OU Archaeology Students Delve Into 8,000 Years of Lower Lake Fork History

Intermixed with the subtle green hues of gnarled sagebrush on Miller Flats north of Lake City are occasional bright outbursts of late spring lupine in shades of royal blue and the occasional startling red of Indian Paintbrush.
Inexplicably added to the lower Lake Fork Valley panorama are more than a thousand small plastic survey markers in hues of orange, red, green, pink and white which, flag-like, flutter in the breeze on short wire posts.
The fluttering survey markers extend along a narrow, three-quarter mile section of sagebrush on a predominately flat, slightly elevated terrace above the Lake Fork River. Concentrations of the multi-colored plastic markers are more dense, popping up out of the sagebrush at one-foot intervals, on either side of a small stream that is a tributary to the Lake Fork.
White flags predominate along portions of the stream bank, each survey marker indicating that a relatively modern artifact — perhaps a rusted tin can, or fragment of a patient medicine bottle — was identified on the ground surface at that location.
With greater distance from the stream and out onto the dry sagebrush flat, the colorful markers become more sparse and are located in distinct clusters which are excitedly referred to as “loci” by returning University of Oklahoma archaeologist Bonnie Pitblado.
Standing at Locus B in the midst of the sagebrush flat, Pitblado displays small bits of red and mustard yellow chert, one of which is a small flake created by a long-vanished “Late Prehistoric”-era dweller who sat on this small knoll 1,500 years ago while busily crafting a stone tool.
In addition to the small mustard-colored flake that Pitblado refers to as a “fragment,” she also holds a larger piece of near-identical chert which she refers to as a “biface.” It may have been the rock that furnished the material for what became a projectile point or other tool.
Dr. Pitblado scans the horizon, pointing to other nearby clusters of survey flags that mark the locations of Loci C and D. All of the separate sites are tied together, she says, by the presence of stone flakes. Locus C, for instance, features medium-size flakes in lilac hue that were chipped from a biface in Locus A.
Locus D contains “biface thinning” flakes made from a different colored quartzite. They and a single large flake from Locus A may have come from the same very large biface.
In addition to chert (also known as flint) and quartzite, other chipped stone that has been found at the site in limited quantities includes rhyolite, the suspected source of which is a Gunnison basin quarry, as well as small amounts of obsidian that probably originated in present-day New Mexico.
At each of the far-flung sites, intent-eyed OU archaeology students overseen by Pitblado are busily surveying the ground surface and recording the exact location of each prehistorically-modified rock fragment that is encountered.
Sighing as she stands after kneeling in the sage, Pitblado sums up this summer’s OU field work which continues on Miller Flats and several related sites through June 26.
“It’s a pretty neat area we’ve got here,” she says with satisfaction. The specific Miller Flats location is of narrow configuration perhaps three-quarters of a mile in length and is located on Bureau of Land Management land. PaleoIndian and Archaic potential on the land was initially mapped out by seasonal archaeological sleuth Mike Pearce in 1999. He in turn reported the find to BLM archaeologist Liz Francisco. Francisco gave the go-ahead for Pitblado’s summer archaeology investigation.
Pitblado acknowledges that the Miller Flats location has been publicly accessible for decades and in the process “heavy surface collection” took place. What is left are very small fragments which, she says, severely limits an archaeologist’s ability to interpret the chronology of the site.
After many years of summer schools for archaeology students on the Lake Fork and elsewhere in the Gunnison Basin, Pitblado states that higher terraces on the lower Lake Fork Valley such as the dry sagebrush meadows on Miller Flats overlooking the Lake Fork were well-known on a seasonal basis to PaleoIndians dating back 10,000 to 11,000 years before present.
Although no PaleoIndian material has been found thus far on this summer’s OU archaeology school, Pitblado hopes remnants that have not been previously scavenged will come to light. What has been found thus far this month are significant examples of 8,000 to 200-year-old chipped stone tools and flakes, as well as an unusually high number of ground stone implements.
In addition to an abundance of prehistoric fragments, this summer’s ground survey has revealed more recent material dating to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. While keen-eyed Pitblado and a circle of OU students intently study chert and quartzite chips at Loci B, C, and D, another group of OU students and Rebecca Hawkins of Miami, Oklahoma-based Algonquin Consultants, Inc., stroll the sagebrush-covered banks of a nearby stream tributary. With a ready abundance of nearby water dating back centuries, this locale indicates periodic occupation dating from the Archaic time period 5,000 years ago to agricultural uses in the late 19th Century.
A plethora of white survey flags at this site denotes more recent occupation with a litter of rusted tin cans with soldered tops. Among the tin cans are fragments of glass bottles, Hawkins periodically pointing out aqua-colored food or medicine bottles with remnants of paneled sides and hand-applied glass spouts.
The unknown occupant of the site, an apparent interloper well after Indian times, favored Warner’s Safe Kidney & Liver Cure, several glass fragments still emblazoned with Warner’s trademark four-wheeled safe and the location Rochester, N.Y.
“What is really interesting about the site,” Rebecca Hawkins continues, “is what it doesn’t have.” Amid numerous tin cans and some broken glass scattered among the sagebrush, there are only a few crockery fragments. “Ditto china,” she says, “which is almost totally lacking. There are no spoons, no cooking utensils and, in terms of wood or window glass, nothing architectural which might give us an idea where and how they lived.”

OU archaeology students supervised by Bonnie Pitblado plan several public presentations on various aspects of this summer’s field school, including Pitblado speaking on the topic “Role of the Rocky Mountains in the Ice Age Peopling of the New World.” Dr. Pitblado is scheduled to give her presentation starting 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 21, at
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Hinsdale County Museum.
Earlier on Friday afternoon, June 21, 3 to 6 p.m., Pitblado, archaeology school staff and students will conduct a no-charge “Artifacts Road Show” in Lake City Town Park during which they will display finds from this summer’s investigation. They are also inviting Lake City residents and visitors to bring Indian artifacts for identification, with special invitation to residents who may have local artifacts, especially any which may have been collected on the lower Lake Fork. Also at the museum, Project Director Meghan Dudley will speak on the topic “Living in the Bridger Mountains 13,000 Years,” starting 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 24.
Admission charge for both the Pitblado and Dudley lectures at the museum is $5 per person; both events will be held at the museum but are contingent on prevailing weather and spring runoff at the time.