Fort Vancouver National Historic Site; Breaking New Ground

It’s a typical early summer day, here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States—cool, gray, and cloudy. We don’t get summer until after the Fourth of July, usually. I park my car and walk, coffee in hand, to what will be the new collections and curation building for the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Right now it’s where we store our equipment, and where the joint Portland State University/Washington State University Public Archaeology Field School has its lab. Last summer, I was a student in that field school. This summer, I am a government contractor, doing archaeological survey work for the National Park Service on land recently acquired from the U.S. Army. It’s a short contract, only about three weeks, but it is a great time and a great opportunity.

In May, 2012, the U.S. Army relinquished the East and South Barracks areas of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site to the U.S. National Park Service as part of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990. The army has had a presence here since the First U.S. Artillery Regiment arrived in May, 1849. Before the army’s arrival, starting around 1824, the site was an active Hudson Bay Company fur trading outpost. Before the Hudson Bay Company’s arrival, the area was an active, seasonal location for Native Americans to take advantage of the spring salmon runs up what is now the Columbia River. The site has yielded artifacts from all of these eras, creating a picture of an area that has been used by humans for many generations.

The exciting thing is that very little archaeological work has been done in the East and South Barracks areas—ever.

What is archaeological survey? It’s a quick look. Basically, we’re peeking at different spots to try to get a picture of what’s going on beneath the current ground horizon before routes for underground utilities are dug. The National Park Service plans to refurbish many of the remaining historical buildings, and will be putting the modern utilities underground in order to preserve the park’s historic environment.

My fellow surveyors and I load up a truck with our equipment. Because the site is in an urban area, we gather and store our tools every night and bring them out every morning. Shovels, breaker bars, buckets, paperwork, bags, camera, scales—everything goes into the truck and is unloaded at today’s shovel test site.

Shovel test? It’s a 50×50 cm square hole that we dig straight down in 10 cm deep, arbitrary increments. We work in two-person teams, taking turns digging and screening the sediments. This morning, I’m a screener.

We’ve got three 50×50 units still open from yesterday. The unit I was on has a wood feature that may be a horizontal fence bar or a foundation beam. There are bits and pieces of charcoal scattered nearby. The digger decides it warrants a closer look.

Checking out a feature

Archaeology is all about working with others. No one can know everything about everything–and field consultations are key.

I head to another unit to see if there’s anything I can do. I screen; finding a piece of 19th-century, olive-colored glass. We’ve gone deep enough, so the unit is back-filled and I ferry the equipment up to the next shovel test site. I check back in with the progress of the unit where I started. It’s been decided to re-fill the unit. We line the unit with ground fabric so that it can be more easily opened up again. Gingerly, we re-fill the hole. There is still paperwork for that feature and for that unit, so I move on to open the next unit. I ferry all of the equipment needed to do that and get to work. I really am getting more muscular.

This unit is in an area that has had at least four different structures on or near it going back to at least 1874. I wrestle off the sod, dig down to 10 cm, and screen. Hurrah! There is a mix of artifacts including a square nail, a wire nail, clear glass, olive glass, and a tiny sherd of ceramic. These are a jumble of 19th and 20th century artifacts. This makes me think that this is a site that’s seen a lot of activity. Is the soil disturbed or is it fill? I trowel down to 20 cm and find more of the same.

At a nearby unit, another team finds a couple of primer coils


After lunch, I’m part of a two-person team again. I trowel down to 30 cm and find a .22 cartridge and another cut nail. They were hiding under a rock. We get a visitor.

One of the best things about working in an urban area are the visitors. It can be distracting, but people have great stories about their experiences with the site. It’s a connection and a reminder that the past isn’t some distant country, but a place that is as close as a conversation.

After he leaves, I start on level four. As I loosen up the soil, a metal garter clip floats to the top.

I am still amazed at how I can see the damndest—and smallest—things. My eyes get set to “artifact” and things that are too shiny, too regular, too straight, or a weird color, seem to stand out. I can’t explain it, but am glad it’s a skill I’m developing.

Our fearless leader returns with the truck. I quickly finish the level, cover the unit with a piece of plywood and a safety cone, and carry things back to the truck.

Back at the collections/curation/field school building, we organize our paperwork and artifacts. I ask for a picture with everyone on the crew.

Tired but happy

L to R: Bob, Eric, Jackie, Liz, and Leslie


Another great day of archaeology ends with smiles and laughter.