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Dendrochronological Dating of Historic Charcoal Oven Platforms in the Great Basin, North America
AuthorStrachan, Scotty Donald
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During the Comstock mining era of the late 1800's, forested lands in the North American Great Basin were utilized for charcoal production to fuel mining smelters and related industries. Expertise and labor for this activity came primarily from Italian, Swiss, and Chinese immigrant populations, and it is typical for modern-day archeological studies in the region to include any charcoal ovens within the study area in their assessments. Minimal historical documentation exists for individual production sites, and so the science of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) can be used to provide exact dates and nature of historical activity where disturbance of forests and woodlands is concerned. Information needed for dating comes from a variety of woody sources, including charcoal fragments and charred wood remains, remnant wood structures, piles of cordwood, cut stumps, surviving old-growth trees, and post-disturbance forest regeneration. Newly-developed regional tree-ring chronologies aid in crossdating samples where clear-cutting has removed all old-growth trees in the site area. Processing of charcoal specimens using new practices can yield higher quality results. Dating of both pine and juniper species within one study area is possible if correct methodology is applied. This study shows in detail how these various techniques can be implemented, and synthesizes the dendrochronological approach for four separate dendroarchaeological charcoal production studies undertaken in the Great Basin: Old Greenwood and Gray's Crossing near Truckee, California; Mt. Hope in Eureka County, Nevada; and the Cortez District, Lander County, Nevada. Wood samples from project excavations, surface features, and surrounding forests and woodlands were compared with each other and with master tree-ring chronologies from each region to determine exact dates of activity. Results from these studies provide archaeologists with precise temporal and spatial data that are applied to questions such as differences in technology/practices between immigrant cultures as well as patterns and timing of deforestation.