MOSCOW, Idaho — Archaeology, often thought the purview of exotic locales and ancient history, can also investigate the recent past close to home.
To make the field more accessible, University of Idaho’s anthropology program this fall brought an excavation into the community — a half-mile from campus at Moscow High School.
The dig explores the school’s history and residences that occupied the grounds before the school was built. Since late August, students have uncovered thousands of artifacts dating to the early 1900s and late 1800s.
“We’ve had a lot of material come up and that’s been very exciting,” said Katrina Eichner, an anthropology professor who specializes in 19th and 20th century American West archaeology.
The high school was built in 1939, which replaced the original school built in 1892. Digging next to the school along Third Street revealed part of the original building foundation.
Some of the artifacts date even before the first school, when there were at least nine homes and nine other buildings on the property.
A dizzying array of objects from domestic and school life has been found: a glass inkwell, pencil lead, an ROTC badge, rings, brooches, pendants, lots of buttons, safety pins, a skeleton key, part of what might be a sewing machine and a pharmaceutical bottle still holding its contents.
Collectively, these objects tell a larger story. Each is a data point in a mosaic.
“In archaeology, we always say the artifacts themselves are nice, but it’s when you think about how they all relate to one another and the context of where they were found that you actually get to tell some really cool stories about the people who were here in the past,” Eichner said.
Although Native Americans lived in the area, there is no evidence of Native artifacts on the site, Eichner said.
The work expands on another excavation at the site from 2019. The program used historic Sanborn fire insurance maps to identify the best places to dig, while using modern utility maps to avoid plumbing and electric utilities. Occasionally, they bump into sprinkler lines.
Using census records, they have a good idea of who lived on the block in the early 1900s. Upper-middle class neighbors included the mayor, doctors and lawyers.
An area below the hill just west of the school grounds used to be an alley behind some of the houses where residents dumped their trash. Now it’s a treasure trove yielding shards of glassware, ceramics and butchered animal bones from cooking.
In some places, artifacts don’t show up until about 80 centimeters deep, after years of landscaping and backfill.
Some objects are closer to the surface and obviously more recent: a plastic glue bottle cap, a mechanical pencil.
An older liquor bottle was found in the corner of the courtyard, away from where the houses were.
“That is almost certainly evidence of students behaving poorly in the past,” said Mark Warner, the anthropology professor directing the field school.
Some finds are hard to identify, like a bit of blue chalky pigment that will have to be tested in a chemistry lab. It could be paint, it could be makeup.
Sometimes it’s easier, like a piece of early 20th century French porcelain that conveniently says “France” in fancy blue print.
“It’s nice when that happens,” said Ericha Sappington, a PhD student.
This class is focused on collecting the data. Other work begins next semester when they process the materials.
Part of that work will be to try to connect some of the artifacts with the historical figures who lived there. The findings will be the subject of two master’s theses and many undergraduate senior theses.
The artifacts will be digitized and published online for all to see, while some of the objects may go into a physical exhibit at the high school.
The project is part of the university’s Idaho Public Archaeology program, started about 10 years ago, which brings excavations like this into communities and allows the public to connect with their history.
It is a rare opportunity to learn about archaeology because most excavations happen in remote locations. A 2021 project excavated part of the former U.S. Army stronghold Fort Sherman on the present-day North Idaho College campus in Coeur d’Alene.
“It allows people to experience history in a different way than is experienced in a classroom or in books,” Warner said. “Artifacts make history tangible.”
The high school supports the project, and over 400 Moscow K-12 students have participated.
“It makes it very convenient for us,” said Michelle Tanner, a high school history teacher. “The kids seem to really enjoy it.”
Being close to campus also makes it easier for the university students, since most archeology field school experiences are overseas and expensive.
Zoe Rafter, a sophomore, said she would not have been able to afford a typical field school, which can cost thousands of dollars.
She always wanted to be an archaeologist.
“I kind of gave up that dream for a while,” Rafter said. “I was told it was impractical, it wasn’t going to make any money, it wasn’t going to be helpful in any way.”
Eichner and Warner encouraged her.
“They explained it is a super viable career option for me, and I don’t need to run away and do something else if this is something I want to do,” she said.
The field school is a powerful recruiting tool for undergraduates like Rafter. Morgan McCully, a freshman studying history and anthropology, wasn’t sure if she would keep her second major until she started digging.
“It’s hard not to enjoy this,” McCully said. “You get to really see the history.”