The science beneath the soil
Kelly Creek excavations teach archeologists about the Palouse’s former inhabitants

Near the North Fork of the Clearwater River sits Kelly Creek, a place well known for its vast archeological discoveries and hidden treasures.

There, a University of Idaho archeology team, which includes graduate and undergraduate students, spent three years excavating artifacts and looking for answers to unfold mysteries of the past and determine behaviors of the people who lived there more than 12,000 years ago.

Every artifact excavated from the ground opens up new evidence to explain the lives of early indigenous tribes and their ways of life.

“Our research is to try and learn about the past, to try and recover some of it, and to sample it,” said UI archaeologist Lee Sappington.

Commonly referred to as Idaho’s Indiana Jones, Sappington is an associate professor of anthropology in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences who oversees much of the research at Kelly Creek.

Using modern techniques like ground-penetrating radar, radio carbon dates and soil layering, the archeological team has discovered nearly 11,000 artifacts at the Kelly Creek site during their excavation.

Radio carbon dating showed some of the discoveries by UI students, including hunting tools and spearheads, were more than 12,000 years old, making Kelly Creek the oldest archeological site in the North Fork and the third oldest site in Nez Perce Country, Sappington said. 

Although arrows, clothes and bones would provide more information about the behaviors of people, they are not found in the area because of the lack of preservation over the years. The focus of the research is to excavate stone tools made of rocks, which are easily preserved underground because of their organic nature. This includes things like spear points and arrow points.

Sappington said a lot of the material found contained obsidian — a glass-like volcanic rock that formed from lava underground.

“Lava is unique. You can determine the chemistry,” Sappington said. “We’ve found obsidian at Kelly Creek and know that people got obsidian, so we know over the past 12,000 years where these stones come from, and it’s mostly local.”

By looking at the style and chemistry of the spear points or arrow points, Sappington said they are able to identify the trade routes and movement of the indigenous people.

Even though they may only be rocks in the ground, they provide insight into what people were doing regarding trade, movement and activities.

Sappington compares UI’s archeological research to forensic work addressing that some discoveries can be traced back with proteins from blood found on spear points. Protein can determine the age of the artifact and what its use may have been.

“We’re taking small amounts of digging, trying to preserve the sites, but also trying to get the maximum amount of information we can by using all sorts of heavy duty scientific analysis,” Sappington said.

Sappington, who did his dissertation on archeology in the entire Nez Perce County, said Kelly Creek is the newest site excavated.

The process of researching stone tools begins with the study of debitage — material like flakes of rock and debris that are left in the ground during the production of stone tools, Sappington said.

“We’re finding the rocks and trying to figure out what (indigenous people) were doing with them,” Sappington said. “Whether they were using them for tools, hunting or even fishing.”

Daniel Polito, a second-year graduate student writing his thesis on stone tools, studies debitage specifically and determines what can be discovered from it.

“(Debitage) is almost like the fingerprint of the tool that is made. There’s different sized pieces that come off in the different stages of tool production,” Polito said.

At the Kelly Creek site there are 16 million pieces of debitage collected in the areas that were excavated, Polito said.

“I’m working on the analysis of that to find what kind of stone was used,” Polito said.

Determining the make up of the debitage tells people about mobility and trade of the indigenous people, he said.

Although no sources of obsidian are located in the Kelly Creek area, Polito said obsidian was found.

Using techniques like X-ray fluorescence, researchers are able to source stones, which reveals where they came from.

“It had to either have been carried by the people, which indicates mobility, or it was traded,” Polito said. “That gives us inferences into regional mobility and the seasonal rounds of these people.”

All of this information can be discovered using the small pieces of debitage picked up in certain areas, Polito said.

“From the raw material, different sizes, reduction sequences and tool making sequences that are part of evidence by the pieces that fall off,” Polito said.

The debitage found at Kelly Creek gives researchers like Polito insight into what the site was used for, whether it be a temporary site or a hunting camp.

The different sizes of debitage flakes can show what kind of tool-making activities were going on in that area. From all of this information, Polito said they are able to start inferring the behaviors of the indigenous people.

“As archeologists, we’re scientists, we’re detectives and we’re storytellers,” Polito said.

Sappington offers a Lithic Technology class in the fall that ties in with Polito’s research, for students who want more experience making stone tools, arrowheads and other artifacts.

The class meets twice a week to make tools as well as learn about the cultural anthropology and behaviors of indigenous people, Sappington said. 

“We look at the different types of stone tools that people were using and notice how different groups have different behaviors,” said second-year graduate student Heather Sargent-Gross.

Tuesdays, the class holds a lecture in which students learn the fundamentals of why archeologist study stone tools and the theoretical aspect of it, like learning ancient behaviors from the tools, Sargent-Gross said.

Thursdays, students perform the practical application of stone tool making and become familiar with the associated techniques.   

“I like learning the theory behind stone tool making and learn more about the people who started it,” Sargent-Gross said.

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