Iowa State University
News Index June 12, 2003


Digging summer

Department of Anthropology holds month-long field camp at site in western Nebraska.




Centimeter by centimeter, Iowa State anthropology and geology students are digging away at the past.

The students are spending a good portion of their summer months on an archaeological dig at the Clary Ranch site near Ogallala in western Nebraska.

"We've been out here 17 days now," said Matt Hill, assistant professor of anthropology and the field school's coordinator, (pictured below)on June 10. "I'm happy with the progress that we're making, but it goes very slow."

All told, the 15 Iowa State undergraduate and graduate students will spend a month at the Clary Ranch site, meticulously going through layer by layer of earth in a 3 meter by 8 meter site. The students and Hill will spend three 10-day periods at the site from May 20 through June 26.

Hill says the students are undertaking real archaeological field work, which is designed to resolve several questions about the site's formational history, as well as reconstruct the local, basic and regional paleoecology. The site was first reported to professional archaeologists in 1970 by Oren Clary, who observed lithic artifacts and flakes, charcoal and bison remains eroding from a deeply buried horizon along a section of Ash Hollow Draw, which traversed his ranch.

The Nebraska State Museum excavated some of the site in the late '70s and early '80s, and revealed exceptionally well preserved bison bonebed and associated stone tools, dating back 8,500 to 9,000 years ago.

Hill has worked the site on two previous occasions, but this is the first time that an Iowa State student group has been extensive time at the location.

"The ultimate research goal is to track organizational responses of Paleoindian hunter-gathers to changes in food resource availability, distribution and predictability at the end of the last Ice Age," Hill said.

Hill says that the site being excavated by the Iowa State students was more than likely a secondary processing area located near a mass kill of the bison.

The field school also gives the Iowa State students real-life experience in archaeology including archaeological field research strategies, site structure, stone tool and tool-stone identification, Plains prehistory and grassland ecology.

"Hopefully the students will develop skills that will help them in whatever career they choose to pursue," Hill said. "Students learn how to collect raw data for a research project and massage it to support or refute an argument.

"This field school is much more than just archaeology."

Not only are artifacts recovered from the site, but the entire excavation is being mapped. The artifacts and other information will be brought back to Iowa State where Hill expects it will take almost a year to evaluate the data.

The students work on a common site from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. In the late afternoon and early evening hours, they break up into small groups to undertake a supervised field research project. Hill says that the project can be archaeological, experimental or actualistic in orientation.

One group of students is mapping the original sod house (and artifacts) where Oren Clary was born in the late 1890s, while another group is looking at a nearby modern kill site which Hill says will help with the research at the main excavation site.

Hill hopes that by the end of the month-long field school, that the students will have an idea whether they wish to pursue this line of work after graduation.

"Because of the mass media, archaeology has become very popular," he said. "But you really can't make the decision on whether this is going to be your life's work until you come out to a site like this. It's momentous work, mentally draining and it can be cold and hot.

"But these type of experiences are great for students. This is where there classroom work comes into focus and they begin to understand the processes," Hill continued. "They also understand how difficult and time consuming this is."

Matt Hill