Archaeologists dig up past for the present | SierraSun.com

Archaeologists dig up past for the present

David Bunker

Photo by Josh Miller/Sierra Sun Archaeologist Elizabeth Spurlock, dirty from a recent day's work, records data from a dig at the Gray's Crossing subdivision. The 757-acre parcel was combed over by experts, who found a Chinese charcoal oven site.

For thousands of years the land off of Alder Drive has served diverse purposes: Offering up stone for Washoe tools, feeding the old Truckee smelter, and soon, housing Truckee’s largest development since becoming a town.Formerly an ancient Indian quarry and Chinese charcoal oven site, the wooded parcel that will soon become part of the 757-acre Gray’s Crossing was recently combed over by a team of archaeologists studying its historic and prehistoric past. The team of 14 archaeologists unearthed basalt knives and tools, Chinese opium tins, and a charcoal oven that researchers say malfunctioned and blew apart.The artifacts paint two distinct pictures of the area’s past. One is of a basalt source that provided tools and weapons for Washoe groups living as far away as Sierra Valley and South Lake Tahoe. Another is of the life of the hundreds of Chinese struggling to eke out a living by baking charcoal after the abrupt end of Gold Rush and railroad construction work. “After the railroad [the Chinese] kind of got run out of town,” said Davis-based archaeologist Sharon Waechter. “They came for the gold rush and then took what jobs they could find.”

The Chinese charcoal ovens are part of a regional phenomenon, where the immigrants gathered the leftover branches from saw logs and baked them in long, dirt mounded ovens for 30 days at a time. The resulting charcoal was shipped to the West River Street smelter or the Nevada mines for fuel.A charcoal oven analyzed by Archaeologist Susan Lindstrom was entirely different than the dozens that she has previously researched.”We’ve never seen something like this before,” she said, pointing to the scattered pieces of the kiln that demonstrate it had blown apart.”Imagine all of this charcoal on fire and then you get a blast of air,” said Lindstrom, theorizing aloud on what likely happened to the oven.

From the recent camp-site investigation, researchers estimate that four or five men from the southern Canton region of China lived at the camp location. Broken opium tins, cooking ware, glass and burnt pig bones gave the team a glimpse of the daily routine of the individuals.”We have enough information to interpret what was going on here,” said Waechter. The basalt quarry is an example of the two-edged relationship that archaeology has with development. The approval of Gray’s Crossing, with its accompanying conditions, gave archaeologists the research funding that otherwise might not have been available for the dig. But the development of the site will also limit further study and wipe out some historic features.”Development happens and things get destroyed and we’re used to that,” said Waechter. “That’s why we come in before and get what we can.”

Bill Bloomer, an archaeologist from Woodfords that worked the quarry for five days, said the impending development gave researchers a chance to get to a site that they had been eyeing for a while.”We’ve known about the quarry for a long time but this is the first time that it has been extensively studied,” said Bloomer. “This project area is really our last chance to work on [the quarry] before it all gets destroyed by development.”The Washoe, Bloomer said, dug stone from the hillside for a period of almost 5,000 years.Because of concerns about looting, archaeologists asked the Sierra Sun to withhold publication of an article on the dig until they had finished their work at the location.