Graduate student's find sheds light on UC Santa Barbara's California archaeology program

The news reports - appearing in outlets across the country - spoke of an exciting discovery on Santa Cruz Island, off Santa Barbara: the possibility that a 4-foot-long bone was the perfectly preserved tusk of a prehistoric mammoth. The bone, along with other remains, had been found by Kristina Gill, a fourth-year graduate student at UC Santa Barbara specializing in California archaeology, who stumbled over them, literally, while doing field work on the island.

Gill, who is studying prehistoric plant use by the Chumash Indians, is not a palenotologist and was not looking for prehistoric bones. She was trying to find the route the Chumash might have used for coastal access from the steep slope where she is excavating the remains of several ancient dwellings. “I was looking up, trying to see a path, and I took a step and was standing on the bone. There were bones everywhere.” She says she should have known from the area's geology - she was standing on sandstone - that this was a marine deposit, but the size and shape of the bone immediately made her think it was a mammoth tusk.

Other researchers on the island, seeing Gill's photos, were equally excited. Whatever she had found, they knew it was significant enough to call in Larry Agenbroad, the country's top mammoth specialist and director of The Mammoth Site in South Dakota, and Dr. Charles (Chuck) Rennie, a marine biologist and cetacean (whale) specialist. When this group visited the site a few weeks later, they knew immediately that Gill had found the jawbone of a baleen whale that was between 9.5 and 25 million years old. Although not the hoped-for mammoth tusk, the find was nonetheless significant, because of the age and excellent condition of the bone, which has since been transported to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Gill will not be part of any further excavations, however. The discovery was an exciting detour (which even led to an invitation to look for mammoth remains in South Dakota with Dr. Agenbroad) but her immediate plans are to finish her dissertation on the diet and subsistence strategies of the Chumash who lived on the Channel Islands thousands of years ago, and to continue field work in an area of archaeology known as cultural resource management.

Her excavation site is on Santa Cruz Island, which is the largest of the Channel Islands and covers 96 square miles. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the western 76 percent of the island (where Gill is working) and the National Park Service owns and manages the eastern 24 percent. Under an agreement with the Nature Conservancy, the UC Natural Reserve System operates the Santa Cruz Island Reserve. The Reserve was established in 1966 to provide access, assistance, and facilities to researchers and classes for studies of archaeology, marine and terrestrial biology, geography, and geology of the northern Channel Islands, with special emphasis on Santa Cruz.

For two years, Gill has been working in an area on a steep slope on the northern side of the island, where the terrain is remote and rugged. The habitation site where she is focusing her research is associated with one of the few known occurrences of bedrock mortars on the Channel Islands, consisting of a bedrock outcropping in which mortar holes were created. The site also has a shell midden (a shell heap that was an ancient garbage dump) and five house depressions.

She is looking for carbonized seeds and crushed plant materials to learn what types of plants were used by the Chumash, to see what they ate, what plant resources they used and how their diet changed over time. In most circumstances, plant remains are preserved only if they become carbonized by fire, and obtaining samples of carbonized plant remains requires special laboratory procedures, as well as the time-consuming work of peering through a microscope to identify the kinds of plants represented by the remains.   These data can then be compared with ethnographic studies from the 19th century, which describe the Chumash diet during that later period. Even without a full excavation, whiich she plans to do this summer, Gill has found fragments of stone bowls and projectiles and evidence of plant use from a period spanning 4,000 years to several hundred years ago.

Gill decided that she wanted to be an archeologist when she was 10 years old and saw Indiana Jones in action on the silver screen. After completing her Ph.D., she hopes to combine academic work with field work and preservation. She currently works for the California National Guard at Camp Roberts (near San Miguel) as a cultural resource management (CRM) specialist, helping the Guard comply with environmental and cultural resource protection laws and regulations.

According to Kristina’s adviser, Professor Michael Glassow of UC Santa Barbara's Department of Anthropology, CRM is the nonacademic area of archaeology. CRM specialists manage resources as employees of governmental entities that have something to do with land use, or undertake investigations in light of proposals for land development/use that could affect cultural resources including historic and prehistoric archaeological sites. Some CRM specialists are historians (particularly architectural historians), as cultural resources include historic buildings, bridges, etc. In addition to its doctoral program, UC Santa Barbara offers a Master’s degree program for a small number of students wishing to pursue careers in CRM, specializing in California archaeology. According to Professor Glassow, “this program serves an important public service by training archaeologists to work in nonacademic positions in the local area, and ... elsewhere in California.” Glassow is an expert in California archeology who has taught a generation of archaeologists who now work in universities, museums and cultural institutions across the state. He also does research on Santa Cruz Island and supervises M.A. and Ph.D. students working on the island and elsewhere in California.

For more information about archaeology at UC Santa Barbara, visit the website of the Department of Anthropology.

Spring, 2009

News Date: 

Friday, May 1, 2009