Summer archaeology field school teaches students the value of found historical objects.
Vancouver’s World War I spruce mill was a massive undertaking, and a lot of artifacts remain just below the surface.
Almost a century later, archaeologists are recovering substantial — but impersonal — remnants of a sprawling government enterprise.
It’s a different story at the site of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s barrel-maker’s shop. In the 1850s, the cooper’s shop was a one-man operation.
With each artifact they’ve uncovered, archaeology students know they’re seeing an item that someone held in his or her hands more than 160 years ago. They even have a pretty good idea who was holding it. Mostly likely, he was a Native Hawaiian named Spun Yarn.
Most Read Local Stories
- Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant admits violating ethics code, fueling recall effort
- After decades of neglect, old seminary at Saint Edward State Park reopens as $57M hotel
- Vote no and take the dough? It's a proud conservative tradition
- Not just the mayor: Text messages of Seattle police and fire chiefs from June 2020 also missing
- Southern resident orcas celebrate 3 healthy calves as researchers find J pod in best overall condition in a decade
While those two eras of history are separated by about 65 years — 1853 to 1918 — they share the same piece of land. That grassy field, between Pearson Air Museum and the replica Fort Vancouver stockade, is the site of the 2015 summer archaeology field school.
The National Park Service partners with Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver in the annual session, which gives college students some hands-on experience in archaeology.
It also gives members of the public a chance to walk up and learn a little bit about archaeology.
“We get people who think we dig dinosaur bones,” Katie Wynia, the field director, said. “They’re interested to learn the layers of history under their feet.”
Every turn of the trowel or whisk of the brush might reveal something remarkable, Jonathon Newell said.
“We’ve done just that,” the Portland State student said.
At the Hudson’s Bay portion of the dig, “I was finding ceramics from the 1830s. It was crazy to be that close” to a 130-year-old artifact, Newell said.
The excavation at the cooper’s shop also turned up a blade from a croze — a tool probably used by Spun Yarn to make barrels.
“We also found a part from a mouth harp,” Wynia said. “So we have things that represent his work life and his leisure life.”
Spun Yarn was the only cooper listed at Fort Vancouver in 1852, said Doug Wilson, National Park Service archaeologist and principle investigator at the dig.
Spun Yarn evidently died in 1853.
Students have been working in five areas, digging “boxes” that measure 2 meters on each side. With two different focal points, the excavators can dig into the history of an installation as well as an individual.
On the spruce mill site, the diggers were hoping to recover evidence of a machine shop and a bunkhouse occupied by some of the 5,000 soldiers who worked as mill-hands.
In a bunkhouse excavation, the bottom of the box is a jumble of concrete chunks. It’s not the sort of artifact that can be researched in government archives.
Federal archives don’t have records of the trash that gets dumped and bulldozed, and archaeologists come across plenty of that, said Amy Clearman, a Portland State University grad student. “It gets confusing.”
In another box, where excavators have been looking for the perimeter of a machine shop, field supervisor Emily Taber showed an unexpected artifact. Members of her team were carefully troweling and brushing around a piece of lumber embedded in the soil.
These students might never see the entire piece of wood. One end extends into undisturbed soil beyond the north side of the box; and the students’ summer session ends on Saturday.
It illustrates an archaeological truism, Taber said.
“You always find an interesting item in the last week,” said Taber, a Portland State grad student who is an adjunct faculty member at Washington State University Vancouver. “And it will always go outside the box.”