Oregon Public Broadcasting

This summer, the public is invited to an historic site that hasn't been accessible since the late 19th century. Archeology students from several regional schools are sifting through a newly-opened plot of land at Fort Vancouver.

One thing to know about starting your archeology career in the Northwest: better be ready to get wet. Very wet.

archaeology_dig_fort_vancouver_small.jpgLucila Cejas Epple / OPBA fragment from the dig, probably shrapnel.

Students from Portland State and Washington State University's Vancouver campus got ankle deep in the soggy realities of the trade this week. Kate Damon's GORE-TEX jacket was starting to soak through as she picked tiny pieces of metal out of a screened box of dirt.

So what are those mysterious nuggets, the size of ladybugs? Pieces of shrapnel, from Fort Vancouver's military history? Are they fragments of a Colonial-era home or garden?

"The mud makes it really hard to see. it's hard to identify the objects with the rocks, because they're all the same color now," says Damon.

But team members are bagging and cataloging every fragment they find, in hopes that lab work can add information later.

During the late 1800s, this site was part of a vibrant village, just outside the gates of Fort Vancouver. Until very recently, it was a parking lot, almost completely paved, except for a few towering silver maples. Planted by General Nelson Miles, they've seen over a hundred-thirty years of Fort history.

Caitlin Wichlacz and Sarah Cloninger were on their knees in the mud under a small tent, methodically scraping away sediment with trowels. Cloninger says this is when the work gets interesting.

"We've been digging through a bunch of backfill that was put on top to protect the archeological remains. The change in color could be indicative of the fact that we're finally getting throughout he backfill. Which makes us all very happy," says Cloninger.

Even the dirt has a story to tell. Wichlacz explains color variations in the soil offer some preliminary information about how the land was used.

"We saw a change from a very dark grayish brown sediment to a slightly more red clay at the bottom of this level," says Wichlacz. "Often times more organic content will give you a darker color. More organic remains inside structure floors where people were cooking, you often have dark ashy stains."

It's too early to say for sure, but this may mean the excavation units have found a garden or dwelling.

While Fort Vancouver is one of the most explored sites in the Northwest, there are still places, like this old parking lot, that were only partly explored during some digs in the 1980s. Archeologists picked these sites carefully, based on those surveys.

This dig got underway in 2010, about a hundred yards away. But ownership of the parking lot transferred recently from military control to the National Park Service. That means access to a slew of new spots of interest.

Archeologist Doug Wilson with the Northwest Cultural Resources Institute is overseeing the dig. He says the team first worked through about 30 centimeters of dirt holding recent Fort history. Below that lies about 20 centimeters of what he calls "good Hudson Bay Company archeological deposits."

"These two excavation units represent the house site of what we believe was Little Proulx, who was a French Canadian voyager, who was married to a Chinook Indian woman named Catherine. Kind of a typical, mixed-ethnicity household here in Fort Vancouver village," says Wilson.

Wilson says later this summer researchers will move on to the site of a home inhabited by William Kaulehelehe, a Hawaiian preacher who arrived at Fort Vancouver as chaplain to Kanaka workers - the Pacific Islanders who came to the Northwest for the fur trade. They're trying to figure out how settlers were using the landscape. While historians have several written accounts of life inside Fort Vancouver, Wilson says there's a lot to learn about what happened outside the Fort's gates.

"Compared to the fort, this was the heart of the community. There were only 30 people or so living inside the Fort. Out here there were 600 to 1000 people," says Wilson.

Gallons and gallons of dirt will be gathered, sifted and fragments catalogued. The search for the villagers' pottery, pipe stems, nails, and other objects extends through the summer. Everyone's welcome to watch the work and ask questions about life in the old Fort. The dig continues Tuesdays through Saturdays in July, and three days a week in August. For information about visiting the project, visit the National Park Service website.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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