Fort Rock Cave excavations uncover history
Fort Rock Cave is located in the remnant of a wave-cut volcanic cone on the Oregon High Desert. It attracted the attention of Dr. Luther S. Cressman of the University of Oregon Department of Anthropology.
Dr. Cressman supervised some of his students in the excavation of the site in the summer of 1938. Several other caves had been excavated prior to Fort Rock Cave, and valuable information had been obtained, but what they were soon to find was beyond their wildest expectations.
Protected by masks from the choking dust, the anthropological team began excavating the cave. Through different levels, they discovered many stone artifacts such as scrapers, knives, arrowheads, awls, and even sinkers used in weighting fishing nets.
Dr. Cressman, in his book "The Sandal and the Cave," describes the most important discovery of the excavation:
"We excavated one of the Fort Rock Caves in 1938. Down below, the old lake bed was white with alkali in the blazing August sun. Dust devils swirled across miles of shimmering space in the dancing heat mirage. The accumulated refuse of centuries, rodent droppings, dust, ash, all had a characteristic stench that clung to the nostrils as did the dust to our sweaty bodies. As we dug, we went through a bed of volcanic ash from an ancient eruption (Mazama) and suddenly, under this, came upon a sandal. It was made of a rope of twisted sagebrush bark, unlike any we had ever found. Many more came to light, about seventy-five in all, every one charred by fires set by the pumice as it fell. Between the ropes of the soles of some of these sandals was caked mud, burned red by the heat of the pumice fires. The wearers did not look on swirling dust devils as we did on that hot August day, but on a great lake with wavelets lapping against a beach below the cave."
The prehistoric lake mentioned by Dr. Cressman was Old Fort Rock Lake. It was a branch of a much larger lake which reached south to cover the entire Silver Lake area of today, spread northeast to cover the areas of Thorne and Christmas lakes and swung north into the Paulina foothills.
As the waters dried up, Fort Rock Valley was left as a connected series of lakes and marshes. This condition remained for many years, and the Indians found it ideal for their living. Large varieties and quantities of game birds nested on the marshy waters, and antelope and deer were abundant. The Indians occupied the area as long as these conditions remained. As it dried up, the Ancients left, leaving the evidence of their existence.
The discovery of the sandals was one of America's most significant archaeological discoveries. It modified the pre-history of Oregon and is one of the oldest known habitations of the Oregon country. The well-developed basketry techniques utilizing the sagebrush bark suggests that the sandal wearers must have been here for a considerable time prior to the making of the sandals in order to have had time to invent and improve methods of sandal manufacture.
The Fort Rock Cave excavations helped to reveal ancient man's existence in North America nearly 9,000 years ago and was a milestone in American archaeology. Excavations at Paisley Cave in recent years have pushed the date of ancient man in North America to almost 12,000 years ago.
Steve Lent is a local historian and assistant director of the Bowman Museum. He can be reached at: 541-447-3715.