Archaeology professor, students uncover history at Big Bone Lick State Park

Archaeology student Dave Galloway held a bone from a bison that was dug up at Big Bone Lick. Galloway is a "flint-knapper," someone who reproduces flints for study.
Archaeology student Dave Galloway held a bone from a bison that was dug up at Big Bone Lick. Galloway is a "flint-knapper," someone who reproduces flints for study. Herald-Leader

BIG BONE LICK STATE PARK— Thousands of years ago, a human — probably hungry and right-handed — found an old spear point amid these low hills and re-shaped it.

Last week University of Cincinnati student Liz Ceddia found it again: flaked in a distinctive pattern and still sharp enough to break skin.

"We're been here for months now," she said while working at the site, in Boone County's Big Bone Lick State Park, last week. "It's like finding a buried treasure, only it's not gold. You're the first one to hold it since thousands of years ago."

In a nearby creek, fellow student Becca Blumer laughs with two fellow students as she agitates a bucket full of clay sediment like a Kenmore washer, screening for finds. Blumer's group, which includes diggers by the shore painstakingly shoveling out a wall of earth, is seeking the remains of bison kills.

"If we kept saving this stuff," Blumer said, gesturing at the doughy clay soil, "we could build a nice sculpture at this point."

The students are working with Ken Tankersley, a University of Cincinnati archaeology professor who first visited the area as a child. He keeps coming back to seek evidence of how climate change affects area flora and fauna. It's one of his major areas of research.

Big Bone Lick State Park — its signs announce it as the "birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology" — is the site of Tankersley's student dig, which is open to the public.

Here's the thing about archaeological digging and screening: It's just like digging for anything else, except more precise. There is a lot of mud, passing huge buckets loaded down with muck and wading around seeking more than a bit of heated stone or wood in the bucket. Students joke about their arm-muscle development.

Everyone wants a find like Ceddia's: Three arrow points have been uncovered during the dig.

But the archaeological field school is seeking more, Tankersley said. The layers of soil being excavated, shovel by shovel and bucket by bucket, can show why some species, such as caribou, vanish from the landscape, then reappear.

Species that find their environment and food sources changing have three options, Tankersley said. They could move away (as the grazing caribou did, to the north); become more compact (to survive on less food); or die.

"If you can't either move or adapt, you go extinct," Tankersley said.

The arrowhead is a reworked piece of Clovis craftsmanship. Initially worked by a Clovis-era human — a prehistoric Paleoindian culture, named after distinct stone tools that were found at sites near Clovis, N.M., — the piece was then picked up thousands of years later by another human during the Archaic period who dealt with whatever natural material he or she could find in the changing climate and chipped again at the arrowhead.

The bison lived here once, as did mammoths, beavers the size of black bears, and giant sloths the size of trees.

Dave Galloway, a senior at the University of Cincinnati who retired from the Army before deciding to go to school to study his longtime hobby, is a "flint-knapper" — someone who can reproduce flints so archaeologists can study them. He examined Ceddia's flint find and immediately determined that by the way it was cut, it was struck by a right-handed craftsman who used what he could find.

The site is a student laboratory, but Tankersley said what he would really like to see is evidence of pre-Clovis human activity before 13,500 years. That has not been seen in the entire state of Kentucky.

"By looking at the tools and weapons, we can glean clues about our own survival and our own future," Tankersley said. "It's scientific research, but it's educational. If I'm in a classroom, students forget what I say by the time I'm done. This they will remember the rest of their lives."

Want to help with an archaeological dig?

Show up for work at 8 a.m.-4 p.m. until June 19, when digging concludes for the summer. Digging is not done on days when it's raining or rain is predicted.