Dig under Ashland's Calle Guanajato Plaza walkway reveals settler, native artifacts

"Here's a tiny red jasper fragment from making a tool," says archaeologist Jeff LaLande, holding a minuscule flake of stone up on his index finger.

Aided by Ashland Parks and Recreation Department workers, LaLande began sifting through dirt and rocks Thursday morning, searching for remnants of American Indian and early European settler life beneath the concrete of the Calle Guanajuato pedestrian walkway.

The walkway — named after Ashland's sister city, Guanajuato, Mexico — is slated for a major renovation. It runs between Ashland Creek and the backs of downtown Plaza businesses.

A new water line and electrical lines will be installed underground and the uneven concrete surface will be replaced with pavers.

The city must check for artifacts before the renovation can move forward, the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office has determined.

Only a few hours into sifting through the first survey hole that was cut through the concrete, LaLande and the parks workers already had discovered enough promising fragments to cover the bottom of an overturned bucket.

LaLande says the native people who lived in the area often used jasper and agate to create stone tools. Fragments of those minerals were showing up as LaLande and the workers dumped material on a screen, hosed off dirt, then picked through what remained.

They also discovered what appeared to be the chalky remnant of a burned bone.

Native people would break open long bones, then boil the marrow in watertight baskets that they filled with water and hot stones, LaLande says.

The bone fragment also could have come from an early Ashland restaurant, he says.

"There was no city dump in the early days. You had to be responsible for getting rid of garbage yourself," LaLande says. "You might burn it out back in a burn pile, toss it out here or throw it in the creek."

Other discoveries made Thursday included bits of bottle glass and broken window glass, as well as a lumpy piece of slag from burning coal.

One of the Plaza buildings used to house a blacksmith shop that likely burned its fires with coal brought in by railcar, he says.

Late last year and early this year, LaLande was in charge of archaeological work that was required when the city reconstructed the downtown Plaza.

He turned up scrapers, obsidian flakes and hammer stones, among other artifacts, that substantiated the past existence of a Shasta Indian village in the area of the Plaza and Lithia Park.

Tooter Ansures, tribal monitor for the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians, was on hand Thursday to keep an eye on the Calle Guanajuato archaeological dig.

He frequently works as a monitor on public and private projects that are likely to disturb historical sites.

Ansures says he doesn't view the archaeological work as a disrespectful disturbance of native sites. He says it's best to look for what lies underground since sites are going to be disturbed anyway by construction projects.

"You don't know what's down there," Ansures says.

The most interesting artifact he ever saw uncovered was a piece of an atlatl — a spear-throwing weapon that requires a great deal of skill to use.

Ansures was also on site at a dig when the bones of an American Indian woman and child were discovered. The remains were put back in the earth deeper underground.

He says he hopes more evidence of past tribal life is discovered along the Calle Guanajuato to remind people of the area's history.

Cow Creek tribal members from near present-day Roseburg didn't get along well with native people in the Rogue Valley before the era of European settlement, Ansures says.

But Cow Creek members did help American Indians here during the Rogue River Wars in the 1850s between native people and settlers, he says.

Ansures says some Cow Creek members were rounded up along with native people from the Rogue Valley and sent on the Oregon Trail of Tears, a series of forced migrations in 1856 that relocated Southern Oregon tribal members to Northwest Oregon.

During the archaeological work on the Calle Guanajuato, the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department is keeping the walkway open to pedestrians and outdoor diners patronizing Plaza restaurants.

Many passers-by stopped to observe the archaeological work in progress — a common occurrence on digs in public places, Ansures says.

"People say, 'What are you looking for?' I always say, 'History,'" Ansures says.

LaLande says the archaeological work for the Calle Guanajuato project could take six weeks to two months.

The State Historic Preservation Office will determine how much work is adequate, he says.

The renovation project will cost an estimated $387,809, says parks Superintendent Rachel Dials.

The spending must still be formally approved by the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission and the Ashland City Council, Dials says.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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