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Buried Treasure

Woodburn High School students sift through soil and clay in search of the remains of an Ice Age bison, long buried in Woodburns past


by: PHIL HAWKINS - Members of Dave Ellingsons freshman class at Woodburn High School look on as the a trackhoe excavates the area around Mill Creek toward the southeast end of WHS. Ellingson led students to the dig site last week in search of animal and plant remains dating backt o 10,000 years.With school back in session, motorists passing by Woodburn High School last week may have been able to catch a glimpse of Dave Ellingson’s science classes digging through tons of unearthed muck along the bed of Mill Creek.

For years, the stretch of creek on WHS ground located southeast of the high school has been a treasure trove, yielding specimens of bone and plant material dating back to the ice age 10,000 years ago. The dig site’s biggest find occurred in 2008 when WHS students found a nearly-complete skeleton of a Bison antiquus roughly 18 feet below the surface in a layer of sandy clay.

Five years later, Ellingson and his students are still hard at work looking for the few remaining parts of the first bison – named Tatanka – and other bone fragments and signs of life from Woodburn’s past.

“The whole purpose of what I do here is to teach these kids techniques about scientific inquiry,” said Ellingson. “You find a bone, you find a plant, you find a seed or you find some wood. We try to figure out what that bone or plant was, and then piece it together.”

Ellingson’s classes spent last week sitting on overturned buckets as they sifted through heaping piles of black soil and clay in hopes of finding specimens. Of course all the students were hoping to discover another large bone to help add to Tatanka, which is roughly 75 percent complete, but even small fragments, animal bones or plant material is important in building a picture of what the environment looked like thousands of years ago, said Ellingson.

The most recent find came over the course of the summer, when Ellingson found the thoracic vertebrae of another, smaller bison, raising hopes that another intact Bison antiquus exists somewhere below the Mill Creek dig site.

“It came out in just all these different pieces,” said Ellingson. “But it’s not (Tatanka), it’s a different bison.”

by: PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn senior Zuleka Vasquez displays a vertebrae from a Bison antiquus that she put together this summer out of dozens of fragmented pieces. The bone belongs to a the second bison specimen to be pulled out of the Mill Creek dig site. Around the same time as the bone was found, Woodburn senior Zuleka Vasquez was spending time at the high school practicing for the coming soccer season. Ellingson knew Vasquez had an interest in biology and approached her with a project.

“He showed me that he found a bone, and he asked me if I wanted to be a (teacher’s assistant),” said Vasquez. “He asked me if I was interested in putting the bone together, and I said ‘Sure, why not? It seems like fun.”

Over the course of a week, Vasquez took dozens of bone fragments – some as small as tooth picks – and pieced them together with glue like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. When Vasquez was finished, she had a nearly intact piece of a bison backbone that was 10,000 years old.

“Some pieces are missing, so hopefully the kids find them when they go digging,” she said.

Vasquez is a member of the varsity soccer team and a student at Wellness, Business & Sports School (WeBSS). She’s looking to continue her education at Oregon State University, where she wants to major in biology and go into pre-dental.

“I’m still looking for other colleges too, but if not, I’ll plan on going to OSU like my older sister,” said Vasquez.

Throughout her senior year, Vasquez will help as Ellingson’s T.A. in the classroom as she sorts and catalogs plant material and bone fragments found at the dig site. Ellingson keeps a closet full of various specimens, from cherry seeds to small animals like muskrats, shrews, turtles and birds.

Last week’s dig yielded many new bones from different animals, including a pair of ribs Ellingson believes were from Tatanka. Classes also unearthed bog bean seeds, spruce cones, pacific willow leaves and a great deal of wood. These treasures allow Ellingson to deduce more and more about the surrounding area.

“We find more things and try to build a big picture of what this area was like 10,000 years ago,” said Ellingson. “And that comes from every year we find something new to add to the picture.”



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