Digging into history, archaeology at the fort

Annual field school provides students with real-world experience

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Fort Vancouver Excavation

A group of archaeology students wrap up a six week excavation at Fort Vancouver.

A group of archaeology students wrap up a six week excavation at Fort Vancouver.

photoWard Upson, a volunteer, holds a stadia rod as part of excavation work efforts Tuesday at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Students and volunteers from around the nation are taking part at the annual summer field school for university archeology students held by National Park Service.

(/The Columbian)

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History in your hand

A smartphone application is providing visitors to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site with a new way to experience history. Designed by the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver, the mobile app shows users images, maps, audio and video related to a small area known as the workers’ village, west of the re-created stockade.

“Any of the media that we can present digitally can be packaged into this app and then put onto a phone,” said WSU Vancouver assistant professor Brett Oppegaard, coordinator of the Fort Vancouver Mobile project. “The user can access it when they need it, when they want to learn about something in particular.”

One module has been completed, showing the influence of Hawaiians who formed a big share of the work force at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s regional headquarters. It has about 30 minutes of information.

Go to http://fortvancouvermobile.net.

The years slowly rolled back Tuesday as Flynn Denard went deeper into the soil.

“This is the closest I’ll ever be to a time traveler,” she said.

Denard is part of the annual summer archaeology field school at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, where she is getting hands-on experience in excavating techniques.

This year, the school is at the site of the old workers’ village, west of the re-created Hudson’s Bay Company stockade.

Denard is studying the food patterns of the area’s earlier inhabitants, and thought she might have found the remnants of a family’s meal.

“I came across bones, which gave me a chance to excavate carefully,” the Portland State University student said.

After a cranium came out of the dig, Denard and a faculty member looked through reference books “to figure out what it was,” she said.

It was a dog skull.

“Lewis and Clark wrote about eating a lot of dog meat while coming down the Columbia River,” noted Doug Wilson, National Park Service archaeologist at Fort Vancouver.

The rest of the animal’s bones were still arranged in proper order, however, so it hadn’t been butchered.

And, as students carefully brushed away the soil, they uncovered a fragile layer of fabric.

“We put together the pieces of the puzzle,” Denard said.

And the solution?

“It was an animal buried in a blanket. They buried their pets with care” — at this home, anyway, Denard said.

The workers’ village, now represented by two houses and several sections of rail fence, was a large and remarkably diverse community, Wilson said.

“When fur traders were here for a few months to refit, there could be from 600 to 1,000 people here,” Wilson said.

That was the largest community between Sitka, Alaska, and what now is San Francisco, he said.

This is the 10th annual edition of the archaeology field school, which is offered through Washington State University Vancouver and Portland State.

“To be a professional archaeologist, a field school must be part of their training,” Wilson said. “They learn how to excavate and record. There’s probably more paperwork than actual digging.”

There can be a lot of tiny artifacts that require a lot of cataloguing.

At another excavation, Bruce Schneider showed the sort of material that’s been recovered.

“We’re finding lots of ceramics here, lots of broken glass and hand-wrought nails,” the Northern Arizona University student said.

While some students were using specialized equipment, “Some of the tools are things you can find in a grocery store,” Wilson said.

“Barbecue skewers and chopsticks don’t damage bone,” Wilson said. When they get blunt, they can be sharpened with a knife.

This is the students’ last week at Fort Vancouver. Next week, the field school moves to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park near the Oregon Coast.

“They just got a new piece of property, 107 acres that is one of the few remaining greenspaces there,” Wilson said.

Field-school participants will do an initial survey and look for possible historically significant sites.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558 or tom.vogt@columbian.com.