What happens along the southern Oregon coast could have a direct impact on the history and future of the state.
Almost everyone agrees, the Coquille Indian tribe were the first settlers in what is now the Coos Bay-Bandon region of Oregon.
What we may learn is how long the tribe has been in the area.
Over the past three weeks, archeology students from Oregon State University have excavated a site near Devil’s Kitchen beach in Bandon. The excavation is the fourth time OSU students have worked to learn more about the history of the area, and what they found could be extraordinary.
Loren Davis, an anthropology professor at OSU, said the artifacts found during the excavation were 13,600 years old.
âThese are the ancestors of the Shell people,â Davis said. âThat pit over there goes down to 10 feet deep. There we have radiocarbon going back 13,600 years. If true, it would be the oldest archaeological site on the North American coast. We have more work to do.
On Monday, the students and Davis were back at the site, slowly removing the soil inch by inch. Slow and painstaking work is required to find, protect and record any sign of human activity. Davis said archeology students are looking for things most people would miss. For example, a boulder that most closely resembles a boulder might be of importance to archaeologists because it might show signs of a fire.
The students took out several fire stones, as well as charcoal, during the excavation of the site on Tuesday. All the while, a representative of the Coquille tribe was watching closely. The tribe wanted a representative nearby to learn and make sure the artifacts were being handled properly. If human remains had been found, and none had been found during the four years of excavation, work would have stopped immediately.
Davis said OSU students dug at Devil’s Kitchen in 2000, 2011 and 2013. The 2021 dig is the first time many students have been outside for a real dig in over a year. due to COVID-19 restrictions. Davis said bringing the students back to the field was a big step towards making them archaeologists.
âWe can be outside, you work with other people and you live in a field camp,â he said. âThere is a lot to learn besides archeology.
At the site, students slowly dig into the ground, placing all of the soil in buckets. Each bucket was then sifted through for even the smallest artifact. Davis said each piece found helps tell the story of the area.
âOver the years we’ve done some testing to get a feel for what’s going on here,â he said. “During the digs, we realized there was a long record of relays of people here.”
Davis said that although the artifacts date back more than 10,000 years, most of the activity confirmed at the site is more recent.
“The most intensive use of the site in the past 3,000 years,” he said. âThese would be the ancestors of modern Native Americans. “
While Oregon State students are permitted to find, remove, and map any artifacts they find, Davis urged anyone else who finds artifacts to leave them where they are.
âArtifacts on public lands are protected by state law,â he said. âWhat they can do is take a photo to enjoy later. They can also contact the agency that owns the land. If you take something and take it, you erase history.
And every piece of this story is important to understanding the people who came before us. As archaeologists, the challenge is to get enough pieces to tell the story, Davis said.
âIt’s a piece of a bigger puzzle of what people used to do,â he said. âIt’s not like one play tells the whole story. We are trying to put it back together. We want to map where everything is in the ground.
At Devil’s Kitchen, archeology students were excavating land above the beach. To their south ran Crooked Creek. Davis said it was likely the creek would pass through the area they were digging in before changing the route.
When the students have completed their dig this week, they will fill in the hole. Davis said each search is completed for safety and aesthetics. As this group of students return home for the remainder of the summer, Davis and the Oregon State Program will move to eastern Oregon and begin looking for a new location.