By Andrew D. Brosig
SUNRISE – A group of high school students are spending their summer searching for clues into the lives of some of the first people who used this region.
Students from Torrington, Lingle-Fort Laramie, Wheatland and Crawford, Neb., schools are interning at the Powars II Project archeological site in the virtually-abandoned town of Sunrise. They’re helping the archeologists who’ve been studying the site for more than three decades as they search for artifacts from Paleo-Indian groups who once utilized the area for mining, tool making and more some 13,500 years ago or more.
“All of this is pretty important,” said Jenny Mathus, 16, of Torrington. Mathus, who attends Lingle-Fort Laramie High School, is in her third year with the internship program, working as a crew chief with three other high school students under her.
“I make sure the work gets done, that we don’t miss any artifacts,” Mathus said Wednesday, June 15. “Usually, I know what’s going on. But, if I don’t, we hang on to a piece and ask George.”
“George” is George Zeimens, a former Wyoming State Archeologist and director of the Western History Center in Lingle. He’s been working on the Powars II site and overseeing the internship program for more than 30 years. On this particular day, Zeimens and his young assistants were working in two very different locations on an approximately 40-acre site surrounding Sunrise proper and the now-defunct iron mine which supported the town for decades.
The Sunrise site is part of a much larger string of hills and valleys known as the Hartville Uplift, reaching from Guernsey north to the Lusk area. The Uplift is dotted with scores of former villages, camps and more from the Paleo-Indian era and later, Zeimens said. It’s one of the richest collections of archeological sites in the Americas.
There were actually two activities simultaneously at the Sunrise/Powars II site 13,500 years ago, he said. The Paleo-Indians groups who used the area dug chert, a strong, sedimentary rock – sometimes called flint – which can be shaped and used for tools. They used those tools to mine red ochre, a type of soft iron valued as a preservative, adornment and for ceremonial uses by the indigenous peoples.
“This is a quarry site for chert,” Zeimens said, working with Manus and her group in the old town of Sunrise proper, below the mine. “They were digging it to use for tools. Most of the tools at the red ochre mine would have come out of this site.”
The red ochre mine is the oldest mining enterprise in North America, Zeimens said. The value of that history isn’t lost on the high schoolers who are working there this summer.
“The mystery of this place is we really don’t know what they did here,” said Gabe Plante, 15, of Wheatland. “We’re digging down to find the layers, what the Paleo-Indians were doing here. We’re looking at the stratifications.”
Most of what Manus, Plante and the other interns are doing is carefully removing thin layers of soil and running it through screens, hunting for the sometimes-tiny chips and flakes of chert left behind from the tool-making process, known as knapping. They also find larger pieces, perhaps failed or abandoned tools, which carry the tell-tale marks of the knapping process.
Sometimes – rarely – they’ll find a finished arrow- or spear-point. Plante, who’s also in his third year with the program, made that lucky find on his first day this year.
“Actually, it was a Midland Point,” Plante said. “That’s a little earlier, older.
“I got interested in archeology, really, through (the movie) Jurassic Park,” he said. “That’s paleontology, but I didn’t know that at the time. But I came here and learned that first thing.”
‘Unique site . . .’
Plante isn’t the only one who found his interest in archeology sparked by an internship at the Powars II site. Ryan Bush of Wheatland will be a senior in the fall, studying archeology at the University of Wyoming.
“I met George in high school,” Bush said. “I came out here and worked the summer before I went to UW.
The Sunrise site is archeologically valuable in many ways, he said. The concentration of arrow- and spear-points is just one area which sets Powars II apart.
“It’s the uniqueness of this site – and the fact it’s right here in Sunrise is cool, too,” Bush said. “With stuff like this, sometimes we get a lot more questions than answers. I have a lot of theories.”
The Powars II site also continues to expand, even alter, science’s understanding of the Paleo-Indian peoples who worked in and traveled through Sunrise and the surrounding area 13 millennia ago. One common theory which could be set on its ear through continued work at Powars II surrounds the social structure of the groups that worked the site.
It has been believed Paleo-Indians travelled and lived mostly in smaller, familially-centered groups. Findings from the Powars II site, though, are leading Zeimens to rethink that theory.
“There were probably more, very sophisticated social structures than we’ve given them credit for in the past,” he said. “You can lay a (chert) point from here next to a point from Arizona or Texas and it looks like the same guy made them.
“There was much more interaction between groups than we previously believed,” Zeimens said. “They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat, there’s also more than one way to chip flint. The Clovis People had very unique technologies.”
Open house tours
And the public will get a unique opportunity this week, when the Powars II Project throws open its doors for tours and lectures at the site.
Zeimens, fellow archeologist Dr. George Frison, and John Voight, who now owns the old Sunrise town site and mine, will discuss the history – and pre-history – of the area beginning at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 23. Zeimens and Frison will handle the archeological information while Voight will address the history of the mine.
“John probably knows more mine history than anyone,” Zeimans said. “There’s a lot of interest in the history of this mine.”
Modern operations started in Sunrise with copper in the 1880s. Then, in 1890, Charles A. Guernsey formed the Wyoming Railway and Iron Company to mine iron.
Mining rights were leased by Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1898, with the company buying the Sunrise Mine in 1904. Over the next few years, the company built homes, boarding houses, a school, church and other buildings, including a YMCA, the first in the state.
Sunrise Mine was closed in 1980. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
Cost for the tours is $20 for individuals and $30 for families. Proceeds go to the Powars II project to carry on the archeological examinations of the area. The tours have become an annual fundraiser for the project, attracting families from across the country who’re interested in the mine and the archeological history of the area, Zeimens said.
“A lot of people have family connections to the mine,” he said. “There are still people living who worked here in the later years.
“After the programs, a lot of people will stay until dark, wandering around the buildings,” Zeimans said. “It becomes a big social event.”