Field Journal: Archaeology in Northern California
Updated: Aug 20, 2020
In the summer of 1991, I bought a brand new pair of leather hiking books and traveled north from UC Berkeley to Fort Ross, a historic site along the northern California coast. I didn't know it at the time, but attending the Fort Ross Field School would have major consequences for my life. For starters, I almost got myself killed that summer. The field school also set events in motion that would lead me to Arizona where I now work.
I arrived a day early and found a few other eager classmates exploring the campsite across the highway from the ocean. We were to live in tents beneath the pines along a giardia-tainted stream, mere feet away from the San Andreas fault. Several of the taller trees had trunks with a telltale bend about 50 feet above the ground showing where they'd snapped during a previous earthquake.
The field school was directed by Dr. Kent Lightfoot. Students were divided into small groups, and we rotated through activities like survey, excavation, wet screening, and laboratory analysis. My assigned group started by going inland where we conducted survey looking for previously unrecorded archaeological sites. That's me above in the glasses with the pegged acid-wash jeans.
Unlike the foggy, chilly coastline, the grassy hills a few miles away from the ocean were hot and sunny. We learned basic orienteering and spent long days walking in straight lines, scanning the ground for artifacts and features. You may notice that archaeologists are often looking at the ground when they walk. Once trained, it's a hard habit to shake.
The main focus of our field school was an area adjacent to Fort Ross, an outpost established in California in 1812 by Russian fur traders. The traders had conscripted native men from Alaska (Aleutian and Koniag) to do most of the otter and seal hunting. The group lived among people from various local California tribes including Kashaya and Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok who helped grow food for the settlement.
On a point between the wooden fort and the steep cliffs was an area allotted to the Native Alaskans for their homes Few historical records were kept about this encampment, and our crew hoped to find evidence of structures and living areas. Instead, we found a giant midden, a broad area covered with refuse (shells, animal bones, the a few pieces of metal and crockery, window and container glass, and the occasional bead).
Tourists would wander down from the fort to watch us dig and ask questions. "What's the coolest thing you found?"
Most of what archaeologists find isn't very exciting, at least to the casual observer. This small, incised fragment of animal bone was one of our prize artifacts.
We never found any houses in our excavation units, but we did find a smattering of window glass mixed in with the bones and shell. It looked old, and I wondered if the glass was dumped there from elsewhere on the fort or whether it was used by Native Americans in their living quarters on site. My curiosity led me to conduct a study and later write an undergraduate thesis on the topic. I logged hundreds of tiny pieces of glass, measured their thicknesses, conducted chemical analysis, and compared fragments from the Fort buildings with those found in our excavation units. Spoiler alert: I never got a definitive answer to my question.
Dr. Lightfoot, shown below on the ladder, was one of my thesis advisors. He encouraged me to consider graduate school, and I ended up attending his alma mater, Arizona State University. (My second choice had been the University of Alaska, Fairbanks). Going to Arizona proved to be a very fateful decision. I met my future husband, started a family, and built a career here.
Fort Ross made a big impression on me and my life. One morning, I hiked down from camp with a friend to explore the tide pools. We spotted some mussels on a rock below the point of a cliff and scrambled over to get a closer look.
Dr. Lightfoot later found us walking back to camp, drenched, scratched and bloody. He offered us a ride. A "sleeper wave" had hit without warning, and I had been sucked between two huge shell-encrusted boulders after the wave hit. I am lucky to be alive.
Fortunately, I went on to have many more adventures.