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Tigards fossil boy MacKenzie Smith participates in real dig

The Tigard youth who helped designate a state fossil last year works with real anthropologists
by: Barbara Sherman, IN HIS ELEMENT — MacKenzie Smith, wearing all the proper gear — boots, long pants, gloves, hairnet and hat — to protect a Woodburn archeological site, takes a break from the hot sun last week.

WOODBURN - Picture the northern Willamette Valley around 12,000 years ago - lumbering through a verdant paradise of grassy plains were 'megafauna,' including mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, beavers and bison, one-toed horses and muskrats. Giant predator birds with 14-foot wingspans dominated the skies.

Early humanoids also lived in the area until, between 12,310 and 12,200 years ago, a huge flood filled the valley with water 400 feet high. Within 100 years, humanoids and animals returned to the area, but at least in the Woodburn area, none lasted beyond the Pleistocene (Ice Age) era, which ended approximately 10,000 years ago.

Fast forward to the present day at the Mammoth Park Archaeological Project in Woodburn, where a dig has been underway for the past 10 years.

Last week, MacKenzie Smith, who was a fifth-grader at Templeton Elementary School in the spring of 2005 when he worked with legislators to pass House Joint Resolution 3 designating the metasequoia as the state fossil, joined archeologists at the documented paleontological site to help uncover a treasure trove of materials.

MacKenzie is now 12 and a seventh-grader at Twality Middle School, and continuing his interest in fossils, he also is the youngest member of the North America Research Group that studies paleontology.

Several NARG members, including MacKenzie and his mom Tami, visited the Woodburn site July 15, and MacKenzie and Tami were invited back last week to participate in the dig. Dr. Alice Stenger, research director for the Institute of Archeological Studies, is in charge of the site.

Anthropologist Lyle Hubbard is one of several volunteers at the site who spends time every summer uncovering new bits of bones, seeds and nuts, plant roots, mammal hair, flaked and ground stone tools, wood and bone tools and more.

'Once in a while, someone finds a bone, and everyone gets excited,' Hubbard said. 'Everything that comes up is wet. Someone dug up a piece of bone yesterday, and we watched cracks form as it dried. We do DNA analysis on bones plus the dirt around them.'

Because the environment in which the dig is taking place is anaerobic (without oxygen), colors are preserved, such as the iridescent green and gold on the backs of beetles.

'We found cut marks on a bison's ribs and found flakes or chips from a stone tool, maybe jasper - something that makes your ears perk up,' Hubbard said.

Working side by side with the professionals, MacKenzie found enough specimens to impress even the experienced archeologists.

'Right away quick, he finds something,' said Marty Rosenson, another volunteer who has taught archeology at Chemeketa Community College.

'Today I found a small bone and a beetle,' MacKenzie said last week after his second morning at the site.

Luckily, MacKenzie could fit the dig into his busy schedule. He helped at the Hatfield Marine Science Center's Paleo Fest in February and has been on the Tigard-Tualatin Swim Team for four years, qualifying in several events for the state tournament that will take place this weekend.

After that, he will be busy preparing for NARG's Northwest Fossil Fest, which is set for Saturday, Aug. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals, 26385 N.W. Groveland Drive, in Hillsboro.

The event includes many fun fossil-related activities for kids. Admission, which includes museum entry, is $5 for adults, $4.50 for seniors and $3.50 for students. Kids under age 6 can enter free.

For more information, visit www.narg-online.com.