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Digging Into the Past

Photos and Story by

Mark Fitzsimmons, Photos courtesy of Alison Stenger

When Doug Reynolds signed up for PCC Community Education’s Paleontology Weekend, he hoped to discover a piece of the past.

“They kept telling me, ‘If you hit bone with the trowel, you’ll know it from the sound,'” said Reynolds. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes before the end of the day, he heard the distinctive thud.

“The more I dug, the bigger the piece,” he remembered. When he finished, Reynolds had uncovered a fist-sized piece of mandible with two teeth from an ancient bison affectionately named Tatanka (the Lakota word for bison) by students at Woodburn High School, the site of the dig.

Not exactly your typical day for the engineering manager from Southwest Portland. “It was really exciting,” he said.

PCC offers the Paleontology Weekend in partnership with archaeologist Dr. Alison Stenger and the Institute of Archaeological Studies.

“We typically meet in the classroom and discuss the peopling of the Americas, the Ice Age animals that occupied much of Western Oregon and a bit about local site formation processes,” said Stenger. “Students then have an opportunity to work at an actual ancient site and to be involved in laboratory work.”

That’s where the real Indiana Jones stuff comes in. Mark Fitzsimons — who volunteers for IAS as a crew chief and helps instruct PCC students — says it’s discoveries like Reynolds’ that draw students to the classes.

“Ultimately students want to get dirty, and they want to get their hands in the soil. They want to find something,” Fitzsimons said.

For Lorry Christian, a human resources generalist from Tigard, the weekend class offered a rare opportunity to go on an authentic archaeological dig without traveling halfway across the world. Another bonus was getting a tour of the Woodburn High School science lab where teacher Dave Ellingson and his students have displayed the bones of the ancient bison.

“It was so cool to see what they’ve already uncovered. The back leg was at least six feet tall,” said Christian.

Ellingson has taken advantage of the site by incorporating study of the bison into his curricula. With the help of PCC students, experts at IAS, and volunteers, Woodburn students keep adding to their collection and to our knowledge of the region’s history.

At the heart of people’s fascination with the site is the past’s connection to our present. “I learned so much about the place I live that I never knew before. It was an experience I will always remember,” said Christian.

“Archaeology is all about understanding,” Fitzsimons added. “It’s all there in these bits and pieces of things that we find or in the stains in the soil.”

Coming up in August 2011, students will once again have a chance to dig into the past on a Paleontology Weekend, either at the Woodburn site or a site in McMinnville where the remains of an ancient mammoth are being uncovered.

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