Great Basin Archaeology
at Steens Mountain
The University of Oregon Field School
[now The University of Oregon Archaeological Field School]
My minor was archaeology. It's been an interest of mine since prehistoric times.
My first real dig was in a desert: a joint project run by the University of Oregon and the University of Washington. The subject: aboriginals at the end of the pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago. The lucky bastards lived as free individuals, around the edge of a receding pleistocene mega-lake -- located in what is now The Great Basin. The Great Salt Lake is the only significant body of water remaining from that vast sea. But, beyond that, there's a seasonal alkaline pond in the Alvord desert, a fresh-water migratory-bird paradise at Malheur Lake, breath-taking gorges in Steens mountains, and stunning valleys hosting the Alvord and Catlow deserts. When you stand in those valleys, it's not difficult to imagine the original Great Basin lake.
We dug and mapped strata in caves that rimmed the former lake. We surveyed the deserts in transects, and mapped tool-making sites. We drilled cores at the bottom of an icy mountain lake. And we partied. 40 students -- what could be expected? I remember that I shared this tent for two months with three very pretty women: a quiet blonde ragamuffin, a serious japanese student, and a funny, boisterous brunette.
For some reason, I wore a thick, white canvas karate do-gi for the entire summer. I think the top is in the photo below. OK, I remember the reason: I thought it would be perfect for the desert -- far from the skin, insulating, and reflective white, it kept me cool, but the material was thick enough to keep me warm after sunset. And I could workout at the drop of a hat! [I also wore a floppy terry-cloth hat, which I'd ordered after seeing it in the Whole Earth Catalog. Good for soaking up sweat, it provided extra cooling if you dipped it in a mountain stream]. But the gi became very dirty, very quickly ... it was white after all, and we had no laundering facilities ... if I wasn't so chattily introspective, people would have thought that I simply couldn't look after myself. Looking back on how I behaved, I was probably considered a pretty eccentric know-it-all. But I worked hard and got along with everyone. The environment forced us to. We became a very tight-knit group.
The Alvord desert.
You know, I was going to say something like "I took core samples of pleistocene sediment from the bottom of a mountain lake". But today, I see a photo like this, of a hard-working professor [pioneering palynologist Peter J. Mehringer, Jr., whose father won an Olympic Gold Medal in wrestling 47 years earlier ...] clamboring over a drill-rig, suspended over ice cold water, and I think "how nice of him to make these archaeology students feel like they're being useful." Because we were not terribly functional on this raft -- falling off, dropping tools, asking pesky questions at critical moments ... very draining I'm sure. But it's inspiring too, that these accomplished middle-aged folks put up with us, and ran a field school for us. We all need to pass on what we know.
Peter J. Mehringer, Jr.
I don't really understand how we were sent to this abandoned plateau ranch -- a site called Lauserica. It was beautiful, surrounded by fields of mosses that looked like lush, natural lawns. It was just me, another boy, and three girls, and we were all undergrads, and we had to stay in this place for a week, surveying a nearby hill. All the buildings were roofless, so we set up a small one-pole army tent and cuddled up in there for some very cold nights. And then, one of those nights -- an endless, apocalyptic storm blew through ... with continuous massive rain, wind and lightning for hours and hours. We should have been killed -- we were at the highest point (by thousands of feet) and our tent had a metal rod running down its center! We were pressing back against the soaking wet walls of this tent, as far as possible from the pole and the storm. The pole, made of cast iron, was electromagnetically possesed and vibrated violently like a washing machine. The level of static electricity in the tent made our hair stand on end.
This is Mel Aikens in 1979; C. Melvin Aikens was director of the field school; later anthropology department head at the U of O; famous for countless studies of the western US and Japan; a very dedicated teacher and scientist; and a charming fellow. The Field School is a wonderful program, pedagogically idealistic, salutary and fun, begun by Luther Cressman, a pioneer of western archaeology, who founded the U of O anthropology department in the 1920's. Cressman also was the first to dig in Steens mountain -- actually, I broke soil in one site, a cave, that he'd closed some 50 years earlier. Amazingly, Cressman was still around, and came to visit us at the site ... only one time, if I remember correctly [I saw him over so many years and events at the UO, that it's hard to recall]. It's ok that Cressman didn't visit the field school as much as in the past: he was born in the 19th century, after all. He was just beginning his memoirs, which covered his marriage to Margaret Mead. I ran into Margaret Mead as a kid: growing up in New York in the 1960's, I went to the American Museum of Natural History whenever I could persuade an adult to take me, probably hundreds of times. I went to lectures, films, took classes ... Mead was the busy star of the museum at the time, and was everywhere, it seemed, and she ran all kinds of little educational experiments -- I particularly remember listening to her in a little multi-cultural room for kids, with color-carpeted walls, which she'd created at the museum to spark interest in indigenous philosophy, social thinking and theology. [I found this essay by Cressman about Mead, and about their mentor Franz Boas, responding to postmodern historians who often forget to talk with anyone who was there.]
When I think of people like Aikens, Cressman and Mead, my metabolism slows in silent and reverant admiration for what seems, from here at least, their impossibly long, unflagging effort and spirit: to study, to document, to teach, to explore. As a youth I was driven and curious about what they were doing. But I was skeptical and irreverant of their findings: that's part of the game between the young and their elders. But their influence, and the cumulative influence of people trying to do something, has kept me going all these years.
Mel Aikens sifting:
The quiet blonde ragamuffin, one of my tent-mates for the summer. Our days started at 6am, because by 3pm it was too hot to work.
The Japanese student, another one of my tent-mates, sketching one of the best live models I've ever witnessed -- it still astounds me that this lizard remained still as a rock for the duration of this figure study. [For the record, it's a phrynosoma platyrhinos, aften called a 'horny toad', even though it's a reptile, and not an amphibian].
This is the lab. If you were sick, from heat stroke for example, you would go here for a week's rotation. Your basic tedious labelling work. But it was the coolest job. You could get comfortable, take breaks to catch up with your chores and laundry, fix stuff at the camp that no one had time for, listen to music [I remember the Notorious Byrd Brothers album, The Doors, Claude Bolling, David Grisman, the Holy Modal Rounders ...] grab food from the kitchen tent, and talk about stuff besides work. So very cozy.
I put this photo here because ... maybe I'm a nut, but ... since I was young, I've always relished the idea of a "Lab Library". Something stocked well for those late nights waiting for experimental results, or for endless months doing field work in the deepest wilderness. A kernel of literature and learning, and a well-used repository for a small community. It's a funny notion to be attached to, but it has so much resonance for me, that I can see its influence through the years. Not the most important thing, surely, but a sweet thing, nonetheless.
Note: William Loy, a strikingly good-natured professor of Geography, and founder of the Atlas of Oregon, gave me a ride back to Eugene from this expedition in the Steens Mountains, which he visited while travelling with his young son. The key Geographer of Oregon was obviously the best-informed person I could ever traverse Oregon with! He had a copy of Oregon Geographic Names (a historic gazeteer) in his car, and I remember distinctly feeling that maps and reality were merging for me, as he described our ascent to, descent from and traversal of different biological habitats and geological regions. Although I'm a naturally curious person, and grilled him constantly during this long journey, I think he very much influenced the way I travel today, with an eye on economics, politics, culture, geology, weather, history -- and a strong appreciation of how hard it is to actually know these things, and of how much fun it is to try! Bill Loy died last weekend (I'm writing this note on November 20, 2003). A well-lived life, from what I knew of it.