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Archaeologist spends his summer digging through Oklahoma

By Tom Fink
Claremore, Oklahoma (AP) 10-07

It’s been said there’s nothing new under the sun, which suits Phil Smith just fine.

Digging through centuries-old sediment is part and parcel for Smith, a seasoned archaeologist who continues his search to unearth the mysteries of the past.

Smith, 68, recently returned home to Claremore, dusting the layers of history off his shoes to wait for his next chance to explore what lies beneath.

His adventures took place through the Oklahoma Anthropological Society.

“I actually went on two digs recently – the first one in late May to early June, and the other, I just got back from two weeks ago,” Smith said. “In the first, the Powell dig, a rancher in El Reno found some bones – some little ones, only two ... three feet long, and got in touch with someone from the OAS. It has chapters all over the state and they set up a dig to see what else could be found at the site.”

Smith’s own involvement with the OAS is long-standing. He’s a former field archaeologist of the University of Arizona and has been involved in excavations since 1964.

“In 1963, I was living in Globe, Ariz., and moved next door to a man who turned out to be one of the top archeologists in the state,” he said. “He got me interested in the field and really became like a father to me, mentoring me in archaeology.”

During his recent participation in the Powell Dig, or “Mammoth Dig,” several dirt layers were cored near where the initial bone was found, revealing layers of dirt dating 4,000 years old and, at 25 feet down, 10,000 years old, Smith said.

“The 10,000 year-old strata was dated about the end of the Pleistocene Era – where we would expect to find remains of extinct mammoths, ancient bison, camels,” he said. “What we really hope to do in those kind of digs is to find human bones or remains in association with mammoth bones, or find projectile points in the (mammoth) bones to indicate that these creatures and men existed at the same time. Those kind of cases have been found in Oklahoma on more than one occasion and it’s always exciting when that happens.

“Of course, that’s never happened to me.”

Even so, Smith said it was a good, if unsurprising dig down through the layers, toward what he said was the bed of an ancient lake where the remains of several ancient snails were recovered.

His other dig took him north of Newkirk, five miles from the Kansas line by the Arkansas River.

“That dig was one that I’d been to before. It’s one of the earliest sites to be surveyed in Kay County,” he said.

“It’s been largely excavated – a huge site – with at least 80 lodges in the Wichita Indian confederacy, dating back to 1720 A.D.

“An interesting thing about that site is we’ve found they were trading with the French at the time,” he said, “because several French items – rifles, religious medallions, and other French things from that time – have been found there.”

Unlike an image sometimes perpetuated in popular culture, archaeology itself can be less than adventurous, Smith said.

It’s not ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’,” he said. “It’s tedious and dirty work when you’re at a site, you don’t just grab a shovel and start digging, you survey the property well in advance, schedule a dig, and when you get there, you remove dirt centimeters at a time.”

As an archaeologist, Smith said his focus is more toward finding old civilizations and cultures, versus paleontology, which is more devoted to ancient animals and dinosaurs.

In his decades of digging through the past, Smith said he’s never found few “surprises” but did note with amusement a more humorous dig with which he’s been involved.

“At one dig, we found an old brothel near a mining camp, dating back to the 1800s,” he said. “We also found a Chinese section of the camp itself – old guns, old pistols, parts of opium pipes. That was interesting.”

With the Newkirk dig, Smith said he personally found “nothing spectacular” but did locate bits of flint, an old post hole, and part of an old French rifle. Still he enjoyed himself and is already looking forward to his next dig.

“Our next dig is going to be at Fort Gibson. At this point, I’m not sure what we’re going to be looking for, but I’ll be ready,” he said.

Information from: Claremore Daily Progress,