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Crew members Denise Arkush and Liz Murphy excavating in lower Stratum 3 soils at Cottontail Shelter in 2015. (Source: Brooke Arkush)

While summer usually stirs up images of sitting poolside and sipping drinks, a few students from Weber State University will be living in tents, eating dinner around a campfire and digging in the dirt, all while earning class credit.

The group of archaeology students will be joining WSU Anthropology professor Brooke Arkush at the WSU Archaeology Field School.

“Over the last five summers, WSU’s Archaeological Field School has conducted excavations at two shallow caves (rock shelters) that served as seasonal camps for small groups of Native Americans beginning as early as 5800 B.C.,” said Arkush, director of the archaeology program.

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Processed bighorn sheep bone, bison bone, and obsidian and chert flakes from the manufacture of stone tools collected from culturally rich strata at Cottontail Rock Shelter. (Source: Cole Eckhardt)

The WSU Archaeology field school will take place in eastern Idaho in an area known among archaeologists as the Great Basin culture area of the American West, a region that encompasses portions of nine states.

The Great Basin includes Utah, Nevada and parts of Washington,
Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Wyoming and Idaho. Field work is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service.

Anthropologist Warren L. d’Azevedo, editor of “The Great Basin: Volume 11 of the Handbook of North American Indians,” said the cultural Great Basin stretches from the Rocky Mountains in western Colorado to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California.

Longitudinally, the cultural Great Basin extends from areas in Idaho to portions of southern California and northwestern Arizona.

European exploration within the Great Basin was underway by the Spanish as early as the 18th century, and possibly even earlier by frontiersmen such as Jedediah Smith, Peter Skene Ogden, Christopher “Kit” Carson and John C. Frémont in the 19th century.

In those early days, the Great Basin was, according to d’Azevedo, shown on maps of that era as mysterious or unknown lands. d’Azevedo pointed out that in 1847, Mormon emigrants arrived in the Great Basin and established the state of Deseret, settling close to the shores of the Great Salt Lake.

Organized academic archeological work in the Great Basin began in the mid-1930s by archeologists such as Luther Cressman of the University of Oregon, Robert Heizer of UCLA and anthropologist Julian Steward of the University of Utah, Columbia University and the University of Illinois.

These explorers went in search of the past and initiated a study of ancient cultures that continues today. In his “Prehistory of the Snake and Salmon River Area,” B. Robert Butler of Idaho State University said that systematic archaeological investigation began in the region where the WSU Archaeological Field School operates in the late 1950s, supported by Idaho State University.

Since then, archaeological work in the area has been less intense.

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Overview of the maximum extent of excavations at Cottontail Shelter in late July, 2016. The center excavation unit reached a depth of 13 feet. (Source: Brooke Arkush)

“Our work represents the first substantial prehistoric research to be conducted within this area in over 50 years,” Arkush said.

Arkush said that the research has documented the human use of bighorn sheep and bison, tobacco, sunflowers, mountain ball and prickly pear cactuses, goosefoot, limber pine and wild strawberries and raspberries.

“This project will substantially improve our understanding of Native life ways in eastern Idaho,” Arkush said,“especially in regard to the ancient settlement and subsistence practices along the western edge of the
Continental Divide.”

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