If you’ve driven by the Columbia River waterfront in the last couple of weeks, you’ve likely noticed a group of students digging through the land near Who Song & Larry’s and are wondering what’s going on.
A group of professional archaeologists and 24 students from Washington State University Vancouver, the State University of New York at Potsdam and Portland State University are participating in this year’s summer archaeological field school.
Since 2001, the National Park Service has collaborated with colleges in the Portland-Vancouver area to organize a summer archaeological field school for college students that will continue through July. Students will focus on pre-colonial times and excavate sites from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the U.S. Army.
Doug Wilson, National Park Service archaeologist and adjunct professor at Portland State University, has worked with the field school for over 15 years. Wilson said that since the pandemic, students have struggled to find opportunities to get hands-on archaeological work experience. The field school offers exactly what students need: an opportunity to learn a handful of valuable skills needed to further their archaeological careers.
One of the sites they will be working on is near an area that once housed a hospital built in the early 1800s. It was first discovered by David and Jennifer Chance and Caroline Carley in 1974.
From 1830 to 1833, the lower Columbia River experienced a severe fever that killed off 90 percent of the Indigenous population. It’s believed the Hudson’s Bay Company built the hospital in response to the epidemic.
“We’re curious to see if the southern half, which was organically covered with the railroad before it was moved, is still intact and what we might be able to learn about its location and any additional details about the hospital,” said Wilson.
Another site near the Columbia River waterfront will focus on finding the remains of a pond. The area used to be a U.S. Army base and a docking place for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
“We think that there’s a pre-contact American Indian site here. That was probably on the same land that the Hudson’s Bay Company also used, so we’re looking for those traces,” Wilson said.
All discoveries important
Isaac Schwartz, a graduate student from WSUV, said he was excited to work in this year’s field school. He said fieldwork is a crucial part of an application when applying to graduate schools.
“Normally you do this the summer before you graduate, but because of COVID, everything was canceled,” Schwartz said.
Amy Clearman, along with a small group of students, discovered railroad spikes in one of the excavation sites near the waterfront, further supporting their efforts. Clearman said no matter how small a discovery is, finding and recording the information is of utmost importance.
Shelby Larson, another student at WSUV, discovered some lithic debitage flakes.
“We’ve determined they likely came off a projectile plate; it was the throwaways bits,” said Larson, referring to small debris from large stone tools.
Samuel Rosenburg, a 21-year-old undergraduate student from SUNY Potsdam, had to fly from New York due to the low availability of field school opportunities in his area. Despite this, Rosenburg was ecstatic to participate in the field school. He said he’s hoping to find the remains of the hospital, and it was especially important to the Indigenous community, as they lost hundreds of lives in that location.
“We know there’s something here because they did ground-penetrating radar, but we don’t really know what exactly we’ll find,” Rosenburg said.