OGDEN -- Denae Sportsman sat before a battered cafeteria tray, sorting and counting what looked like dusty, sun-bleached twig fragments, pebbles and a leaf.
But the Weber State University student knew what she had was far more valuable. The split "twigs" were bones from small mammals and birds, some of which were eaten a thousand years prior by residents of Fremont and Shoshone settlements in what is now Southern Idaho.
What appeared to be a pebble was most likely a toe joint from a juvenile bighorn sheep, also turned entree. And the perfect, translucent "leaf" was likely a rabbit scapula, or shoulder blade bone.
"I always wanted to be an archeologist," said Sportsman, 23, of Ogden, a WSU anthropology major with an archeology emphasis. "When I was a kid, I was fascinated with ancient Egypt. Then I discovered there was an occupation connected to it."
Sportsman was one of a handful of Weber State students who, with Forest Service authorization, went on an archeological dig this summer in Southern Idaho.
Brooke Arkush, a WSU anthropology professor since 1990, led the summer dig, just as he has for most of the past 18 years. He and his students have mapped more than 20 sites in Idaho, Utah and Nevada, always taking care to excavate pits a few centimeters at a time, and documenting bones and artifacts, which they bring back to Weber State to clean, categorize and describe as part of an ongoing federal study.
"We specialize in the study of ancient garbage," said Arkush, seated before his own tray, counting fragments of bighorn sheep bones, which had been split for marrow by the Fremont and Shoshone Indians, who also boiled bones to extract fat.
"We go to a location where Indians or settlers lived, and we are able to reconstruct their activities through their garbage and their tools."
Archeology is not as exciting as it's portrayed as being in the "Indiana Jones" films, Arkush said. But the knowledge gained about our predecessors is invaluable.
"My interest is in ancient settlement practices and subsistence systems for the Great Basin area, which is huge," Arkush said.
This summer's site was a place natives traveled to in the winter and spring months to hunt and process bison, pronghorn antelope and longhorn sheep, Arkush said. It was a sheltered area with a good water source. Arkush does not want to name the exact location, because it could be overrun and destroyed by amateur collectors.
Arkush and his students found bones from fetal or newborn bighorn sheep, which told them the hunters had used the site in spring. A fragment of a distinctive shell bead told Arkush that during the time the site was in use, from 750 A.D. to 1750 A.D., trade had reached from the Pacific Coast inland to the Mountain West.
Sportsman is one of the students who made the four-week trip this summer. They lived in tents, worked the site, then came home for a few days before returning to Idaho.
"It was a fun, glorified camping trip where we learned a lot," she said. "It was great being out there, digging and learning, seeing how much we could get done in a day."
Sportsman said camping in the wind, the rain, the heat and the cold gave her a better appreciation for conditions early residents faced.
The students also journaled about their experience, for which they will get college credit hours. Arkush, his graduate student crew chief and his undergraduate students took turns cooking at the remote site. The group findings from over the years, once complete, will result in a formal report to the Forest Service, which eventually will be made available to the general public.
The dig experience trains students for work as archaeological technicians.
"The students get real-world experience in field work, especially excavation, and those skills are marketable," Arkush said.
Emily Stevens, a 2010 Weber State graduate who attended a summer dig in 2008, is working two jobs. She is assistant manager of a TJ Maxx in Salt Lake City, and she works part time sorting artifacts for Sagebrush Consultants, an archeological consulting firm.
"For me, archeology is really just a love of learning about where we came from," said Stevens, 23. "It's about getting to know the land where you live, even if your ancestors came from somewhere else.
"The (dig) experience is something I will never forget. Seeing pictures in a book does not compare to being able to find shards of pottery and put them together for the first time in a thousand years, and to know what it meant to live here at that time period. It's an understanding you cannot get sitting in a classroom. You have to have the firsthand experience to know what it is like. It's a real adventure. It helped shape all our lives, and it gave us a personal connection to ancient people whose lives we couldn't experience any other way."