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The People from the Top of the Land

A little help from some gophers, and a lesson from abalone poachers

FORT ROSS, CA – When I told my friends I was going to be away for the month of June at archaeology field camp, most of them asked me to bring them back some dinosaur bones. After explaining that they were confusing archaeology with the similarly inclined but rather unrelated field of paleontology, they wished me luck and asked me to bring back some arrow points. Archaeology seeks to learn things through materials left by people, but it is not our place to act like treasure hunters and take these pieces home for fun.

 Arrow point
Projectile point found in shell midden at Fort Ross. (Darren Modzelewski photo)

In our second week of archaeology camp — more formally, Anthropology 133 — I've been fascinated by the numerous artifacts that have surfaced in the survey and in illustrations shown to us by lecturers in the Fort Ross visitors' center. The average chert flake may not look like much, just another rock to the untrained eye. However, even the smallest flake can bring joy to the eyes of the vigilant surveyor. And we've done a lot of surveying, so I get really excited about small bits of worked stone that I pick up when walking the marine terrace.

You cannot ignore the weather here on the coast at Fort Ross. The sun might wash over the entire park, but there are areas made less hospitable than others by the wind that tears across the point. I've been fortunate enough to be in a team that works away from the cliffs and the worst part of the wind. At the end of the day, I meet up with my wind-battered classmates and head back to camp.

The views here in the park — tree-covered ridges, wildflowers, and the shoreline — are amazing. The class has scoured the park to discover more beautiful sights. I got to be part of the team that surveyed an exciting new shell midden, which is a fancy word for a trash dump where native inhabitants of the area long ago disposed of shells. It's not often that archaeologists find the sinker stones that would have been attached to fishing nets, but gophers brought up two of them near the coast. The gophers have been really helpful in bringing up artifacts during our survey. Sometimes dirt tossed out from gopher holes is the only soil we can see in fields where dense grasses cover the ground.

From our lofty position on the cliffs above Sandy Cove to the south and Clam Cove to the north, I've watched the harbor seals lounging on rocks in the sun. After hours in the wind, leaning over the ground, examining every inch for culturally significant plants and artifacts, I wish that I too could flop over in the sun and just listen to the waves crash against the shore.

Most of us enjoy the marine life that's found off our rugged coast, but different people have different ways of showing this. The only unpleasant discovery our team made this week started off as an exciting encounter. During our survey one of the team members came across two clean, fresh, and empty abalone sells. We were excited to see some whole shells of a creature that we had only previously found in fragments in the archaeological record. After the thrill of discovery wore off, we realized that these beautiful shells had been discarded by abalone poachers as recklessly as a tossed cigarette butt.

Park rangers say that taking these abalone harms the environment. Likewise, people taking arrowheads, shell beads and other artifacts damage the archaeological record, and with it, our picture of the past. I will continue to tell my friends that I will not be bringing them home any Kashaya artifacts, unless they are given to me. The only mementos I'm taking are the pictures and memories of this challenging and diverse class.

— Allison

Allison Sharplin is a fourth-year anthropology major at San Francisco State University.