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UW Researchers, Students Comb Hell Gap for Clues to Early Paleoindian Culture

July 24, 2014
Three peopleo working dig
Elizabeth Dreyer, a UW doctoral student in anthropology, and Cole Schmitz, a UW undergraduate student in anthropology, dig for Paleoindian artifacts. They are two of 20 students from UW and other colleges and universities participating in an archaeological field school at Hell Gap this summer. (UW Photo)

Under the cover of a protective structure, Cole Schmitz gingerly uses a dental pick and paintbrush to remove excess soil and expose a bison bone.

Schmitz, of Centennial, Colo., is one of 20 students from the University of Wyoming and other higher educational institutions working this summer to uncover more clues about how early Paleoindians lived in Hell Gap, an archaeological excavation site north of Guernsey. The mysteries they uncover could go as far back as 13,000 years.

Getting to that era in time is roughly one meter deeper than what has already been excavated at the site. It may not sound like much but, in archaeological terms, that depth is an eternity.

“We’ve worked all the way down to what amounts to 11,000 to 11,500 years ago,” says Mary Lou Larson, a professor and head of UW’s Department of Anthropology. “We want to get down to 12,000 years ago, to the Goshen level deposit. That’s a meter of excavation.”

Different projectile point or arrow head styles -- particular to that time period -- may reveal the deposit at that site as a single campsite, she says. Typically, one finds multiple campsites piled on other campsites, Larson adds.

“One of the hypotheses we’re trying to test is that the Goshen level is a single occupation,” Larson says. “We also hope to find bison bones and other clues to what the climate was like.”

Marcel Kornfeld, a UW professor of anthropology and Larson’s husband, says examining fine sediment from the archaeological deposit can help researchers understand whether there was a long period of stability or a fast period of deposition due to flooding.

Hell Gap history

Hell Gap is a deeply stratified archaeological site located in eastern Wyoming (considered the western boundary of the Great Plains), approximately 13 miles north of Guernsey. An abundant amount of Paleoindian and Archaic artifacts have been found and excavated in this valley site since 1959.

Hell Gap serves as the key site for the history of Paleoindian cultures across North America, Kornfeld says.

James Duguid and Malcolm McKnight, high school students who lived in the region and both of whom went to school at UW, discovered the site in 1958. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum conducted excavations at Hell Gap from 1962-66.Marcel Kornfeld, a UW professor of anthropology, casts a bison bone, while Rachael Shimek, a UW doctoral student in anthropology, who serves as field school director at Hell Gap, addresses a question.

Kornfeld and Larson, along with George C. Frison, professor emeritus at UW and former Wyoming state archaeologist, continued Harvard’s work beginning in 1993. Kornfeld and Larson have led the UW field schools eight of the last 17 summers in the small plains valley.

The crew -- which also includes students from the University of North Dakota, University of Colorado-Denver, Utah State University, University of Minnesota-St. Cloud, University of Arkansas, University of Tennessee and the University of Iowa, as well as a few volunteers interested in archaeology -- works for 10 days before taking a four-day break. The process is then repeated. Full excavation field camps began July 12-20, and will continue July 26-Aug. 2 and Aug. 8-10.

Bison bones, stone tools, beads, needles, post holes and teepee rings have been discovered during past summer excavations. This evidence helps tell the story of how early Paleoindians lived, Larson says. One level of the site revealed a lot of bison bone. The animals likely were killed elsewhere and brought back to the campsite, Larson says.

“This is our main excavation facility. Everything comes out of here,” says Kornfeld as he gestures with his hand.

In addition to the main excavation site, Hell Gap facilities include a small lab inside a railroad bunk trailer, with computers to intake and record newly found artifacts, Kornfeld says. The lab, which also serves as a museum and small visitor center, includes informative posters and arrow heads in glass cases that are used as visuals during public tours, Larson says.

A screening facility is used to separate out small artifacts, such as lithic flakes and ochre, from dirt and sediment dug at the excavation site. Before it is washed, dirt is placed in a screen. Once the dirt has been washed out, the screening trays are set out to let the artifacts dry under the sun.

Filtering the sediment can provide clues about climate and erosion of earlier periods, Kornfeld says. 

Each year that they conduct field work in Hell Gap, the department creates a technical report on its work that is funded by the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, which is part of the state’s Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources, Larson says. That report is provided to the Wyoming Archaeological Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the Wyoming Archaeological Society.

Larson, Kornfeld and Frison edited a book, titled “Hell Gap: Paleoindian Site at the Edge of the Rockies” in 2009.

Gaining vital experience

For UW’s archaeological students, Larson says of the field school, “This is their union card. Archaeologists need to have a field school to get a job as an archaeologist. They learn how to excavate and process archaeological material. The minute they finish a field school, they can start a job as an archaeologist.”

A large number of private consulting firms, the federal government and state governments hire archaeologists, she says.

Students attest the field experience is invaluable.

Rachael Shimek, a UW doctoral student in anthropology, serves as field school director for the second consecutive year. She says her role is “to keep the circus under control.” Shimek’s duties include training volunteers and integrating them into the work system; acting as intermediary between the crew, Kornfeld and Larson; and to be aware of all artifact discoveries occurring at the dig site and where the crew is at in the grid system.

Cassidee Thornhill, who will begin her master’s program in anthropology at UW this fall, runs the “total station,” which emits a laser from a prism at an archaeological artifact. The x, y and z points of the artifact are recorded into a laptop computer.“The biggest thing I’ve learned working here is crew management,” says Shimek of Laramie, as she watched students meticulously dig for artifacts. “You have clashing personalities and all levels of experience, including volunteers. I’m learning about delegating. We have several crew members from last year that know our systems.”

“It is a great honor and it’s fun,” adds Shimek, who eventually would like to teach and conduct research at a university. “But, it’s incredibly stressful. You don’t want to screw anything up.”

“This is my first Paleoindian dig,” says Allison Grunwald, a UW doctoral student in anthropology and a native of Cherry Hill, N.J. “I’m learning a lot more about lithics and how they excavate.”

Grunwald serves as the field camp’s lab director. Her duties include cataloging, cleaning and analyzing artifacts pulled from the dig site.

“You can learn what people ate, how they worshipped and how they treated animals and what they were used for,” says Grunwald, who participated in her first field school in England a decade ago and served as a zoo archaeologist in Romania during 2007.

More student perspective

Houston Martin, who is starting his doctoral degree at the University of California-Davis and is a teaching assistant there, is participating in his third field camp at Hell Gap. Martin, from Guernsey, received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from UW.

“In order to keep doing archaeology, you have to do a field school,” he says. “You learn camaraderie in the field, meet future colleagues and learn how to work with a crew.”

Martin recalls that, when he was a boy, his grandmother introduced him to Hell Gap. She would take him on walks through the valley, where they would sometimes discover an arrowhead or other small artifact.

“It’s come full circle. Now, I can tell her about what I’ve found,” Martin says. “Literally, we’re looking at people’s garbage from thousands of years ago.”

Cassidee Thornhill, who will begin her master’s program in anthropology at UW this fall, serves as the camp’s assistant field director. From her perch above where she observes a group of students digging, Thornhill operates a tripod device called a “total station,” which emits a laser from a prism. As a student points to an artifact she is digging around, Thornhill points the laser on the artifact. The x, y and z points of the artifact are recorded into a laptop computer.

“Marcel and Mary Lou want us to find things In situ, or in place, rather than just having us find it in the screen,” says Thornhill of Laramie. “That way, we can look back on our grid system -- from the side and front -- at different connections of artifacts. We would like to be able to tell if what’s over here is connected to something over there.  Is it one connected site or multiple sites?”

When she obtains her master’s degree, Thornhill has her sights set on working for the Forest Service or in a cultural resource management position. If she decides to get her Ph.D., Thornhill says she’d likely pursue a position in academia.

“My dad was really into archaeology. He took a couple classes in college,” she says. “It just rubbed off on me.”

At one point, late in the afternoon, Kornfeld stopped by to examine thoracic vertebrae and rib fragment from a bison. Students watched as he carefully cast the bones in plaster.

“For me, there’s a larger sense of purpose working at Hell Gap,” Shimek says. “We’re always reading articles by Larson and Kornfeld. They are famous (anthropologists). And Hell Gap is famous. It is one of the most important sites in Wyoming and in all of plains archaeology.”

“It’s just a fantastic site. We’re incredibly lucky,” Larson adds.

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