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Archeologists Thrilled With Confirmation That Wyoming Has Continent’s Oldest Mine

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Most archeologists go their entire career without making the kind of discovery Wyoming State Archeologist Spender Pelton and his team did over the last few years in Platte County, when they confirmed the existence of the oldest mine on the continent.

As detailed in a scientific article published last week, Pelton and his team have confirmed that the Powars II red ocher mine near Sunrise in eastern Wyoming is the oldest mining operation in North America, with mining work at the site dating back about 13,000 years.

“Archeologists had found some amazing things inside and it was interspersed with hematite (red ocher), so they were questioning if it might be the oldest,” Pelton told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “So we excavated at the site, documented things really carefully and were able to confirm it was as old as we thought it might be.”

Pelton, authored the paper with researchers Erin Kelley, University of Wyoming PhD students Sarah Allaun, Alexander Craib, Chase Mahan and Charles Koenig. Additionally, principal investigators and archeologists George Frison, who died in September 2020, and George Zeimans contributed to the report.

The investigation and excavation took place from 2014 to 2020.

Former Sunrise resident Wayne Powars first discovered the site in 1939 or 1940, but didn’t report his discovery until 1986, right before the mine was scheduled to razed as part of an effort to reclaim the nearby Colorado Fuel and Iron Mine. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality was not aware the mine even existed until Powars revealed it.

Red ocher, also known as hematite, fulfilled a wide range of functions in Paleoindian societies, including being used as a pigment in rituals. It has been found at ancient graves, caches, campsites and kill sites in the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and beyond.

It comes in a variety of natural colors, but the ocher in Sunrise is red.

The Powars II site is the only red ocher quarry identified in the North American archaeological record north of southern Mexico and one of only five such quarries identified in all of the Americas.

Zeimans told Cowboy State Daily on Friday that one exciting aspect of the mine was the discovery of pointed projectiles which were unique from “Clovis points” usually associated with Paleoindian cultures in the area.

“We don’t know if they’re previous Clovis, contemporary Clovis or slightly later than Clovis, but they’re definitely not Clovis,” he said. “But these points we’ve found, we’re calling them the ‘Sunrise point’ and referring to the people here as the ‘Sunrise people.'”

Zeimans said the “Sunrise people” were using these projectile points to hunt big game such as bison and mammoths.

He noted there was some type of ritualism associated with the red ocher mine and that the Sunrise people used the ocher for various purposes, such as making jewelry or even using it as a sunscreen.

As a longtime colleague and friend of Frison, Zeimans said the late archeologist and professor had called the mine the most exciting he had ever worked on and the highlight of his career.

“It’s really exciting to learn something new, because we’re brand new to learn about these people,” he said.

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