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Digging up dirt on the past

Scientists excavate in Woodburn, invite public to join


by: TYLER FRANCKE | WOODBURN INDEPENDENT - Steve Ludeman, an artist and Oregon Archaeological Society member from Welches, sifts through excavated soil near Legion Park last week, in search of buried biological treasures.Everyone knows what dirt is. It’s the stuff beneath our feet — that crumbly mixture of soil, clay and sand that stands between us and miles of terrestrial bedrock above a molten core.

It’s often brown — though pedologists (those who study soil) will remind you that it actually runs the full gamut from bone white to the deepest black — and possesses the uncanny ability to locate and stick to clean trousers, new tennis shoes and freshly vacuumed living room carpets.

It’s useful, if you’re a farmer and gardener, and annoying if you’re a contractor, excavator or mother of small children.

Rarely is it described as “exciting,” unless, that is, you happen to regularly find yourself in the company of folks like Alison Stenger.

by: TYLER FRANCKE | WOODBURN INDEPENDENT - Archaeologists-in-training Cecily Brown, left, and Claudine Bailey, right, chat as they examine a pile of Pleistocene soil near Legion Park last week.“This soil here is more than 12,000 years old,” she said last week, standing in a dig site near Legion Park and enthusiastically raking through a pile of Woodburn’s finest that was at least half as tall as her. “So this is pretty exciting.”

Stenger, director of the Portland-based Institute for Archaeological Studies, was in town for the excavation at the park, which she co-led with Woodburn High School teacher Dave Ellingson.

Woodburn has gained a reputation for its especially fossil-rich deposits of the remains of Pleistocene megafauna — the result of a long-buried bog that trapped and preserved many now-extinct creatures. After routine sewer line work near the high school in 1987 turned up such a discovery, archaeologists like Stenger oversaw a number of digs at the high school and Legion Park.

Stenger and her colleagues struck gold at Legion in 1999 with the uncovering of a new species of Teratornis (an enormous, extinct bird of prey whose wingspan measured more than 12 feet), which was later named after the city.

Last week’s five-day-long excavation marked the first such foray near Legion in more than a decade, though Ellingson has been conducting annual digs at the high school with his students (and the assistance of the Woodburn Public Works Departments) since 2003.

Stenger said it is not particularly unusual to come across an Ice Age-era bone or two anywhere in the Willamette Valley, but the Woodburn sites are different.

“Here, we have 11 or 12 extinct Ice Age species,” she said, mentioning not just Terratornis, but also giant sloths and species of bison, horses and camels that have since died out. “And they actually lived here. They raised their young here, and they died here.”

The Woodburn digs have given scientists great insight into how these animals lived and what their world was like, Stenger said.

“There were very few predators here — that’s unusual,”?she said. “It was almost a perfect environment.”

While the excavations in the Woodburn area have afforded the experts important information that have furthered our understanding of an age long since passed, they also give eager amateurs and hobbyists the chance to mingle with working scientists and get their hands dirty.

About 15 volunteers from around the state — many of them members of the Oregon Archaeological Society — pitched in throughout the week at the Legion Park project.

“We are so happy. We love sitting in the dirt,” Claudine Bailey, of Molalla, said with a laugh. “Some of us are just built for this. I used to play in the dirt when I?was a kid, so it just kind of works.”

Nearby, Cecily Brown, a retired record keeper with the Oregon State Police from Scio, was all smiles.

“It is so cool,”?she said, as her trowel sliced through the pile of silty gray soil before her. “I found a bone on Tuesday.”

While the volunteers are able to engage with a passion of theirs, they are also reconnecting with old friends and making new ones.

“There’s a real sense of community,” Bailey said. “It’s a cross-section of people from all walks of life and all ages. This kind of meeting of common interest is not easy to find, and it’s a remarkable opportunity for amateurs.”

Ellingson said a similar weeklong dig is planned for next month at the high school, beginning Aug. 11. He said any interested members of the public are invited to stop by and participate.

“We keep wanting people to know that this isn’t an exclusive club,” Ellingson said. “Anybody can be involved.”

For more information, call Ellingson at 503-982-2596.

Tyler Francke covers all things Woodburn. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-765-1195.



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