When you hear “archaeologist,” some weathered, dirt-coated person, wearing clothing in various shades of brown, probably comes to mind. Maybe it’s a man with a 5 o’clock shadow, scratches and bruises from adventures in exotic places and an iconic brown fedora.
Maybe his name is Harrison Ford.
The field of archaeology intertwined itself in popular culture with the “Indiana Jones” franchise, so much that even National Geographic acknowledged the films’ responsibility for a spike in the career in a 2015 exhibit.
But Elaine Dorset, National Park Service archaeologist at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, followed a different path.
On a recent weekday, wearing a bright yellow construction jacket and hard hat, she reflected on her decision to abandon life behind a computer screen. Her children were grown and moving on, and she got divorced.
“I had been doing graphic design for a long time. I started at 19 and I had pretty much for the last 15 years or so been freelance, which was fine, but I just felt like I had done what I wanted to do,” Dorset said loudly as a backhoe scooped up dirt. “I knew I wanted to get into some aspect of history that didn’t have me sitting at a computer all day. I like being hands-on with the artifacts, and I don’t mind getting dirty.”
Commuting to Vancouver from her home in Gladstone, Ore., Dorset is now one of two full-time archaeologists at the fort, which houses an archaeology program through its Cultural Resources Division.
Since the land has been actively occupied and used for various purposes over thousands of years, from indigenous people and more recently the U.S. Army, artifacts of all kinds have been found. In the last five years alone, the agency reports about 200,000 artifacts have been collected.
“Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is one of the premier historical archaeological sites in the nation. As a primary resource of this national park, archaeology is clearly critical in understanding our history and, of course, the important groups of people who were here before us. Having professional archaeologists like Elaine onsite is essential in preserving and sharing these nationally significant resources with the public,” Superintendent Tracy Fortmann said.
Now 65, Dorset received a master’s degree in anthropology from Portland State University in 2012.
There are several construction projects underway as part of a larger project to keep the site usable. On a cold, rainy weekday, a construction crew operating a backhoe was working to widen a small road that will eventually be paved. Dorset’s job was to observe each pile of dirt that was moved in case any artifacts or features were exposed. She documented any findings on an iPad and toted tools to dig in a nearby backpack.
The Columbian caught up with Dorset to learn about the job.
What have you found so far?
Well, there was a section of historic concrete sidewalk, which was probably from the early 1900s. There was the butt of a telephone pole, brick demolition debris from the building foundation here which was brick, and just the clear base. There was some ash and burning debris deposit, which represents a cultural activity. Features are things that once you excavate them, they’re no longer cohesive. Artifacts, when you pick them up, they remain. And there was the base of a brick wall that was actually 36 feet long. It’s probably from the 1886 to 1904 guardhouse, which was a prison.
How much do you think there is still to be discovered here?
I don’t know exactly how much we’ve excavated at the site. At one point, it was like 2 or 3 percent, so there’s still a lot to be found, although really our main focus is to preserve it in place.
Does the history buff in you worry at all about these construction projects?
Of course. Then again, it’s a double-edged sword. Now we have the exact location of where the guardhouse was. But we’ve been able to keep stuff in the ground.
Is your presence required by law?
Yes, federal law. When there’s a known archaeological site, there has to be an archaeologist who meets the Secretary of the Interior standards as a professional archaeologist monitoring any ground-disturbing activities.
There’s sort of an exciting, “Indiana Jones”-like association with the job of archaeology. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
I think an archaeologist would be the first to say that yes, they get that excited about things, and it is in a sense a treasure hunt. Archaeologists don’t see that as a monetary value but as an information value. It’s like trying to put a puzzle together. Occasionally you’ll find something that’s like, wow. I’m sure it’s Hollywoodified to a certain extent, but I do think it is an aspect of the job.
What are some obstacles you face on the job?
It’s actually fairly emotional to me to know what archaeological features are going to get destroyed. It’s part of the job, part of the project. We plan these projects very carefully to try to avoid any archaeological resources. We do archaeological testing ahead of time, which is what we did in this area in order to determine the best way to do things and protect the cultural resources. But there are times that something’s gotta give. I wouldn’t say it’s an obstacle, but it’s unfortunate. But we are required to confer with the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation on our projects, and they either agree with our assessment that there is no adverse effect or there is an adverse effect. We also consult with about 26 tribal groups whenever we’re doing ground-disturbance projects, so that they have an opportunity to give us input in our planning process.
How about the future; what does that look like for you?
I’ll be retiring in about four years. We have projects ongoing for pretty much that entire time. That’s the immediate planning process with rehabbing this area and the South Barracks area. I haven’t really figured out what I’m going to do when I retire yet. Probably volunteer here. I would like to get involved with equine therapy programs. I’ve been involved with horses off and on my entire life.