Digging up the past | SierraSun.com

Digging up the past

Greyson Howard
Sierra Sun

Archaeologists started digging into the past this week at Donner Memorial State Park in order to move into the future.

The archaeological survey is part of an environmental review for the proposed High Sierra Crossing Museum near the entrance of the park. Archaeologists are looking for prehistoric and historic artifacts on the proposed museum site.

A surface survey began on Tuesday and work will continue until either Nov. 2 or 3, said State Park Ranger Don Schmidt.

The purpose of the survey is to make sure the museum would not impact significant historical or archeological resources, said Jeff Brooke, an associate state archeologist with California State Parks.

“Donner is a big site,” Brooke said. “The total [proposed museum] area is over 250 square meters, and we are surveying about 5 acres.”

Prehistoric artifacts could come from the Washoe, while historic artifacts could come from old cabins, settlers and past ranger stations.

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“It isn’t the purpose to look for Donner Party artifacts, although if we found something it would pop to the top,” Brooke said.

Prehistoric findings so far have included stone tools, including arrow heads made from basalt, he said.

Historic artifacts have included glass, ceramic and crown-top bottle caps from the likely location of an old park administration building dating back to the 1920s, said Kevin Bartoy, an archeologist from Pacific Legacy Archeology Consulting.

Because of the mountain terrain, the popularity of the site and past excavations, the archeological survey isn’t easy, Brooke said.

“Part of the problem is isolating a point in time,” Brook said. “I’ve never found an intact burial in the Sierra. The soil is very acidic.”

Archeologists survey an area and dig a sample unit of about one meter by one meter and 10 centimeters deep, said Lizzie Bennett, a field archeologist with Pacific Legacy.

“We scrape with a shovel, then the dirt goes through a screen,” Bennett said. “When we find something we fill out a level record form.”

Work on the site begins around 8 a.m. and goes to 5 p.m. People interested in seeing the survey are welcome, Schmidt said, but because the work is being done late in the season state officials decided to work with professional archeologists and aren’t looking for volunteers.