History in them thar hills
PARK COUNTY – The story begins 35 million years ago and lays in pieces among the detritus and sage on the hills here.In the first chapter, a tree dies and disappears underground. The tale picks up again 7,000 years ago, with a little-known people wandering the dales of South Park. And now, here in the modern world, Ed Friedman, Susan Bender and their students are using old-fashioned deduction and intuition to put all the pieces back together.Four years ago, Friedman began the South Park Archaeological Project. Friedman joined forces with a colleague in the Bureau of Reclamation and, building on a few “finds” made in the 1930s, began hiking the state-owned grazing lands outside Hartsel and Fairplay.”We’re looking for places that have potential,” said Friedman, a Breckenridge resident. “South Park was not glaciated during the Ice Age. The ice rimmed the canyons around it during the time when people potentially inhabited the area.”Friedman knew from newspaper articles he read after moving to Breckenridge in the early 1990s that mammoth remains had been discovered in the area. At that time, Jack Portice, a Como resident and woodcarver, was running his Mountain Man Gallery in the same building as the Como Mammoth Museum, which displayed 20,000-year-old bones found on his property during a geological survey. The mammoth find is the highest in North America.
“We set out to try and see if we could tie man and mammoth together,” Friedman said of the project.After a year of fieldwork, Friedman enlisted more help. Susan Bender, an archaeology professor at Skidmore College in upstate New York, signed on. The project has grown so that, this summer, it included undergraduate students working in the field, assisted by soil morphologists, experts in historic pollen and scientists performing analyses such as x-ray exams and carbon-dating.It all starts with that 35 million-year-old tree.Under typical conditions, a tree dies, it falls over and decomposes. Fungi, wind and rain conspire to obliterate the tree’s remains. After a million years, the only hints that remain are the dark layers of soil that indicate organic material was there.Sometimes, though, the tree is fossilized. If the dead tree is buried quickly enough – by flash flood or volcanic eruption, it’s buried intact. Water percolating through the soil filters through the tree, taking out organic components and depositing minerals that were dissolved in the water. The result is petrified wood, pulp and fiber become stone.Fast forward to millions of years later. Erosion or tectonic tumult rip open the land, revealing the petrified wood. To a prehistoric people, stumbling across the unearthed petrified wood amounted to a gold mine. Shards of the petrified wood can be shaped, or napped, using harder stones, flinted into tools for shaving fat and sinew from skin or bladed edges to bring the quarry down.
The remnants of this flint-napping catch the archaeologists’ eyes. As they walk the hillsides, they keep a keen look-out in front of their feet. With an understanding of the geologic forces at play – how water and wind will wash the shards down drainages, away from their source or the location – they can trace the path of the bits and flakes back to a more concentrated area.Earlier this summer, on a slope near an outcropping of petrified wood, Bender and Friedman lined the students up. They walked in a line, sweeping the area with an eye for out-of-place items like the petrified wood. In every spot they found a piece, they placed a flag. When they were finished, the 20-by-40-foot square of grass looked like a surveyor’s nightmare – a mish-mash of red and blue flags jutting this way and that.With the flags in place, the students made a grid using rope. The meter squares are oriented to the cardinal directions and are used to diagram where every relic and clue was found. Using a theodolite and surveying software, they map the area on a computer.Even the smallest object can hold secrets that will help fill in the story. The chert and petrified wood pieces tell how these people shaped tools. Occasionally, they find a piece with blood on it; this gives details on the types of animals that were in the area. Sometimes, the objects don’t belong: The group has found obsidian – a dark, volcanic rock that is not formed in this area – and traced it to New Mexico. Clues such as this tell a story of trade and traveling people.
Every once in a while, they hit the jackpot. Bender pointed to a patch denuded of grass, its corners marked by rocks.”There were bits of carbon here,” Bender said. “We dug down about six or seven inches and found a fire pit. We had it dated. Someone had a fire here about 6,700 years ago.”With only days left for the time allotted to their work this summer, they made an even more tantalizing find. The group uncovered what appears to be the floors of two primitive abodes. A rare find, Friedman said, considering the time window they’re peering into.”The thickness of the floors would seem to indicate someone was there for a good deal of time,” he said, referring to the mystery of whether these settlements were permanent or merely a seasonal stop. “We hope it will tie into the same time period as the fire pit.”But with the students headed back East, the group covered up the floors. They will return to the site next summer and continue their work – and for many, many summers after that.”This will be my project on through to retirement,” Bender said. “And probably beyond.”
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