Local "Generation Green" Works to Protect over 100 Archeological Sites Exposed by Trailhead and King Fires

by Placerville Newswire / Aug 11, 2016 / comments

[Tricia Caspers of the Auburn Journal] "After the King Fire devoured close to 75,000 acres near Pollock Pines, at least 100 archeological sites were uncovered"

GENERATION GREEN

While the U.S. Forest Service is gathering information from the archaeological site at the Trailhead fire, they are also taking measures to protect it. To that end, Generation Green, a team of 27 high school students from the El Dorado County area were put to work covering the site with brush to hide it from passersby and create shade to encourage new growth.

The young men and women of Generation Green attended a kind of boot camp together in the Desolation Wilderness and spent eight weeks of the summer with various departments of the Forest Service. In addition to their work at the archaeological site, they learned about soil science, biology and botany. They planted trees, moved boulders, and learned to look out for each other. Each participant is paid between $10 and $12 an hour, according to Audrey Evans, youth conservation crew coordinator.

At the end of the summer, each high school student is required to give a short speech about who they were when they began, how they’ve changed, and where they want to go.

“They’ve all grown as leaders,” Evans said. “They’ve learned how to work as a team and how to communicate.”

LOOTERS BEWARE

The U.S. Forest Service is currently monitoring the archeological site in the area of the Trailhead Fire. The site is protected under law, and fines for removing artifacts from an archaeological site range between $20,000 and $100,000. Those who are interested in volunteering in archeological research are welcome to apply for the Passport program: Passportintime.com. 

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There’s a mystery hidden in the woods. Buried beneath the overgrowth of evergreens, oaks and Manzanita of the Eldorado National Forest, no one is certain how many years the mystery has been there, waiting to be revealed.

A firefighter found the first clue last June. As a forward observer among the charred trunks of trees and the scorched soil of the Trailhead Fire, he found something out of place in the mountains: a round river cobble.

He thought it might be a handstone, a rock smoothed by its many years held in the palms of the Native Americans who might have used it to grind seeds.

As it turned out, the stone was evidence of something else entirely.

Stone presents a puzzle

While battling against a powerful blaze like the Trailhead Fire, firefighters work closely with a team of archaeologists, biologists, botanists and geologists to ensure that as firelines are bulldozed, nothing of the land is destroyed that can’t be replaced.

A wildfire is like a monster, ravaging every leaf and twig on every tree in its path to feed its voracious hunger. A wildfire will even sear the roots in the soil, leaving nothing behind but gray and lifeless dust.

It does something else, though, too: It tells the forest’s secrets.

After a fire picks every branch clean and the smoke clears, the sun shines brightly again on tools and trinkets, artifacts left behind by people who disappeared long ago.

After the King Fire devoured close to 75,000 acres near Pollock Pines, at least 100 archaeological sites were uncovered, according to Jordan Serin, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

That’s why firefighters are trained in the off-season to spot any possible artifacts – maybe a rounded stone or maybe a pile of tin cans – and that’s how the forward observer knew to pass his Trailhead Fire discovery along to the team of archaeologists.

They took it from there.

Charles Hutcheson was the first archaeologist to see a photo of the possible artifact, and he passed the information on to Dorit Buckley who, after the fire had been wrangled, made the trek out to the location of the where it was found. She knew right away that it wasn’t a handstone – it didn’t have the right markings – but it was a river cobble, an unusual find on the ridge of a mountain.

“You would think … that people had to have moved it there,” Serin said.

In fact, there’s a geological explanation for how river-smoothed stones ended up atop a mountain.

A long time ago, but not so far away

Sometime during the Tertiary, between 2.6 million and 66 million years ago – the exact date of the ancestral gold-bearing river gravels is a subject of much debate among geologists and miners – volcanic material was erupting like popcorn in a pot without a lid, choking the rivers that were here until they formed new river channels traveling in different directions.

To a miner, ancient river cobbles on a mountaintop mean one thing: Gold. When the Gold Rush miners all but exhausted the gold to be found along the flowing rivers, they realized more gold could be found at the rivers’ sources, dry places where the rivers ran all those years ago, where layers of volcanic debris had trapped the gold.

When Buckley saw the river cobbles burned clean by the Trailhead Fire, she suspected that she was standing on an old mining site. The question was how old. She called for backup.

That’s where Jordan Serin stepped in. As the lead archaeologist on the King Fire, Serin was familiar with historical mining sites and their potential for telling the story of the Gold Rush. He arrived at the undisclosed location of the Trailhead Fire “arc site,” saw the torched remains of what to the untrained eye might appear to be scattered scrap metal, a pile of tin cans, and a mound of stones, and he was thrilled.

He knew instantly that what he was seeing was the evidence of ground sluicing, mining technology hundreds of years old. Could this site be as old as the 1850s, the days when this “poor man’s” method was most popular?

Ground sluicing: what is it?

Ground sluicing begins with an ancient river bed, a ridge, and a source of water. In the rainy season, miners might dig a ditch, use scraps of metal and gravity to divert water from a stream, forcing it to flow over the edge of a hillside. Down slope, miners worked with shovels, picks and their bare hands, shaving away the soil one scoop at a time with the help of the water flow. The cobbles that came loose in the digging were tossed into piles, called tailings, some in parallel mounds, some in a herringbone formation. The remaining gravels were then processed with a ground sluice where the bottom is either paved with cobbles that create riffles to trap the gold or lined with sluice boxes, long boxes with running water that carried the lighter material away from the reason they were all out there: nuggets, flakes, glimmering treasure.

A ‘scatter’ provides clues

In a separate area of the nearly 6-acre site is where Serin found another kind of treasure: an artifact scatter. This is what most people would call a pile of trash. But this rubbish heap is what Serin and Hutcheson examined to get a glimpse into the past and figure out who these miners were and at what time in history they were sloughing off the edge of this mountain.

An archaeologist can tell a lot from a tin can that once possibly held Folgers coffee grounds or Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Whether it took a key wind, had a cone top or required a church key to open all depended on the year the can was made. Even the seams and measurements of a container tell a story....

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