Train Trench Crews Unearth Prehistoric Artifacts

Sat September 18, 2004 - West Edition

RENO, NV (AP) Crews digging a train trench through downtown Reno have uncovered an unexpected archaeological bonanza –– a prehistoric site that may be as much as 4,000 years old and unlike any other site discovered in Nevada.

About 80 historic sites have been found so far, but the unexpected time and resources needed for the archaeological site used up the $220,000 in contingency funds for unexpected work. The Reno City Council approved a request on Aug. 25 for an additional $600,000.

A city staff report said the city could afford the increase because of unexpected revenue generated by leasing land the city condemned for the $282 million train trench that will bury the railroad tracks that currently bisect Reno.

Mark Demuth, owner of city contractor MADCON Consultation Services, said the additional money will be used to study the site before it’s destroyed by trench construction.

“This is before what most people who read the newspaper even think of as the history of this area,” Demuth told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The city is obligated to fund the dig under federal law because the trench is partially paid for by federal dollars.

The site, in what will be the trench’s western end, is unique because it lets archaeologists look at how people used the same location over thousands of years, said project manager Ed Stoner of Western Cultural Resource Management.

While some artifacts such as grinding stones and hearths could date back 700 years, others found deeper in the soil may be as much as 4,000 years old, he said.

Carbon dating will be conducted on the items to get a more precise reading of how far back into history people were occupying the site.

Prehistoric people likely used the area repeatedly over long periods because of its vicinity to the Truckee River as a source of food, but also because the river served as a natural transportation corridor for a nomadic society. Over thousands of years the river flooded repeatedly, covering the encampments with fine silt, Stoner said.

Years later, people eventually returned to the area and set up camps again, creating a new layer of evidence. When the river flooded again, the process repeated itself. Stoner has found at least five layers, calling the site a “textbook” example.

“This is a world-class archaeological site,” Stoner said. “It’s a classic situation where we have this stratified site. We have multiple occupations on it.”

One of the most significant discoveries is evidence of a house dating back 1,300 years since it shows people used the site over extended periods, rather than overnight.

“A dome structure over a shallow depression over a little fireplace or hearth,” Stoner said. “That’s what a winter structure may have looked like.”

The project has not interfered with trench construction, and the dig is scheduled to continue for another seven weeks while as many as 14 archaeologists work full time to remove the dirt in centimeter-thick layers and catalogue ground and charred stones, projectile points and animal bones, among other finds.

Demuth said finding the site intact is a matter of luck. It was undisturbed for 130 years because the railroad tracks ran directly over it, and it was only by chance that the Truckee River didn’t wash it away when it changed its course.

With European settlers moving into northern Nevada in the mid-19th century, archaeologists consider anything before 1849 prehistoric. The consensus is that people have inhabited the area for about 12,000 years, Stoner said.

Steve Night Hawk, a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s cultural committee, has attended the excavation as a cultural monitor.

“I think it is very important, not just the fact that they’re possibly my ancestors, but also the fact that they’re all of our ancestors,” Night Hawk said.