The Voices of Bones

The skeleton of a child who died 11,000 years ago may hold answers to the mystery of man's earliest adventure in America—but the past has a way of hiding the truth

Outside

Outside    

   July 1999, 8 a.m. a warm, sunny morning, and our 11-person crew—the 1999 Anzick Excavation Team—is crowded around the sandstone outcrop, sipping morning coffee from paper cups. The ground rules include "no poking around" (because this is a consecrated burial site) and no beer until 5 p.m., quitting time. We've planned two short digs for this summer, squeezed in between Lahren's paying job for a mining company as a contract archaeologist and Papworth's family obligations. Standing at the base of the bluff, we see that a giant bite has been taken out of the slope by previous digs. We will clear this area back to the cliff and down to the bedrock, revealing the original layers. Although Papworth believes the unexcavated areas may contain multiple burials, for now we will avoid digging in undisturbed dirt.

Lahren and Papworth will call the shots; the rest of the all-volunteer team, including a geologist, an anthropologist, and some students and friends of Lahren's, will do the grunt work, cleaning away rocks and debris and getting the site ready for further study.

And so we work, hauling rocks away in wheelbarrows and sifting sand through screens, making sure we don't miss anything.

On the evening of the first day, as the sun begins to cast a soft golden glow on the cliff face, we welcome an invited guest: The codiscoverer of the site, Calvin Sarver, now 60, has just arrived from town to tell us about that bizarre day 30 years ago when the cliff seemed to rain Clovis artifacts. He walks to the cliff and points at a spot on the wall six feet higher and 15 feet east of the place where both Taylor and Lahren had previously dug.

"It was right here," Sarver says. "Just about this high."

Lahren is stunned. "You're sure about that?" Sarver seems certain, although he grants that it's been 30 years.

Unlike Taylor, who died in 1991, Lahren now has a chance to set the record straight. "You know, I just assumed Taylor excavated the right place," he says. "I can't believe it. We just sifted through his leavings. Well, I guess we better re-do this grid."

The digging is ploddingly slow, the weather hot. It takes us two more days to clear the site and grid it, using Sarver's information. With our grid in place, we begin removing soil a section at a time, an inch at a time, and screen it through table-size sieves. We save bits of old bone—most likely bison and deer—in one paper bag, and place fragments of rock that look as though they may have been worked by humans into another. On the evening of the fifth day we break our encampment and agree to reconvene in a few weeks for a second round of digging.

Then it's late July, and after another week's work, we're done for this year. At last we have chipped and scrubbed our way down to the bedrock. The shaved and sculpted outcrop now looks the way our Clovis family saw it.

 

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