Archaeology Past and Present

by Jayne Smithson, Archaeologist
Diablo Valley College Faculty

 

An archaeologist of 6666 A.D. may find himself obliged to rely on the divergences between assemblages of kitchen utensils to help him recognize that by 1950, the United Kingdom and United States of America were not occupied by the same society.

  1. Gordon Childe, Piecing Together the Past (1956)

Archaeology is the science of collecting and analyzing cultural material in order to tell the story of past human behavior.  In a sense, archaeologists are like detectives investigating clues and trying to piece together what happened in a certain area over long periods of time.  By systematically studying the material recovered, archaeologists seek to reconstruct the lifeways of early peoples and begin to understand the complex diversity of what it means to be human.

The discipline of archaeology is a dynamic field, constantly growing and adapting to new methods of unveiling and interpreting our rich human heritage.  From treasure hunters and collectors through seekers of universal laws and interpretive narrators, archaeology has matured into a multi-faceted science that fascinates professionals and amateurs alike.  The shifting focus of archaeological pursuits can be demonstrated by considering the past 150 years of excavations and observations throughout Contra Costa County.

In its early days, archaeology relied heavily on the conventions of historic research.  Artifacts recovered from shellmounds in Concord, Walnut Creek and Danville were collected and catalogued, then found their way into private collections and university inventories.  Interesting items from forgotten cultures were marveled at by viewers who often had little understanding of the people who made and used them.  Over time, treasure hunters were replaced by those with more scholarly interests, who worked to establish cultural histories for these ancient peoples.  Even so, through the 1950’s it was possible to dig up artifacts and human remains while excavating for a back yard swimming pool and not recognize that these were important clues to the first settlers of the Mt. Diablo area.

Archaeology in the early 1960’s saw a radical shift away from antiquities collecting to meticulous scientific research.  Lewis Binford and colleagues followed up on Walter Taylor’s call for archaeology to “do anthropology rather than history.”  Archaeologists were admonished to use the scientific method to infer the “why?” behind the actions that created the artifacts being uncovered.  As excavation is destructive, it was essential to record the exact location and context of every object recovered so future scientists could picture the site and add their interpretations and conclusions.  Scientific dating techniques continued to become more refined, enabling accurate time depth to be assigned to sites.  A purely objective approach was encouraged as the process by which data would be gathered and hypotheses tested in order to construct models of the past.

Dr. David Fredrickson’s meticulous excavations of the Rossmoor site at Walnut Creek in 1963 added considerably to the scant knowledge of early Saclan inhabitants in the Tice Creek area.  About 80 people lived year-around in a village at the confluence of several streams, roughly between A.D.1500 - 1772.  According to a site interpretation by Vera-Mae Fredrickson, the village can be viewed as a collection of flexible activity areas:  a dwelling area, a cemetery area; areas for work, including food processing (areas), and a debris area (midden).  Evidence of human occupation includes the remains of hearths, shell and stone beads, obsidian and bone tools, charmstones, birdbone whistles and basalt pestles.  Mortar holes were found in nearby sandstone bedrock, conveniently located near a stand of ancient oak trees.  Some of these artifacts are on display at the Diablo Valley College Museum’s “In Search of the Bay Miwok” exhibit, on loan from the Tice Valley/Rossmoor Historical Society.

In 1969, Dr. C. E. Smith and students from CSU-Hayward systematically excavated a site in Volvon territory southeast of Clayton.  The site produced over 1,000 artifacts that indicated it was seasonally occupied up to around A.D. 1450, functioning as a collection site for edible food stuffs (acorns, buckeyes) and attendant tool production.  J.P. Green states in his field report, “the artifact inventory shows close affinity with sites located in the Delta area,” suggesting trade and/or social relationships between the areas’ Volvon and Ompin inhabitants.

By the late 1980’s many archaeologists recognized that scientific investigations through purely objective analysis did not address the complex and personal human stories of the past.  It was argued that there was no single, universal truth about the past, but rather a number of equally valid narrative interpretations.  These interpretations benefited from a variety of new perspectives:  voices of women, non-Europeans and native descendants were added.  Social issues such as gender bias, inequality and power structures began to be discussed as relevant to the interpretation of cultural material left behind by earlier inhabitants of California, including the Bay Miwok of Contra Costa County.  Native Americans began to assert their right to ownership and interpretation of their past.

Contra Costa County archaeology today is enhanced by the presence and knowledge of Bay Miwok descendants and their contributions to the broader understanding of the lifeways of their ancestors.  Government regulations such as N.A.G.P.R.A. (Native Americans Grave Protections and Repatriation Act of 1990) while imposing some restrictions on the scientific recovery and invasive study of cultural material, have enabled Native Americans to take ownership of their cultural heritage.  Their perspective can enhance the scientific study of the intriguing mysteries of the past, a comprehensive knowledge of which will enrich our children’s future.

Present day archaeologists working on and around Mt. Diablo are dedicated to reconstructing the intricate cultural patterns of thought and behavior present amongst the different Bay Miwok tribelets.  Hundreds of sites documented throughout the area indicate a high density of human occupation.  A rich and varied heritage is reflected in the myriad artifacts they left behind.  Each article on display at the special exhibit ”In Search of the Bay Miwok” at the Diablo Valley College Museum was hand created by individuals.  These individuals had dreams and stories as important to them as ours are to us today.  Archaeological treasures are now doubly valued for their role in educating today’s public about the depth of human diversity.

 

Bibliography

Fagan, Brian M.  Archaeology:  A Brief Introduction, 6th edition.  Longman Press, New York:  1997.

Moratto, M.J., ed.  California Archaeology.  Academic Press:  April 1984.

Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn.  Archaeology:  Theories, Methods and Practice, 2nd edition.  Thames and Hudson, New York:  1996.

Thomas, David Hurst.  Archaeology, 3rd edition.  Harcourt Brace, Fort Worth:  1998.

Fredrickson, Vera-Mae.  The Saclan Village in Tice Valley.  University of California Berkeley:  1963.

Green, James P.  Field Notes:  Easton-Frank Sites.  California State University Hayward.  1970.

Concord Man.  Oakland Tribune:  October 20, 1946, pp. 8A

From Bay Miwok Readings, 2003