September 17, 2007

Archaeologists investigate new historical find

Lost & Found

Story and Photos by Lara Hartley
Victorville Daily Press

Tent stakes are still embedded into the desert pavement more than 50 years after the last inhabitants left the recently discovered historical site in the Northeastern Mojave Desert.

Only the wind knew their names — these men who drank whiskey and bitters and tossed the broken, brown bottles aside.

They pulled out of this obscure camp but left their tent stakes pounded into the desert pavement. Left behind piles of glass and metal scrap and perhaps left behind a hard life scratched out of the desert environment.

You can hear the faint, mournful echo of a broken harmonica, if you let your imagination wander.

Were they miners or prospectors looking for mineral wealth? Probably. That is the history of the area.

In the northeastern Mojave Desert, the remains of what appears to be a large tent camp was found in late August. Broken bottles and other debris suggest the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

Based on the piles of broken aqua glass over amethyst shards, archaeologist Jeff Wedding from the Harry Reid Center (HRC) for Environmental Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, dates the area primarily from 1900 to 1925.

“Glass makers stopped using manganese as a clarifying agent about 1917 — during World War I — as Germany was the prime supplier. So the lavender glass is before 1917,” he said.

Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Jim Shearer said, “What makes this discovery and site significant, is there are multiple types of artifacts that give indications of what was happening at that point in time. The surface material is also a good indication that we would find more, subsurface.”

“The artifacts are intact enough to interpret them, what they were drinking, what they were eating, how they were actually living,” he said.

“Archaeologist are the CSIs of history. We go out and gather the physical evidence and analyze it like forensic experts do at a crime scene.”

Shearer continued, sites like this “paint a portrait of the early mining days of Death Valley. It is an important part of our history because mining is what made California what it is today. It is part of the western expansion and it paints a portrait of what life was really like as opposed to what we see on TV.”

When a water monitoring project was proposed for the area, the HRC conducted a cultural field survey and discovered the previously unknown archaeological site which early analysis suggests a large historic camp.

It was the mounds of glass sparkling in the heat that drew the attention of HRC research archaeologists, Jennifer Riddle and Annette Smith, as they conducted their survey. “We saw a glass pile and then found the coin (a 1900 silver half dollar). I was terribly excited. There was arm waving and running around,” said Riddle. “The coin was just sitting on top of the glass.”

To protect the coin before it could be recovered by Shearer, the researchers hid it under some pieces of glass, after recording its exact location since they were not authorized to collect artifacts on their survey trip.

They also discovered salvaged metal at a smithing location where burned areas can still be seen. An evaporated-milk can circa 1917 to 1929 and many more discarded items give clues to the camp’s inhabitants day-to-day lives.

Far from civilization, the men survived. On canned milk and whiskey. Bitters and beans. Canvas tents and wooden trunks were home. They survived. The camp survived.

Like all historic sites on federal land, it is illegal to remove artifacts. Please remember to take nothing but photographs when exploring our desert past.