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MailTribune.com
  • The 'indian tombs' of Gold Hill

  • With each flick of Cressman's whisk broom, 200 pairs of gawking eyes silently watched as one bone after another was unearthed from centuries-old dirt.
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    • If you go
      What's left of the burial ground is on the south side of the Rogue River across from Gold Hill. Because the land is private property and the view from the north side of the river is blocked by blac...
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      If you go
      What's left of the burial ground is on the south side of the Rogue River across from Gold Hill. Because the land is private property and the view from the north side of the river is blocked by blackberry bushes and houses, your best view is from the southern end of the Gold Hill Bridge.

      From northbound Interstate 5, take Gold Hill Exit 43. At the stop sign, turn right and drive a short distance to Highway 99 where the road ends. Turn left and continue over the bridge. Street parking is available.

      A copy of Luther S. Cressman's report, "Contributions to the Archaeology of Oregon: Final Report on the Gold Hill Burial Site," is available from the Jackson County Library System.
  • With each flick of Cressman's whisk broom, 200 pairs of gawking eyes silently watched as one bone after another was unearthed from centuries-old dirt.
    Bill Hittle, a Gold Hill rancher and farmer, discovered the Indian graves while leveling a dirt mound on his property. He had protected the site from treasure hunting grave robbers for more than a year.
    Then, in the summer of 1930, he placed a large sign beside his driveway, "Entrance To Mound Excavations."
    This would turn out to be one of the largest and oldest American Indian sites ever found in Oregon, and professor Luther Cressman, founder of the anthropology department at the University of Oregon, was eager to explore it.
    The public was invited, "for a small fee," to watch as Cressman began a major excavation of what newspapers called "the Indian tombs." These were actually just simple graves, but after Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 archeology had found a fascinated audience, and "tombs" was sure to sell more tickets.
    The money collected was supposed to help pay the cost of the excavation and perhaps fund a museum for the recovered artifacts, but within a few days Cressman said the public was interfering with his team's work and he barred them from the site.
    Not everyone thought the archeological dig was a good idea.
    "These are not mound excavations," wrote J. M. Johnson, of Central Point, in a letter to the editor. "These are mound desecrations. What would be the results if someone would dare to treat the graves of our loved ones as these men are treating these graves?"
    But, the work went on.
    "These people were buried long before Lewis and Clark made their expedition to the coast," Cressman told a reporter. "Earliest burials go back perhaps two millenniums or more."
    He said artifacts collected contained elements from four nearby Indian cultures, but he indicated the people buried here had more in common with the people of northwestern California than with those found in Oregon.
    Obsidian blades and spear points, probably from the Klamath region, and a mixture of colorful seashells from the Oregon Coast — and even from California waters far to the south — left no doubt that these people were part of a large trading network.
    Near the burial ground Cressman found remnants of campfires that spanned hundreds of years.
    Because he couldn't find any evidence of structures, he was unwilling to call it a village site, but he said the area had seen "continuous occupation over a long time by a fairly large number of people."
    After a few months, Cressman's team returned to Eugene to write their report, but the site kept revealing artifacts for the next 30 years.
    Then, in December 1964, flood waters rushing down the Rogue River swept to the west around the curve at Gold Hill, ripping away the riverbank and flushing across the graveyard.
    For thousands of years it had been a favored location for native peoples. Then, in just a few hours, it was all swept away and gone forever.
    Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.
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