DEQ helps preserve oldest known prehistoric mine in North America

DEQ helps preserve oldest known prehistoric mine in North America

By Kristine Galloway

SUNRISE – A one-of-a-kind prehistoric site in Wyoming exists today almost by coincidence.

The Powars II Paleoindian Archaeological Site in Sunrise – believed to be the oldest known mining operation in both North and South America – would have been wiped out if former Sunrise resident Wayne Powars hadn’t shown up for a school reunion one day before the scheduled demolition.

In 2019, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality partnered with a host of irreplaceable individuals to preserve the 13,000-year-old ochre mine, ensuring archaeologists can study the site for years to come.

Ochre is a powdery mineral that some Native American tribes use as a pigment for a variety of ritual purposes. Ochre comes in a variety of natural colors, but the ochre in Sunrise is red.

Powars first discovered the site when he was teaching and coaching in Sunrise in 1939-40.

But he didn’t report his findings until 1986 when he returned to the town and discovered that the site could be inadvertently razed as part of a project by the DEQ Abandoned Mine Land Program (then under the Land Quality Division) to reclaim the old Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) iron mine in Sunrise.

George Frison, one of the principal archaeologists for the Powars II site said he learned about the site in 1981 when he was completing a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“This man walked in, and he had a sack of artifacts – you know, tools (and) projectile points,” he said.

Frison explained that the man poured them out on the table and said he’d found them all along the railroad tracks between Sunrise and Hartville.

“I just couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen anything like this before and never expected to see anything like that,” Frison said.

Frison was Wyoming’s first state archaeologist, taught at the University of Wyoming and is the only Wyoming resident ever to be inducted into the National Academy of Science.

He explained that upon hearing of the possible demolition in 1986, he came to Sunrise, and Powars showed him where he’d found the artifacts.

“Well, we had no idea what was going on, but I knew we had to do something really quick, and I was ready to lay down in front of (a) D17 to stop that thing,” Frison said. A D17 is a type of bulldozer.

Frison said he believes the Powars II site to be the oldest known mining operation in both North and South America.

“This can’t be the only one around, but it’s just so unusual. And it’s a site that I think is telling us a lot about what was going on (back then) and some of the first people that came to Wyoming,” he added.

Frison said his life’s blood has been trying to determine who were the first people to come to Wyoming. The fact that this site contains Clovis points is a big sign.

He explained that Clovis points are a type of projectile point – also known as an arrowhead – that were first discovered in Clovis, NM.

George Zeimans, another principal archaeologist on the site, explained that the people who used Clovis points are believed to be the first inhabitants of North America.

He added that this site is unique not only because it’s believed to be the oldest mining operation on two continents but because of the number of artifacts they are discovering at the site.

“(At) a lot of these Clovis sites, you’re lucky to find two or three artifacts, and you learn what you can from them. But this is an extremely rich site,” Zeimans said.

“We’ve got over 80 Clovis points out of this site.”

He added that a person would expect to find digging tools and hammer stones at a prehistoric mine, but, curiously, that isn’t the case at the Powars II site.

“We’re finding all these tools and over 80 projectile points. What are they doing in a mine?” Zeimans said.

“You expect to find them in a camp site and at a kill site, where they were killing animals. What are they doing here?”

He noted that the points are all used, too.

The site includes not only the red ochre mine but also a toolstone quarry nearby, which likely means the people were creating tools at the mine, going out and using them, and then bringing them back to the mine.

Zeimans said they think there may be ritualistic reasons behind that, but it’s all conjecture because nothing like this has been found before.

Marcia Murdock, the AML project manager who led the reclamation of the Powars II site, explained that although a cultural survey had been done on the reclamation area the survey had not found the archaeological site; DEQ had been unaware of the site until Wayne Powars revealed its location in 1986.

Former YMCA in Sunrise, WY

When the AML Program found out about the Powars II site they were in the middle of a project to reclaim and revegetate the abandoned CF&I iron mine.

“The site was in the middle of the project area, but nobody knew about it,” she explained.

Once DEQ became aware of the site, the AML Program completed its work around the site, carefully leaving it undisturbed.

“We knew that it was probably National Register of Historic Places-eligible property even at that point in time,” Murdock said.

Zeimans reached out to DEQ about doing some stabilization work on the mine to protect the site because he could see the constant erosion. He spoke to Murdock, who immediately understood the importance of the site.

The existing steep and, in places, vertical faces left by past historical mining presented safety hazards for those working on the site, and to the owner and site visitors. Due those safety hazards, the site was determined to be eligible for AML funding.

AML requested authorization from Jeff Fleischman and Moira Russell with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation and Enforcement to begin the project and use AML funds to pay for it.

Murdock selected Harold Hutson, an engineer for BRS Inc. in Riverton to be the project engineer for this sensitive and important project. Hutson regularly partners with DEQ’s AML Division for mine reclamation projects.

Hutson explained that they and the contractor, Earth Work Solutions, ultimately filled in areas of the land right up to the site of prehistoric mine and draped geomorphic fabric over portions of the prehistoric mine that were yielding artifacts, which allowed the work to be completed without damaging the cultural site.

AML contractors working to reclaim portions of the area that provided better safety and protection of the historical site

Hutson explained that they also situated the land to direct surface water runoff away from the site to prevent erosion, and they replaced a chain link safety fence with a buck-and-rail fence that didn’t damage the site the way a new chain link fence might.

Murdock said, “Now, the archaeologists have got a safe place to work, and they still have what’s left of that entire site in context.”

She added that they removed a lot of the dirt covering the ancient mine site, which will allow archaeologists to study the site without having to remove a lot of dirt just to get to the original mine.

Murdock and Hutson explained that Zeimans and others remained present during the reclamation and stabilization work to help the AML team determine where to work and where to stop.

The work began in 2019 because John Voight bought the property about 10 years ago. The previous owner knew the site existed but would not allow anyone on the property. Voight favored allowing archaeologists to study it. He’s never regretted the decision and enjoys learning alongside the archaeologists.

“It’s just been a real ride,” he said. “I’m not an archaeologist, but for me, it’s been a real ride.”

Frison, Zeimans and others are forming a nonprofit organization to protect the site and help fund the research conducted on the site. The research currently is funded by a private group of collectors and avocational archaeologist, which are nonprofessional individuals with a passion for archaeology.

George Frison shows OSMRE staff artifacts that were found at the Powars II site. (Left to Right: Jeff Fleischman, Moira Russell, and George Frison)

The nonprofit already has a board of directors made up of various people with interest in the site, including former Sunrise resident Kathy Troupe.

Spencer Pelton, the current Wyoming State Archaeologist, became involved with the project in 2016 when he was still a doctoral student at the University of Wyoming.

He is working through the process to have the Powars II Paleoindian Archaeological Site added to the National Register of Historic Places through the U.S. National Park Service. Once that’s complete, he and the other archaeologists hope to have it added to World Heritage List through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Currently, the World Heritage List contains only 23 sites around the world, including Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Check out the DEQ’s interactive story map with videos and more pictures of the Powars II Paleoindian Archaeological Site:

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