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Review of Folsom: New Archaeological Investigations of a Classic Paleo Indian Bison Kill


By Richard Michael Gramly, Ph.D.

Reivew of folsum by David Meltzer book cover

Review of Folsom: New Archaeological Investigations of a Classic Paleo Indian Bison Kill by David J. Meltzer with contributions by M. Balakrishnan, D.A. Dorward V.T. Holliday, B.F. Jacobs, L. Scott-Cummings, T. A. Surovell, J.L. Theler, L.C. Todd, and A.J. Winkler.  374 pp., 8 1/2 x 11, indexed, numerous black-and-white photographs and figures.  University of California Press.  2006.  ISBN-`3: 978-0-520-24644-7. $55.00

University of California Press

2120 Berkeley, CA 94704

It is fortunate that the Folsom site still existed allowing archaeologist and university professor, David Meltzer, and colleagues to initiate fresh excavations during 1997. Their 1997-2004 fieldwork had important goals. Foremost was detailed examination of the bed of extinct Bison bones in order to learn more about Folsom hunting and butchering methods. The 1920s fieldwork by Jesse D. Figgins and Harold J. Cook had, as its principal objective, confirmation of an association of artifacts and extinct animals. For them it was all fresh and new—early excavators at Folsom were interested only in the “big picture”. Studies of bones would come later.

A secondary goal of Dave Meltzer’s re-visit to the Folsom type site was prospecting for an habitation area. Folsom, as we have known it, is a kill site. According to Meltzer it belongs to an exclusive subset (5%) of documented Folsom occurrences, making it very rare and interesting to students of Paleo-American lifeways. However, the place where the ancient occupants of the Folsom site slept and entertained themselves had never been located. Like the Murray Springs Clovis site in Arizona (Haynes and Huckell 2007), the habitations may have been shallowly buried on nearby higher ground and suffered erosion.

In this landmark publication Dave Meltzer furnishes us a synthesis of old and new radiocarbon dates for the Folsom site, a taphanomic study of the ancient bone-bed, and information about the flaked stone industry there. For these expectable results we are grateful. But there is much more.

The reader may find fascinating, as I did, Meltzer’s carefully considered perspective about the nature of archaeological discovery. Why is it that certain scientists carry more credibility than others? How does an important find achieve its proper recognition among scientific circles? Although the Folsom site was yielding important data to Figgins, Cook, and others as early as 1926 (Jackson and 82 Thacker 1992), only after bones and artifacts were witnessed in situ by Barnum Brown, Ales Hrdlicka, A.V. Kidder, and Frank Roberts, did the nation give the site its full attention and respect. Meltzer’s narrative about sequential scientific revelations (Chapter 2) is awfully good reading.

Also, as an archaeological practitioner mindful of the history and leavings of his own discipline, Meltzer and colleagues took the trouble to investigate the 1926, 1927, and 1928 camps of fellow archaeologists who labored at the Folsom site (see Appendix C). One expects that Dave Meltzer suitably demarcated his own campsite for the benefit of fellow researchers of the future.

If there is any shortcoming of David Meltzer’s work, it is only one of omission. We might have hoped for fuller treatment of the Lindenmeier site, which was discovered by amateur natural historians in 1924, just as things were getting going at Folsom. Lindenmeier, after all, yielded a wider range and more artifacts than did Folsom, for it was an encampment. The associated kill site has either vanished because of erosion or still lies deeply buried in the general neighborhood. Lindenmeier and Folsom became entwined intellectually much as the Clovis type locality at Blackwater Draw, New Mexico, became linked to the Lehner and Naco sites in Arizona.

Figure 1. Lindenmeier crew, 1939. Photo by Frank Roberts. According to Ed Lohr, who retained this photograph until 1987, “This was the best crew Roberts had up there during my 4-summer stint. Left to right, Bart Greenwood, Bill Wallrich, Charles Scoggin, Bart Lohr, Bob Stafford, Ted Peterson, and Ed Lohr. Note: Bart Lohr was my younger brother—he was camp boy and helped my sister, who was cook that year.” R.M. Gramly.

Figure 2. Lindenmeier site, 1938. Photo by Ed Lohr. According to Ed Lohr, “Old valleyfloorjust above knees of Davey McAllester (holding rod). We dug this hole to see if anything lay below the Folsom level—nothing there. Underneath the black layer was a whitish clay—tuffs from an ancient volcano. Digging, to left, Larry Oppenheimer, and to right, Ed Lohr. Incidentally, practically all artifacts were just at the bottom of the soil layer, rarely extending more than an inch into the black, which was caused by heavy grass growth. The best of the Folsom points lay the deepest, indicating that the technique of making the points was fully developed by the time this hunting group first came there.” R.M. Gramly.

Part of the reason why Dave Meltzer has given short shrift to Lindenmeier, failing to cite some relevant early publications (Coffin 1937; Roberts 1937; Greenway 1960; Wilmsen 1974), is because it was reported initially by artifact collectors with only local reputations. He may have been as mindful of status as the intellectuals involved with Early Man research during the 1920s appear to have been. Later during the 1930s, a full decade after the work at Folsom, Lindenmeier would receive the publicity it deserved. A concluding report about investigations there, however, would not appear until 40 years later (Wilsen and Roberts 1978). As Meltzer has so carefully noted, it is the status of the messenger—not necessarily the content of the message being carried—that determines if and when it will be read!

The ten year delay in investigating the Lindenmeier site has had both good and bad outcomes. Lindenmeier would have made a much better type site for Folsom industry than Folsom itself as the quantity and range of artifact types there were great. On the other hand, are not we (who are poor spellers) lucky that Folsom points were not named Lindenmeier points! Another good outcome is that Lindenmeier in the 1930s was not as remote as Folsom during the 1920s; consequently, it was visited by many people in automobiles with cameras. Thousands of excavation photographs must still exist in private hands (see Figs. 1, 2, and 3); while, as Dave Meltzer has learned, photographs of the work at Folsom are scarce and are jealously guarded by archivists.

Figure 3. Lindenmeier site, August 1, 1940. Photo by Ed Lohr. One of the best points (found by Charles Scoggin) from Lindenmeier. According to Ed Lohr, “Made of white chert. Large chalcedony scraper to left. Incidentally, some Folsom points were so individually made that it was obvious that the same person had made them. Most of the points were bases only—hunters had obviously broken them while hunting, had brought the shafts back to camp, and thrown the bases away. Roberts did not rule out the possibility that the bow and arrow was used even at that early date (probably about 11,000 years ago). Usually the atl-atl was thought to have been used R.M. Gramly.

In conclusion, no library about Paleo-Americans is complete without a copy of David J. Meltzer’s wonderful publication. I wish that there were more studies like it, to fill the spaces on my book shelves, which I have reserved for work that eventually must be done!