Headout: What is This Thing?

Archaeologists examine the public's purported fossils and artifacts, separating pterodactyl teeth from white pebbles.

When I was in grade school, I found something weird in the woods not far from my house. It's old and brown, made of smooth, hard bone. It's six inches long, shaped like a tool, sawed square on one side as the other tapers into a gentle point.

It came from the woods near Mary Campbell Cave, below the big falls on Ohio's Cuyahoga River, named for a settler girl who supposedly lived there after being abducted by Lenape in 1759. In my imagination, this piece of bone was a tool used to till the rich soil along the muddy river. It's been with me for 25 years, carried from Ohio to Virginia to Arizona to Oregon.

Last week, for the first time, I had the chance to ask someone what it is. It stumped Virginia Butler, professor of anthropology at Portland State University who specializes in animal bones.

"It looks like it's been sawed—this is a very sharp edge, this does not look like it was carved with a stone tool," she says. "What's interesting is how heavy it is, it's almost mineralized. There are some things that are mixed up about it."

And the gently smoothed edges?

"Well, this looks like rodent gnawing," Butler says. I'm left crestfallen.

This scene will play out many times at Portland's first Archaeology Roadshow, as Butler and about 30 other archaeologists examine rocks, arrowheads and pieces of bone found by locals. It's like Antiques Roadshow, but with arrowheads instead of armoires—and without appraisals.

"There's a common sentiment in people, that we love old stuff," she says. "What we're trying to do is deepen that love."

Partly, that means gently discouraging the public from taking artifacts. It's technically illegal to pick up an arrowhead on your own land, let alone take a piece of bone from a park, but that's not because archaeologists are killjoys.

"All we say is 'no' without explaining what's lost in the taking, which is the context in which it was found, which can tell us a lot," Butler says. "It's really easy for researchers to say, 'Let me have my fun, but you can't have yours.'"

It's also efficient. As a professor at a public university, Butler fields calls and visits from people who find fossils, and people who bring her rocks that look like hammers.

"A lot of people are going to bring cool-shaped rocks that have interesting markings on them," she says. "And one of the things we're going to have to do is figure out whether it really is culturally modified. I'm working with students to talk about how to interact with the public so they're feelings aren't hurt."

I can tell Butler is practicing on me, explaining the old rat-chewed bone I thought was a tool probably came from a butchered cow, tossed aside and gnawed by rodents.

"There are some really cool things about it!" she says.

GO: Archaeology Roadshow 2013 is at OMSI, 1945 SE Water Ave., on Sunday, June 2. 11 am-3 pm. Free.

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.