How to be Indiana Jones for the weekend

Help the Friends of Calico unearth history in the Mojave desert. Photo: Bureau of Land Management
Help the Friends of Calico unearth history in the Mojave desert. Photo: Bureau of Land Management

For those of you who watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and wondered how you could go searching for ancient artifacts yourself, here is your chance to get in on some archaeology action. The Calico Early Man Site, located near Yermo, California, is starting its fall digging season this weekend (October 2 and 3) and they welcome volunteers to help with their unearthing efforts.

JK Mueller, the organizer of the dig, let us know what first-timers should expect. When you first arrive, she says, you’ll see on the ground “chips and artifacts scattered everywhere, mostly made of chalcedony, an orange glass-like material.” She assured us that diggers will learn on the job “how to sift for artifacts and how to distinguish an artifact (human made) from a geofact (nature made).”

Saturday night lectures cover a wide range of related topics, from geology, gemology, and tool manufacture to climate. Volunteer effort is central to keeping the site running, and helpers have made many significant finds. Just last season, says Mueller, “The Friends of Calico president found two projectile points in the piles of mined bentonite clay right outside the main building. One still had animal hair and leather string attached [and was] dated at 1500AD.”

This archeological site has delivered interesting finds—and scientific controversy—since digging began there in the 1940s. From the mid-1960s until his death in 1972, Dr. Louis S.B. Leakey, famous for his research in evolutionary anthropology, directed the excavation. Of particular debate are rocks found at the Calico site that look much like prehistoric tools, and that are thought to be around 200,000 years old. While the tool-like rocks may appear to have been made by people, other scientists have argued that they could have acquired their shape through typical geological processes. If these rocks are indeed human made—that is, artifacts—rather than a result of geologic pressures—geofacts—the finding could push back the traditionally accepted date of human entry into the Americas (about 11,000 years ago) nearly 20-fold.

To see for yourself, and to learn more about the science behind the dig, head down to southern California. There is no cost to volunteer, but if you wish, you may join the Friends of Calico, a non-profit organization that helps finance ongoing scientific projects. It’s also helpful, notes Mueller, to bring “gloves, scarves, jacket, hiking boots to travel the last few feet of rough ground, [as well as] magnifying glasses and knee pads.”

And be prepared to make friends. Mueller says, “Volunteers are loquacious, energetic, and personable, and love to talk about varied topics and to learn at all ages. New volunteers almost always feel right at home.”

To join the dig or find out more information, sign up here.

Categories: Archeology, Geology & Earth Sciences, Nature & Outdoors, Science Policy

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