JACKSONVILLE, Ore. — Jacksonville Fire Department Chief Devin Hull didn’t respond with fire engines roaring and sirens wailing when he was called to investigate a fire last week.
After all, the fire had been dead out for about 125 years. But his expertise was needed.
Chelsea Rose, staff archaeologist at Southern Oregon University’s Laboratory of Anthropology, had asked Hull to explain how some artifacts they found could have been spared in an 1888 house fire in the city’s Chinese Quarter.
Rose is leading a dig that began Oct. 9 into the site just off Main Street.
The archaeologist contacted the fire department after discovering an area chock full of artifacts that are believed to be on the floor of the burned home. At least one wooden beam has survived, Rose said.
“I told her how the layering event could have taken place,” Hull said of ash and other materials sandwiching together to form layers, which can shut off oxygen. “When that happens, it can preserve part of the wood structure and other materials.”
It was certainly the oldest fire he has investigated, he said, adding, “It was very interesting.”
The archaeological team is searching for evidence left from the historic town’s Chinese section, which was established in the mid-1850s, making it the oldest urban Chinese quarter in the state, Rose said.
“We are literally looking inside the house of a Chinese individual or individuals from 1888,” she said as she stood over the archaeological dig into the home.
“This is an important time in Jacksonville history,” she added. “It is a poorly understood population in history, not only in Jacksonville but in the West. This is such a rare opportunity. … We are bringing this house back to life.”
Indeed, in the roughly meter-deep dig they have unearthed numerous items, including an opium can, a porcelain rice bowl, the jawbone of what appears to have been a cow, the bottom of what may be a liquor bottle, a button, Chinese coins, a mini-musket ball, a necklace chain and two bone dice. All of the objects will later be studied in SOU’s laboratory.
This marks the fourth dig in the Chinatown in the past decade, two of which included the University of Oregon as well as SOU. Rose participated in all four archaeological projects.
In addition to the SOU lab, participants include the city of Jacksonville, Southern Oregon Historical Society and Oregon Department of Transportation.
Fire Chief Hull’s observations about the fire provided expert insight the team needed, Rose said, noting Hull may study the burned beam later and estimate how long it was on fire. The fire burned parts of two blocks, she noted.
“This is so unique and so exciting,” she said, noting the current dig could make inroads into the knowledge of Chinese history in Oregon.
“There haven’t been opportunities to excavate such an intact site in Oregon,” she added. “We’ve got a lot of great sites, but not like this.”
There are only a handful of Chinese archaeological sites from the 19th century on the West Coast, she said.
While she is fired up about the dig, she is quick to observe that a historic dig comes with responsibilities.
“We are destroying the site as we excavate it,” she said. “We have to be careful to recover everything we can as we bring this story back to life.”
The archaeological site is deeper than most because of the fill material later added to the area, Rose said. However, the fill helped preserve the artifacts, she noted.
“Right now, we are coming down inside a building,” she said. “It looks like we have the east wall. We hope we are coming down on an intact floor. We are trying to get the widest exposure we can so we can see the most complete picture. We can’t rush this.”
Zach Rodriguez, an archaeologist with the Klamath National Forest who is a product of SOULA, was painstakingly scraping and dusting as he worked around the artifacts poking out of the dirt.
“This is the stuff I don’t get to do anymore,” said the archaeologist, who was on furlough from the forest.
The house is believed to have been immediately behind a Chinese laundry on California Street.
“There is so much opium paraphernalia coming out of here,” she said, noting the drug was used both socially and as a pain reliever. “But this was not an opium den. This was a house.”
The team will not excavate the entire site, she said, adding that a portion will be saved for future scientific digs.
“Archaeologists in another decade will have better tools to recover stuff with more accuracy and efficiency,” she said. “We always want to leave something for the future.”