GUERNSEY – From the vast rolling plains to an uplift of tree-dotted rocky hills and valleys lies a buried treasure centuries old.
Nestled in a canyon of the Hartville uplift, the brick-and-mortar mining ghost town named Sunrise overlooks an archaeological dig with the potential to become a World Heritage Site.
The town of Sunrise is most remembered as the booming copper-turned-iron ore mine owned and operated by Colorado Fuel and Iron, which supplied the iron ore that arguably built the infrastructure of the West.
However, its new owner and a group of premier archaeologists in Paleoindian research are trying to bring to light an even older claim to fame: while mining red ochre and chert stone for tools 10,000-13,000 years ago, ancient peoples left behind a treasure trove of ice-age projectile points and other artifacts. The site, named Powars II, is in its infancy, with just four years of volunteer excavation; but while processing ancient mine tailings, they have uncovered 53 projectile points in the style of Clovis, Fulsom, Goshen and Midland.
According to one of the foremost archaeologists in Paleoindian research, George Frison, other digs in North America average a yield of three to five projectile points. Furthermore, the red ochre has been traced chemically as the source of Paleoindian deposits at other major dig sites.
“There’s a lot of stuff here we don’t understand,” he said. And sites like Powars II can lead to more answers.
The “thwack” and “ting-ting” of knappers working their trade carried on the wind in the valley at Sunrise’s first “Knap-in” event last Monday. Several archaeologists and flintknappers (those who shape stone to make tools) gathered to work the same stone that was fashioned into tools thousands of years ago. It was also an intellectual gathering.
“It’s a chance to work some of the material, see the points and see world-renowned archaeologists,” said Phillip Floyd of Berryville, Arkansas, who has been flintknapping for 35 years. “There are more top archaeologists here now than probably anywhere in the world – with several of them having (up to) 60 or 70 years in their experience. There’s an incredible amount of knowledge here.”
Among those gathered were George Frison, an expert in paleoindian archaeology and professor emeritus, University of Wyoming; Bruce Bradley, an expert in stone age technology and emeritus professor, University of Exeter; Vance Haynes, a geomorphologist and emeritus regent’s professor at University of Arizona; John Whittaker, an anthropology archaeologist at Grinnell College and flintknapper, and flintknapper Greg Nunn of Moab, Utah.
As they worked, they discussed philosophies and theories about the Clovis people: why they quit working the mine, and why the red ochre and stone tool material was carried to other very distant places.
“We have debates and then say, ‘OK, show me the (actual) evidence!’” said Bradley.
He emphasized that it is extremely important to have facts like the Powars II site can provide. An expert flintknapper who has traveled the world to learn and share knowledge, Bradley has a lot of questions and some theories about the Clovis and pre-Clovis-aged peoples and their way of life.
“That’s the problem. We know only 1% or 2% of the total data. Eventually, we will get to the place where we have a complete progression story (of the Clovis-age people),” he said. “There’s stuff we need to look at, and it could be 100 feet down.”
“There is so much speculation. That is why we need to dig: to (uncover) facts,” said George Zeimens, former Wyoming state archaeologist.
He is organizing the archaeology effort through the non-profit Western Plains Historic Preservation Association, in coordination with the University of Wyoming and archaeologists like Frison and Haynes.
Zeiman said it is only through the donations of several avid artifact collectors and hobby archaeologists that they have been able to uncover what they have so far. While the goal is to continue to do more archaeological excavating and documenting what is found, the next step is to abate the “critical stage” erosion at the ancient mine using the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation program. That process will begin later in the summer.
“If there was a site that may reveal (some) pre-clovis peoples (in North America), it should be here,” Bradley said.
A Durango, Colorado filmmaker, Keenan DesPlanques, was there to document the event. He is including the discoveries and development of Powars II in the film he is making about Paleoindian sites in the southeast Wyoming region.