Big Bucks for Early Coast at OSU

Screenshot of PSAL Web Page.

It looks like big Northwest Coast projects on old sites are in the works at Oregon State University.  I came across a new blog which is the public face of something called the Pacific Slope Archaeological Lab with the mission of “Discovery, recovery, and interpretation of First Americans archaeology in the New World’s Far West.”  The blog points to a large number of projects which have been initiated or are planned under this research umbrella.  How is such a wide-ranging and ambitious research project possible?  A million dollar endowment making a fund under the direction of OSU Associate Professor Loren Davis isn’t hurting.

As the site explains, In the spring of 2008, Joseph and Maude Cramer established the Keystone Archaeological Research Fund (KARF) at Oregon State University by making a $1 million donation. The purpose of the fund is to promote research in an endeavor to find and study the archaeological sites and geologic context of the “First Americans”. Conceptually, the First Americans were prehistoric humans that occupied the New World during the Pleistocene Epoch. The emphasis of this fund will be to conduct research that focuses on the search for and research of evidence relating to any human presence during the time period predating the Clovis Tradition (i.e., before 11,200 radiocarbon years Before Present). Geographically, KARF’s research is to focus on western North America, extending from British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest states, Alta California, and Mexico’s Baja Californian peninsula.

The coastal route is a stubborn problem, so Davis riding a mule makes sense. Source: PSAL

What this amounts to, then, is a well-endowed research centre devoted to the Coastal Route of First Peopling of the Americas.  Wow.  But I am not jealous, no sir.

Loren, who usually goes by the nickname “My New Best Friend Forever”, is a solidly trained geoarchaeologist who is well positioned to really figure out some of the complex and challenging site formation processes that plague coastal zone sites from the end of the last ice age.  Loren is particularly well aware of this, of course, since two sites he has directed – Indian Sands and Coopers Ferry – have turned up very exciting early dates, and yet site formation processes at both have conspired to mean the earliest components are perhaps more equivocal than he’d like. Sea level change, glacial retreat and re-advancement, and changing flora and fauna all conspire to make it difficult to predict where ancient sites might be.  Not to mention that it makes it hard for these sites to even survive into the present.  The kind of research needed may involve big bucks and long term persistence, so it is good to see the basis for both has been established.

Excavations in progress at Cueva Santa Rita, Baja California Sur. Source: PSAL

In lieu of a donation to the fund, some free advice for MNBFF: up here  there is a complex archipelago produces a network of protected and exposed niches, and the highly variable sea level history means some places are neither drowned nor highly elevated. This contrasts strongly with Oregon’s straight, high-energy, low-diversity coastline. I’ve argued before that coastal archipelagos are the staging grounds for first peopling processes and we got’em in all flavours.   I’d strongly suggest throwing some money at Duncan McLaren to crack the Pleistocene record of the Dundas Archipelago wide open.

Ahem.  Well, it is definitely worth browsing around their projects.  Amy Gusick’s work on underwater Baja California has a lot of merit – I’ve seen her present at several conferences and it is good to see her getting some more serious funding not just via PSAL but $100,000 from NOAA. One of her talks was how to rig up a standard cheap fish-finder to a GPS to create a high-resolution sea floor model – it worked, but there are standalone tools for that which work better and maybe she can afford one now.  I like the coastal processes predictive model previously developed with Michelle Punke (PDF), and I hope that avenue continues to be explored.  It would be good if throwing money at Indian Sands (PDF) would clear it up but sand dune archaeology is always going to be hard to nail down. (There has been a long-running debate over this site, which has dates of over 10,000 radiocarbon years ago, between Davis and OU’s Jon Erlandson and others).

I also see Loren has had two more field seasons in 2009 and 2010 at Cooper’s Ferry (nice 2010 project blog), and I am really excited to see what comes of that site with its radiocarbon dates of 11,400 and Stemmed Points – hopefully associated with each other.  Actually I should probably do entire posts on Coopers Ferry and Indian Sands.

A bunch of the topics shown on the blog, such as Lower Snake River and Great Basin, currently are blank pages which is too bad.  The overall impression though is of the start of a vibrant and multidimensional research project with lots of opportunities for students to be closely involved in cutting edge research.  After all, so far as I can tell, Loren Davis is the only NW Coast archaeologist at OSU, and this is a large endowment and a complex series of projects.  It would be good if OSU would leverage some funds to hire another full-time faculty, and make the heavy load bearable.  If that person came as a trained geoarchaeologist with an interest and experience in areas of the NW Coast with proven Pleistocene potential, then so much the better.

Actually, I know a million dollar endowment probably translates to only 50k/year of usable interest, but that is a nice, reliable pot of money that can be planned on forever, so I am hopeful and confident of good things to come from this program. Good students are the heart of successful research, more-so than piles of 100 dollar bills, but the latter can attract the former.  Kudos to the Cramers for their generous donation, and best of luck to Loren.

Using portable X-Ray Flourescence device to chemically characterize matrix at Cooper's Ferry, 2010. Source: OSU

4 responses to “Big Bucks for Early Coast at OSU

  1. Cause for celebration no doubt. It just seems a shame that that sort of money isnt available around here (in BC), where we have equally capable people with years of experience in precisely this field.


  2. Loren is as likely as anyone to make good use of that money (mules aside), so it is a well placed endowment. More like this is needed both to help examine previously excavated and poorly understood collections, as well as to revisit those sites and as you suggest to locate them on newly identified landforms of the right age. Much of the baseline knowledge is gathered or understood now in BC, after a lot of hard work over the last 2 decades by a few people, especially Fedje and his collaborators, and it seems likely that this problem can be cracked open in the next decade.

    I want to know if X-Ray Flourescence on sediments reveals any archaeologically useful information, and if so how many locations you need to sample in order to properly characterise a small feature or a layer. That would be a welcome blog topic some time. It is an intriguing concept. I wonder if it means less dirt has to be brought back to the lab.

    I note that a certain British Columbia archaeologist has been insinuating images of himself into conference papers, publications and now blogs for nearly a decade. Is it doing him any good? What will be the secret to his upcoming success? A (better) barber? Plastic surgeon? Is there a betting pool?


    • Off-topic – XRF is useful on soils, but as I’m discovering there are limitations to using hand-held units in field situations. I’m not familiar with the instrument illustrated, but critical is knowing what one is after and modifying the settings accordingly. It will work on lighter elements where one get get good penetration (up to several mm into the sediments). But as you slide up the periodic table, hand-held instruments will only detect the heavier elements to depths that are equivalent of a human hair. If you are analyzing a coarse sediment (i.e. sand), your results will be significantly different then a clay-rich soil.

      So long and short, right now the best way to get consistent results on the composition of a soil remains collecting a sample, sending it to a lab where it will get digested (eliminate those annoying quartzes), and slurried for an even composition. But that is slowly changing as we figure out out what the critical elements to be looking for are, and what environments are most likely to produce results (i.e., phosphates are a great indicator of a human presence, but they don’t preserved very well in wetter conditions). One project I am working on is trying to differentiate fire staining in soils, to see if fire intensity or fire length actually changes the mineral (elemental) composition of sediments sufficiently to differentiate hearth functions.

      The PSAL website cover photo is a welcome sight at this time of the year though, that’s for sure ! Lucky guys … (and gals).


  3. George – yes, there is a strong tradition in the USA of endowing Universities with funds for specific programs. We see that in Canada mostly for Business Schools, or infrastructure – e.g., the new Earth and Ocean Sciences building at UVIC was more or less privately donated to the tune of 11 million dollars. But it wasn’t endowed as a “Centre for the Study of Dolphin Acoustics” or something, it was open ended. I am sure that happens in the States as well, but I suspect there is less “specific program” endowment up here. Anyway, those of us here are making do pretty well and after all the terms of reference for the OSU endowment includes British Columbia [massive hint].

    Re: the XRF, yeah I suspect field readings will be quite different than lab readings, but perhaps the important elements (whatever they may be) will come through nonetheless. As the OSU blog post says, they also take bulk samples of the spots where XRF is used:

    Once the spatial readings were collected, Loren Davis began recording the geochemical composition of each flagged spot using a portable x-ray fluorescence (XRF) meter, which is used to measure the chemical elements present within the site’s sediments. The data collected from the XRF meter can be used to compare the geochemistry of the reddened sediment within Feature 3 with the unaltered brown sediment outside of the feature, in order to make interpretations about the feature’s origins.

    After the geochemical composition has been recorded for a particular part of the feature (marked by one of 185 different flags), students take a bulk sediment sample of that spot. The sample will be taken back to Oregon State University were a number of tests will be performed to determine its material composition.

    It would be really good to know more about this, perhaps someone could chip in on whether it is useful to use portable XRF on soil matrices or will it have to be redone anyhow in the lab on processed samples for the reasons remi says. I think the XRF sensor has to be in place for several minutes at each spot so potentially doing hundreds of readings with associated setup and note-taking is not a trivial exercise.


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