From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Bonnie Pitblado

In November, Pitblado was awarded the American Anthropology Association/Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

Adventure of the Unknown

By Kristen Munson

Google Maps will take you only so far. To reach the site of Bonnie Pitblado’s latest archaeological dig you must drive north on I-91 beyond the turn off for Bear Lake. Continue past the rolling green mountains of southern Idaho to where you think you’ve gone too far. Then take a left. Review the hand-scribbled addendums to your directions. Look for no trespassing signs. This means you are close.

An Absolute Oasis

The site is nestled on the property of rancher Lawrence Fox. He accidentally unearthed Paleo-Indian artifacts while building a cabin for his children. Not knowing who to tell about the find, a neighbor suggested he contact an anthropology professor at USU who knew about these kinds of things.

Pitblado, director of the Museum of Anthropology, studies how the earliest humans settled across the Rocky Mountains between 7,500 to more than 12,000 years ago. Most of her earlier field work concentrated on high altitude Paleo-Indian sites in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin. However, since 2008, Pitblado has focused on potential sites in northern Utah and southeastern Idaho—a move that has cracked open the field of Paleo-Indian archeology in the Intermountain West.

“There is not one excavated site in this whole region, which is ridiculous because it’s an absolute oasis,” Pitblado said. “I look at a map and see this place must have been a terrific place for Paleo-Indian folks to use. It’s the mother of all ecotones.”

Ecotones are transition areas between different landscapes such as mountains and plains, and often provide the diversity of resources needed for supporting life. The region Pitblado investigates has four, where the Great Basin, Central Rockies, Great Plains and Columbia Plateau all converge.

When the Paleo-Indians lived, bison roamed the plains and the area had ample supplies of fresh water throughout the year. Geothermal activity prevented some streams and other water sources from freezing in winter, quarries of obsidian and quartz provided resources for tool making, and ice caves enabled food storage in summer months. The region is and probably always has been ideal for human settlement, Pitblado said.

Previous theories posited that people avoided settling in the mountains because their environments can be unforgiving. She disagrees with this thinking.

“That didn’t seem right to me,” she said. “I love the mountains. It’s not a matter of if they were used; it’s a matter of how they were used prehistorically.”

Pitblado is confident that more sites dot the landscape.

“Show me a spring, I’ll show you a site,” she said. “Here, there is such a cornucopia of resources.”

So far, Pitblado has identified nearly 100 Paleo-Indian sites in Idaho and Utah by developing an extensive network of local sources. She launched an outreach program where she examined artifact collections at public events in exchange for historical information about the region. Pitblado assured community members that the history of their mountains would be respected and preserved, and people came forward with artifacts and locations of sites.

Archaeology Field School

A city of tents at the 2011 archaeology field school. Photo courtesy of Dayton Crites.

Adventure of the Unknown

Pavement gives way to dirt. After a mile of bumping along a winding dirt road, a navy USU flag appears posted to a gate. A city of tents pops up along the grass. Pitblado’s 2011 archaeology field school is continuing where the 2009 cohort left off—excavating 10 centimeters a day, digging for antiquities that explain why we are where we are. The field school has spent four weeks searching for new sites, and two more excavating the Fox location.

“We are looking to see how it all fits into the context of this story,” explained senior John Farrell.

This is his third dig with USU professors and certainly not his last if his plans to attend graduate school pan out next fall.

“I am fascinated by Paleo-Indians. There is so much that we do not know,” he said. “There are so many theories out there of how they populated the continent. I’d like to find evidence, especially archaeological evidence, to prove one.”

This is precisely why Pitblado got into the field. She wanted to fill gaps of knowledge about the earliest hunter-gatherers in North America. The sentiment is echoed throughout the camp.

“It’s the adventure of the unknown,” said Katie Conrad, who is on her first dig. Conrad, ’12, has spent the past three years completing coursework in Brigham City. For her, field school is a bonding experience with students from the Logan campus, as well as a learning one.

“This gives you a good idea of what life would be like doing this type of work every day,” she said. “It is tears, sweat, blisters, cold, hot, wet, snow, and rain.”

And she loves it. Conrad first became exposed to archaeology the way many people do: through the movies.

“I grew up loving history, Indiana Jones, and Laura Croft,” she said. “I know it sounds romantic, but it got me going.”

Experience will show that archeology is far from Hollywood glamour. Much of it involves the tedious troweling of dirt, pausing to take precision measurements, and hours of sifting soil to perhaps find a clue from the past that can explain what people thousands of years ago were doing here.

The very idea is a question that occupies Conrad’s mind when kneeling on the ground, scooping away millennia five centimeters at a time.

“You can learn so much from dirt,” she said. “For the past 21 years I wonder what’s been under my feet. I could have been walking over cavemen, mammoths, Paleo-Indian artifacts … looking down has become such a habit now.”

The rules of the dig are simple: Survey what you can. Save what you can. Document each step. Then put everything back the way you found it. Make it look like you were never here—partly, because that is good archeological practice, and partly to prevent theft. Private collectors often pay large sums for artifacts the public will never see.

“Theft is a big deal when it comes to artifacts,” Conrad said. “It is stealing history that belongs to everyone.”

Over lunch, the students muse about the contents buried inside their units, wondering aloud just who will make the big find—should there be one.

“Murphy’s Law is alive and well out here,” their professor smiles.

Bonnie Pitblado Bedrock

Pitblado examines layers of bedrock. Photo courtesy of Dayton Crites.

The Big Picture

Pitblado can be found behind yellow caution tape standing on a ladder 20 feet down a dirt trench. She is working at the convergence of the past where prehistoric Lake Thatcher existed. She points to a cluster of rocks marking where rivers were located during the Pleistocene Epoch. By reconstructing the landscape history of the site she aims to determine what people were doing here.

“This trench is for the big picture,” Pitblado said.

One can read history in the soil. The long axis of rocks indicates which direction water once flowed. Time is buried in the bedrock. The various layers of dirt indicate when periods of stability occurred and suggest timeframes when the land could have been settled.

Pitblado’s two loves—quartzite and Paleo-Indians—merge at this location. One of her current research projects is to establish an accurate method of sourcing quartzite. Archeologists can already use geochemical techniques to fingerprint and source obsidian, meaning an artifact’s origins can be identified and reveal just how far people traveled with it. USU’s new Spatial Data Collection Analysis and Visualization Lab and 3-year-old graduate program in anthropology are helping develop this methodology and opening new channels of research in the Intermountain West.

Cody Dalpra

Cody Dalpra, MS ’14. Photo courtesy of Dayton Crites.

For example, during the field school Jon Gauthier, the site’s resident bone expert, partnered with Cody Dalpra, MS ’14, to explore ice crevices near Soda Springs. The two shimmied through caves and chiseled steps into walls of ice. At the bottom they found a large cache of bones suspended in ice under their feet. Were these ancient refrigerators they wondered? Can the materials preserved in the ice help model climatic conditions in the past?

“A lot of our work is mundane like mapping rocks, but occasionally, you get to do something really cool like that,” Gauthier said.

Dalpra is curious to learn what purpose these ice caves may have served for Paleo-Indians.

“Indigenous people had to know about them,” he said. “There is this lingering feeling that they had to do something with them.”

He aims to find out what.

Dalpra studied high altitude sacred sites as an undergraduate at the University of Northern Colorado. He came to USU specifically to work with Pitblado. Like her, he is captivated with the mountains and how people may have used them in the past. He stops talking to look at the range in the distance.

“I have got a good view every morning,” he said.

A Long Way to Go

Crickets chirp in nearby fields. The gurgling Hoopes Creek flows all year long—after the tents are disassembled, the holes backfilled, and the snow arrives. But it never freezes. If only it could talk. It might reveal what it’s carried; it could say whether the researchers are ever going to find what they are looking for.

For Pitblado, she wants to find evidence of past life worth the effort of pushing around thousands of cubic square feet of dirt.

She has hundreds of student hours on her watch. While teaching future archeologists the techniques of conducting a dig, she is also helping them understand important questions to consider for the future.

“Whether we come back depends on what questions we want to answer,” said Ben Fowler, MS ‘12, field director for the Fox site. He has worked alongside Pitblado since his freshman year, and her passion for Paleo-Indians proved infectious.

“Bonnie has been an amazing mentor,” he said. “She’s coached me all the way. She’s guided me through the research process when I didn’t even know she was doing it.”

Over the years, Pitblado championed his studies, gently prodding him to delve deeper, an effort resulting in a thesis he never planned to write. As field director, he is responsible for data collection and is often observed standing alone on the hillsides charting the landscape, stripping it down to what it was like 8,000 years earlier.

“I miss pushing the trowel around, but I know the most important thing right now is data collection,” he said.

Like many, Fowler is eager to understand answers to fundamental questions about Paleo-Indians that remain open-ended. Who stood here before me? What was their diet like? How were their social organizations structured?

“It’s fun to put big puzzle pieces into the picture,” he said. “We need to get beyond the simplistic view that they were just persistent hunters.”

Fowler wants to be able to speak to why people were here.

At 7:45 a.m. he leads the great migration of students walking towards the open pits to continue digging. Two hours later a projectile point is located. The point is passed in a series of hand-cupped exchanges to where Pitblado had resumed scraping the walls of the trench. A crowd gathers. Pitblado holds it in her palm and squints.

“This is wonderful,” she says, identifying it as 3,000 to 4,000 years old. “You’ve just locked us in. Good job gang, that’s just what we needed. Unfortunately, this means we have a long way to go.”

Because the projectile point was found only one meter deep, they need to dig one meter more to reach their goal depth of 6,000 years earlier, and beyond that to get to her time frame of interest. Pitblado hands the point back up for it to be filed. Three minutes later everyone is back at work.