Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Paisley Cave Site

Pointing to the Paisley Caves

Denis Jenkins introducing us to Cave 5

A field school student screening in the shade

Stephanie helping pick bones out of the screen

A field school student collecting a human coprolite (fossilized poop)

The view from Paisley Caves
On Monday and Tuesday I drove to Oregon on a Burke Museum field trip to visit a well-known archaeological site called Paisley Caves. It was a long drive just for one night - 8 1/2 hours each way plus several gas/food/coffee/bathroom breaks! The trip was well-worth it though; Eastern Oregon is beautiful and the site was very cool.

The Paisley Caves Site is one of the oldest sites in the Americas. The oldest dates are 14,300 (calibrated) years before present. It has been excavated by Denis Jenkins from the University of Oregon and his field school students over the last 9 years. They have found stone tools, bones of extinct animals such as camels and horses, and human coprolites (fossilized poop) at this site. Ancient DNA analysis has shown that the coprolites are indeed human and that they are Native American. Digging up ancient poop might not be something most people think about, but archaeologists do encounter it sometimes. I never have, but I was hoping I would get to see some at Paisley so I would know what it looks like! One of the field school students did find a small coprolite while we were there. We got to watch him get into the full tyvek suit and gloves to collect it. Because they are doing ancient DNA analysis they try to avoid contaminating the samples with modern DNA by wearing a suit and gloves. It was exciting to watch even if we weren't close enough to get a very good look at the coprolite (I'm sure that sounds weird, but for an archaeologist, it's really not!)

I have a whole new appreciation for how difficult it is to excavate in caves or rock shelters now. This team of archaeologists not only has to deal with boulders and rockfall, they had to figure out where previous teams of archaeologists dug in the 1930's and 40's and where looters have dug over the years. Cool stuff! I can't wait to see more publications on this site.

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