Volunteer archaeologists explore ancient civilizations in Southern Calif.

By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

I was attacked by red ants. Sat on a cactus. Almost stepped on a rattlesnake.

And given the chance, I'd take the same vacation again.

For five days last May, I worked as a volunteer archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Southern California's Cleveland National Forest. Through the service's Passport in Time (PIT) program, I located and photographed sites where the native peoples of 12,000 years ago, the DiegueƱos, carved stone tools and weapons, where 7,500 years ago their descendants ground seeds and nuts on rocks and where more-recent descendants produced pottery.

My volunteer vacation goals were simple: Go West, to some relatively isolated location. Limit phone and Internet use. And do it cheaply. The Forest Service, an Agriculture Department agency, might be best known for fire protection, but its PIT projects focus on archaeology and historic preservation, from excavating prehistoric ovens to repairing structures built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I applied to four projects, hoping to learn archaeology while contributing sketching and photography skills.

Cleveland Forest archaeologist Susan Roder selected me for "A Hike Into the Past: The Laguna Mountain Project" and sent homework: papers titled "Recognizing Prehistoric Artifacts," "Bedrock Processing Features" and "Southern California Ceramics." I studied on the Metro, trying to discern a mano (a grinding rock) from a metate (a milling stone).

On the first day, Roder warned volunteers about the hardships we might encounter: dehydration, thorns, ticks. We'd tote compasses, GPS devices, trowels and cameras up to four miles to reach sites, she told us. The 460,000-acre forest stretches nearly 100 miles, from the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County to the Laguna Mountains at the Mexican border. Parts of the Cleveland are remote, yet San Diego's beaches are only an hour's drive from one entrance to the forest. There are 127 miles of trails, and over the years, people have left their mark.

Still, you might see more critters than people. In the visitor center run by the nonprofit Laguna Mountain Volunteer Association (LMVA), I saw Tecumseh, a stuffed mountain lion. In the wild, we saw coyotes, rattlesnakes, turkeys and scorpions. There isn't much in the forest except nature, and it seemed out to get me, indoors or out.

LMVA owns the Red-Tailed Roost, where I stayed, on Sunrise Highway atop 6,000-foot Mount Laguna. In the 1950s, it was a school for children of service members based at Mount Laguna Air Station, part of the Cold War defense system. I stoked the Roost's wood stove -- until I saw spiders in the woodpile. In the walls near my bunk bed, one of 18, I could hear mice scurrying.

Since 2004, 74 volunteers have worked on the project, especially around 750-acre Laguna Meadow, which Roder called "the crown jewel" because it has yielded so many artifacts. The meadow was once a major travel corridor between the desert and the coast, as well as into Baja California. It's surrounded by pine, cedar and oak trees, and several villages once stood there. You wouldn't know it today.

"Virtually hundreds of places have been picked over by people through the years," Roder said.

She asked volunteers to keep locations secret and, tempting though it was, not to pocket artifacts (which is prohibited by federal law).

In 1981, a Forest Service survey identified 152 prehistoric and historic sites in the Cleveland for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. The nominations weren't made at that time, but the effort has now been renewed. Roder said her plan was to take all the data we found in the meadow and put together a nomination. A listing in the National Register could lead to funding for more research. "There is still much to be learned about the prehistory of San Diego County," Roder said, "and research could provide some answers to questions about settlement patterns, trade networks, resource uses."

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