Archaeologists search for historical truth on Vancouver’s waterfront


National Park Service archaeologist Doug Wilson leads a student dig along the waterfront in Fort Vancouver.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

In a small trench, wedged between a railroad track, a street, two airport flight tracks and a river, Jenna Jula, an archeology student at Portland State University, sweeps freshly dug dirt in a dustpan.

“Wait. Here … oh!

Something catches his eye.

“We actually just found several large pieces of molten glass, and then also another piece of darker colored molten glass. It’s kind of like a teardrop shape, ”she said. “Glass is not unique to where we dig today. I think yesterday we bagged about 120 pieces. But this one we just found definitely has a different shape.

Jula is part of a team of two dozen students – mostly from Portland State University and Washington State University – who are in Fort Vancouver this summer to learn about archeology. They have opened several pits and are focused on the Columbia River waterfront, historically the main route to Fort Vancouver. The pits will reveal part of the history of a small village where Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and European trappers and laborers lived.

PSU student Jenna Jula finds a drop of melted glass.  It could provide evidence of historic glass making in the area, or it could come from a pile of burnt trash.

PSU student Jenna Jula finds a drop of melted glass. It could provide evidence of historic glass making in the area, or it could come from a pile of burnt trash.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Over the years, archaeologists have unearthed much of Fort Vancouver, the former military outpost and home of the Hudson’s Bay Company which lies just across the state border of Washington from Portland. But at 200 acres, it’s a great site. The National Park Service thinks there are more artifacts to be found.

The waterfront skirted a bustling area with houses, a wharf, a shipyard, a distillery, and sunbathing pits. And it’s always busy. Vancouver’s popular Waterfront Renaissance Trail crosses it.

“It’s closer to what we call public archeology where the public is your client and you want to let them see what you’re doing,” Jula said. “You want to show them the cool finds because we do it for them. “

The National Park Service, which is behind the excavations, asks the students to record their conversations. Jula is on average 10 to 15 years old a day, like the one she recently had with Miguel Simon, a second grade teacher who passed by next door.

“There is a lot of history along the Willamette and the Columbia River. We grew up with Fort Vancouver and all the historical figures and facts that existed here, ”he said. “So that’s something I want to know a little more about.”

National Park Service archaeologist Doug Wilson hopes to find artifacts that illustrate the lives of people who lived around Fort Vancouver hundreds of years ago.

National Park Service archaeologist Doug Wilson hopes to find artifacts that illustrate the lives of people who lived around Fort Vancouver hundreds of years ago.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

National Park Service archaeologist Doug Wilson said they chose the excavation sites after scanning the area with ground-penetrating radar.

We already know a lot about the region. For example, the ships were refitted there and the salmon were put in barrels and sent to Hawaii. But Wilson thinks archeology can still teach us more. He says historical documents tend to have been written by the elite, while what they find underground tells the story of everyday life.

“What archeology can do is give people back a sense of the place and restore some of those stories that were perhaps more biased through the colonial lens,” Wilson said.

Students believe they have found the edge of an old pond, which could produce artifacts lost in the water.

Students believe they have found the edge of an old pond, which could produce artifacts lost in the water.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Part of the plan is to dig in a place that experts believe was a hospital in the 1830s. Patients there suffered one of the first recorded epidemics to sweep the area.

“Everyone inside the fort probably got sick,” Wilson said. “They had medicine to treat it, quinine. It was probably malaria. But for the indigenous people of lower Columbia, it had an extremely devastating impact.”

The Park Service estimates that 90% of native residents nearby have succumbed to the disease. Entire villages have been wiped out.

So far, student archaeologists have found bottled glass, ceramics, and chunks of hewn stone, which likely came from tool making. Either way, it will help the Parks Service decide on future interpretive trails and other ways to help people discover Fort Vancouver and understand its complicated history.

Ryan Parker, a student at Washington State University, sifts through the soil extracted from the dig.  He helped select dig sites after scanning the area with ground penetrating radar.

Ryan Parker, a student at Washington State University, sifts through the soil extracted from the dig. He helped select dig sites after scanning the area with ground penetrating radar.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Excavations are expected to continue until the end of July. Archaeologists are on site between approximately 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on weekdays.


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