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Dig turns up surprises in U.S. 12 construction zone

By Jodi Walker
Lewiston Morning Tribune

LENORE – A 10,000-year-old hunting camp near here is about to move into the fast lane.

Archaeologists are finishing work before U.S. Highway 12 is widened about three miles east of Lenore.
The crew of about 25 University of Idaho students and recent graduates has found one of the oldest archaeological sites on the Clearwater River.

The work for the Idaho Department of Transportation is in a grassy pasture on the south side of the highway.
"I knew this was going to be an old site a year ago," says Lee Sappington, UI assistant professor of anthropology. "It has just taken us a while to prove it."

He is leading the dig, which is a requirement before the transportation department can construct a passing lane.
Orange safety netting, sifting tools and, on rainy days, large tents have been seen by motorists on Highway 12 since the project began in late January. A half dozen large holes have been dug and piles of soil have been sifted.

Artifacts, including stone tools, arrowheads and animal bones, have been carbon dated to more than 10,000 years ago, Sappington says.

It is one of two sites along the Clearwater that have been dated to that era. The other is at Hatwai, in the area of the Clearwater River Casino.

"It doesn't happen very often," Sappington says of finding such an old site. Most sites along the Clearwater date back no more than 2,000 years, he says.

"Many times we are there for a weekend and don't find anything," he adds.

The $2.6-million highway project will create a westbound passing lane for about a mile along the river, according to Drew Woods, resident engineer with the Idaho Department of Transportation at Lewiston.

The project will include a 20-to-25-foot retaining wall along the river below road level, which will allow the department to widen the road.

The project should be finished by mid September and is financed with federal Scenic Byways money. Highway 12 was designated part of the Scenic Byways system three years ago.

The work will begin in the next few weeks at the other end of the road section from the dig, giving the UI crew a bit longer.

The site appears to be a hunting camp, from evidence such as arrowheads, hide scrappers and animal bones. No signs of fishing have been found at the site.

"We don't find any evidence of fish or fishing tools until 6,000 years ago," Sappington says. Fishing sinkers have been found at other sites on the Clearwater dating to 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.

The site is different than the settlement found at Hatwai. When humans set up a permanent settlement, the number of artifacts grows exponentially, Sappington says.

"We didn't have very many artifacts, so we had to prove it was significant," Sappington says of the Lenore site. And the carbon dating did that.

Four artifacts -- three arrowheads and one bone -- were sent to a laboratory in Florida for carbon dating.

Because the site is away from the river, it is out of the flood plain and has yielded other exciting results, Sappington says.

Possibly the best finds so far have been two edge-ground cobbles that Sappington says are early versions of the mortar and pestle.

The flat stones and grinders made from shaved river cobble indicate people were beginning to use plants along the Clearwater 8,000 years ago.

The mortar and pestle were not used until villages began to be settled about 6,000 years ago, Sappington says.
But the crew has had to dig deep to find the artifacts.

"These are the deepest holes we've ever dug on the Clearwater," Sappington says. Some are as deep as 11 1/2 feet.
"I'm 6-foot-2, and when you're over my head, that's way down there."

The crew is digging into an era that was a precursor to later settlement, he says. "It was after the ice age and it was sort of a transitional time."

Mammoths were gone and the flood patterns of the rivers, shown in the soil, appear to be similar to today.

"Once the environment is stable, it attracts the animals, and the animals attract the humans," Sappington says.
People were hunters and gatherers and moved according to the seasons.

Not only has the dig proven its worth in artifacts, it has been good for the students.

"This is a chance to put into practice the things they've learned about in books," Sappington says.

Recent archaeology graduates like Alex Sprague were hired to work the site, while others get credits or just volunteer for the experience.

"It can be glorified ditch digging," Sprague says. But this dig is paying off. "Now we are trying to do paperwork, so it has some meaning when we're done."

And that day is coming. The money runs out at the end of the month, and the archaeologists will switch to sifting through the data collected while the road work moves ahead.

"The greater public can probably benefit more from better highways than archaeology," Sappington concedes, although he would like to see the entire site excavated.

"Most archaeology is construction-driven," he adds. "We don't get National Geographic money or the state doesn't give us money to go out and find things."

The site being worked is directly across the river from the Big George area -- an area where Sappington and his students had a dig 10 years ago. The land now is a U.S. Forest Service tree farm.

The area was a village site with more artifacts, but they weren't as old as the site now being investigated.

"This is a really rich area" known to have been used by ancestral Nez Perces, notes graduate student Rebecca Cleveland.

But the road project will go ahead, says Sappington, covering many of the artifacts.

"If we were to find a pyramid or something, that might change."

The crew will move to an area near Greer, where another westbound passing lane will be constructed this fall. Sappington says the dig there should start in May.

The transportation department made a commitment not to do major road work during the summer, when heavy tourist traffic is anticipated for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, says Ken Helm, project manager for the department at Lewiston.

The $2-million Greer project was the third besides the work on either side of Lenore identified in a 1997 study to target congested areas along the Clearwater River.

Sappington says the dig at Greer may not prove to be as old, but promises to give archaeologists a better understanding of life along the river.

"We are trying to understand the behavior and not just collect artifacts."

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