. The ash rained down for days, burying a prehistoric camp that archaeologists are now working to uncover in western Montana. The tools and trappings of that ancient band of people were capped by the workings of geology and hidden until now.
Located between Helmville and Drummond in the belly of a sage-covered valley, the Paleo Indian campsite marks one of the oldest prehistoric finds uncovered in western Montana. Every turn of the shovel offers a fascinating view of early man’s exsistance, the geology that shaped this land, and mankind’s ability to adapt to its changing environment.
A group of University of Montana students first discovered the camp in the 1960s. Funded by the Montana Department of Transportation, the dig was reconvened last summer. It is, Platt notes, the final step before the reconstruction of Highway 271 buries portions of the site. Historical Research Associates Inc. of Missoula is conducting much of the work, which ends this week.
Platt, an archaeologist with MDT, stuffs the trowel back into his pocket. He’s been out here most of the summer and the group’s findings — namely the stone chips and fragments of bone — get him excited.