January 6, 2017

Digging the Past

By Ken Drylie
Projectile heads found at Drinkwater Lake in 1977

Fort Irwin, CA – 10,000 years ago, the High Mojave Desert was home to Native Americans of several tribes. The ancient Mojave Desert was a much different place, it’s believed that the area was much less arid; with much more vegetation, marshes and with water filling what are now dry lakes. The identity and lifestyles of those early desert dwellers is unclear and there is very little evidence to understand the day to day events of their lives.

Later, the Piaute, Shoshone, and Mojave tribes are among those thought to have frequented the area. These people led a nomadic life, wandering with the seasons; hunting and gathering what foodstuffs the desert provided.

In the 1800’s the gold rush brought an influx of miners into the area in search of their fortune. Some of these hardy souls would perish in the harsh climate of the desert, some would establish the first towns and villages in the area.

The deserts of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin are rich with the evidence of the lives of those who used to call the Mojave Desert home. Projectile points, old tin cans, and discarded items are now considered historic artifacts.  Preserving and protecting the sites where those artifacts are located falls under the responsibility of the Department of Public Works Environmental Division.

The Fort Irwin Archeologist, Coral Eginton, overseas the work of the team of archeologists assigned to   Archeological Curation Facility.

Eginton explained that anytime there is a potential of impact to the ground surface or subsurface, the Army is required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to prevent or mitigate the effects on any historic resources in the area.

There are 1,520 known archeological sites on Fort Irwin, but only 45% of the installation has been surveyed according to Eginton. “We have 40 sites that confirmed eligible sites, two of which are on the National Register of Historic Sites,” she said.

Christopher Brosman, Lead Archeologist for the Red Horse Corporation, the contractor who operates the curation facility, explained that the main job of the archeologists at Fort Irwin is to attempt to limit the effect of activities at the NTC on the historic resources located here.

There are four categories that could lead to a site being protected, they are:

A site that is part of a significant event in history

A site that is associated with an important figure in history

A site that demonstrates the work of, or in the fashion of, a master designer

or a site that has the potential for significant scientific knowledge.

If a site meets one of these criteria – it can be eligible for listing on the National Registry of Historic Places, which would require protection under the law.

There are about six to 10 events each month that require an archeological survey to be in compliance with federal and state regulations, according to Brosman.

He explained, “What we are trying to avoid is a situation where we are disturbing historic resources, mostly to protect our history but also to keep that scientific potential. We don’t just look at stuff, our job is a branch of anthropology and we study human behavior and that is what we are untimely looking for; we are looking at human behavior through the past.”

Brosman acknowledged the challenge of protecting the historic resources with the value of the training taking place at the NTC. The success of the US Army comes down to training.   “You can field the best troops and best equipment in the world, but what it comes down to is training,” he said.

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