Ancient Agate Mine

When I’ve thought of the people who lived on the land that’s now America, one, two, ten thousand years ago, I’ve imagined that they led a simple, subsistence lifestyle. But after visiting an ancient agate adit in central Oregon I now have to adjust my vision of the past to include a more sophisticated cultural landscape.

The mine, on private property, was discovered a few years ago. At the end of a 30’ tunnel is the remnants of a wood fire. A piece of birch log there was carbon-dated to have burned 1,500 years ago. The floor of the cave, and the sloping ground outside, is littered with hundreds of tons of agate chips; the slag of a bygone industry. The raw materials to make weapons for war and hunting, tools for cutting and scraping, items of trade and jewelry, objects of art and worship were, for countless years, extracted from this hole in the high desert.

The people’s mining method involved building a fire under the vein of agate and dashing cold water against the hot rock. The fractured surface was then struck with hand-held hammer stones to dislodge loose chunks. From there, the pieces were knapped into desired shapes with more precise blows. How many delicate arrow points, over how many generations, were fashioned here? How many families sustained themselves hunting small game and birds as a result of the craftsmanship produced at this one site? My mind boggles at the implications suggested by the mountain of mine tailings under my feet.

The mine opening was sealed soon after discovery.  The interior of the cave was left undisturbed for future archaeologists to study. From the hillside midden, excavated material is being offered for sale to anyone having an interest in gemstones and a curiosity about the distant past. The tailings lay today as they did when tossed from the mouth of the mine, still coated in the soot of ancient fires. My thanks to Dan Dunn at Alpine Boulder Company for introducing me to his “Ocean Agate” midden and for the photo of the cave interior.

I’d be delighted to send anyone who wishes to have one, a two-pound box of agate mine chippings, just as they come from the Oregon hillside. For information about purchasing, please contact me by email. Any profit after mailing expenses on the $25 offer will go to The Stone Trust, in Dummerston, Vermont, to support educational programs.  Thanks!