Case in point

Artifacts roadshow connects archaeologists to lost treasures

  • A prehistoric point found in a bluff in Wyoming and later brought to the artifact roadshow.

    USU Museum of Anthropology
  • Bonnie Pitblado (standing) and LeeAnn Hartner, who walked into the road show with what’s believed to be the oldest artifact ever found in the region that Pitblado studies.

    USU Museum of Anthropology
 

LeeAnn Hartner strolled into the Utah State University Museum of Anthropology one Saturday in April holding a weathered 9 mm cartridge box. "I think I've got something real neat," she told the small, expectant crowd of archaeologists and enthusiasts milling around a table.

She slid the top off the box and withdrew her find from 40 years ago. Working on her cousin's farm in Idaho's West Teton Valley as a 17-year-old, Hartner had spotted something unusual climbing the belt of the combine among the clumps of sod and potatoes. She grabbed it, cleaned off the dirt. It was a six-inch blade of sparkling, hazelnut-hued stone.

People gasped and aww-ed when Hartner set the point on the table. One man's hands began to tremble. Bonnie Pitblado, the museum's director and an archaeologist specializing in North America's oldest Native cultures, virtually screamed.

"So, I've got something pretty cool?" Hartner asked, beaming.

"LeeAnn," Pitblado said, catching her breath, "it's Clovis."

Many at the artifacts roadshow knew at a glance that the blade had been shaped by a member of the Clovis people, the first humans to North America, peripatetics who hunted mammoth and other Pleistocene game about 13,000 years ago. The blade's craftsmanship was distinctive: Where stone had been chipped away, large flake scars, known as "overshots," feathered clear across its face and laddered smoothly up its length. The point was made of a strange volcanic rock -- welded tuff, perhaps, or rhyolite -- with square, inset crystals, and it had never been finished.

This was the artifact Pitblado had been seeking. It was the oldest ever found in the region she studies: southeastern Idaho and Utah's Cache and Rich counties. The area is the confluence of several ecosystems and boasts a wide variety of food and other resources, so it should have "a mega-record" of paleo-Indian activity. Yet when Pitblado arrived at USU in 2002, there were "exactly zero" known archaeological sites older than 8,000 years in northeastern Utah, and only about a dozen in Idaho.

So like some other archaeologists, Pitblado began holding a yearly event modeled after the ever-popular TV program Antiques Roadshow. Amateur collectors line up on the sidewalk outside the museum in Logan long before the doors open, eager to show shoeboxes and drawers of long-cherished arrowheads and pottery shards to the anthropology faculty, who examine, but don't appraise, their finds. The roadshows help people connect the angular, inanimate objects they squirrel away with the landscape's fluid, spirited past -- our collective heritage.

"I'm an anthropologist first," says Pitblado. "It's all about people. And with the Clovis, you're talking about the first people. It gives me goosebumps every time I talk about it. I think we all wonder what it was like for the people who really had the West to themselves. They were here with Ice Age creatures we can't even imagine."

Of course, the roadshows are practical as well. Pitblado could spend all her time systematically exploring the landscape and still discover little of archaeological importance. So why not turn the public -- the farmers and ranchers who know the land best -- into a gigantic research team? And it's worked: Pitblado has identified and photographed hundreds of intriguing artifacts at roadshows. In 2008 alone, her team logged 57 new paleo-Indian sites in Idaho, while also teaching the public how to properly describe and, ideally, GPS a find's location -- whether in a potato field or someone's backyard.

Pitblado hopes that Hartner's miraculous point -- which has survived 13 millennia, and the show-and-tell sessions of Hartner's four kids -- will lead to further discoveries. She suspects that the blade belongs to a cache: a collection of tools deliberately left behind for ceremonial or strategic reasons. The Clovis people couldn't count on always finding workable stone, so caches may have served as "insurance policies." Or perhaps the point's maker -- who could only carry so much -- left it behind when he happened upon something more immediately valuable. That also would explain why the blade's unfinished: It could have been fine-tuned later, as need arose.

This July, Pitblado and her graduate students will take their show on the road to the library in Driggs, Idaho, in search of more artifacts near Hartner's cousin's farm, below the Tetons. They'll start at whatever piece of ground Hartner identifies, and then slowly pace outward, scouring the furrowed earth. They'll use hand-held augers to sample the potato field's sediments for flakes or hearth remains. The odds of finding a cache are slim but tantalizing. In all of North America, only 20 or so Clovis caches have been discovered. Finding another would be a career- and field-defining moment.

"It could be the plow got them," Pitblado says of the theoretical stash of blades. "But if they're deep enough, they could be beneath the plow zone. This one" -- Hartner's prized possession -- "could have been pushed up by a potato."

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.