About 9,000 years ago, toolmakers near modern-day Republic, Wash., chipped away at slabs of basalt, crafting arrowheads and spear points.
They left behind stone flakes, a cache of unfinished products and a tantalizing glimpse of life in the Inland Northwest at the dawn of the modern age.
Archaeologists on the Colville National Forest discovered the tool site in 2006. Now, they’re inviting the public to participate in hands-on history through the Forest Service’s Passport in Time program. Volunteers are needed for archival work such as cleaning, packaging and database entry. They’ll prepare thousands of artifacts from the site to be sent to Washington State University, where the stone tools will be housed.
Since it began in 1989, Passport in Time has connected thousands of volunteers to archaeological projects across the country. Amateur archaeologists have helped stabilize ancient cliff dwellings in New Mexico, excavated a 19th-century Chinese mining camp in Hells Canyon and cleaned vandalized rock art in Colorado.
“We want to expose more people to their heritage. That’s what this is really all about,” said Steve Kramer, the Colville National Forest’s archaeologist. “These sites are on public property. They belong to everyone.”
Stone flakes were discovered as the Colville forest was preparing to sell the land to Ferry County. Thousands of pieces of stone were eventually excavated from the property.
The site lies about a half mile from the San Poil River. “It was probably a camp where they would sharpen tools or make tools,” said Kramer, who is of no relation to the reporter who wrote this article.
The toolmakers lived on a landscape altered by climate change. Nine thousand years ago, glacial ice sheets were retreating across North America. The mastodons, giant sloths, camels and saber-tooth tigers that once roamed vast grasslands in the Columbia Basin were disappearing or newly extinct. A conifer forest was starting to emerge.
Archaeologists used thermoluminescence to estimate the tools’ age, a method also used to date old pottery. By heating ceramics and measuring how much light they give off, scientists can determine when the pottery was fired. The method also works for stone tools, because the rocks were often heated, making them easier to work with.
Lab results from the University of Washington estimated that the stones were exposed to fire about 9,100 years ago, with a 900-year margin of error. “That’s a pretty significant find for that area,” Kramer said.
But forest fires and other natural events can also heat rocks, leading to false age estimates. Another stone sample will be sent to another lab to double-check the age range.
Carbon dating produces more accurate results, but no organic material was found with the tools, Kramer said. He was hoping to find fish scales, bones or scraps of fabric. Even the presence of obsidian would have been revealing, since it would have indicated trade routes stretching to Yellowstone or parts of Oregon, Kramer said. But all of the rocks at the tool site were native basalt.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about the site,” Kramer said.
In addition to the stone tools, volunteers will work with artifacts from a historic mill site at Sullivan Lake in Pend Oreille County. The mill, built in 1909, included a power-generating dam.
Volunteers are needed for about five days in late winter or early spring. Passport in Time volunteers are also needed this summer to shore up a historic homestead on the Colville forest and rebuild the Columbia Mountain Lookout near Sherman Pass.
Some volunteers have come from as far away as Florida and Pennsylvania, though most are from the Northwest.
“I’ve got a number of volunteers that come back pretty religiously,” Kramer said. “They’re retired, they like to travel and they’ve got an RV.”