Fort Vancouver and Archaeologists-In-Training

It’s hot and dry today in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Students attending the Public Archaeology field school at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site have just passed the halfway point of their Public Archaeology Field School. Since I am not actively doing archaeology on this Day of Archaeology this year, I thought it would be a great time to highlight the experiences of students in the field.

This area has been the focus of human occupation for a very long time. First Nations peoples used the resources of what is now the Columbia River. Fort Vancouver was established by the Hudson Bay Company as its headquarters after moving inland from Astoria in the early part of the 19th century. The US Army arrived mid-19th century and occupied the site until 2012. During World War I, a spruce mill provided wood for the war effort. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps had dormitories on the site. During World War II, the Kaiser Shipyards were on the site.

This year, the students are working at two different dig sites and, because this field school is comprehensive, there is also a group learning how to do site surveys, shovel probes, and mapping, and another group

Site of flag staff at Vancouver Barracks

Site of flag staff at Vancouver Barracks

working in the Old City Cemetery of Vancouver. I visited each group location and got to talk to the students about archaeology, study, and this field school.

The first site I visited is on the Vancouver Barracks Parade Ground. National Park Service archaeologists, Dr. Doug Wilson and Dr. Elizabeth Horton, have identified the location of the 1854-1879 flag staff.

When I walked to the site, two of the students were screening sediments. Two others were analyzing sediments and writing a description. They have uncovered a concentration of stones that the students think might be a path, and a post hole that may be the flag staff itself. There is charcoal in places.

I was curious to know what the students’ experiences were like. One student found that the course was more comprehensive than he expected, and anticipates the practical experience he’s getting will make him a better field archaeologist when that time comes. Another found himself dreaming of troweling, and said that seeing the artifacts in the field creates a connection with people whose voices have long been silent. Another student finds the jumble of pre-historic and historic artifacts at the same level intriguing, and is curious about why this is. Another student found a friction primer in very good condition, and she pulled it out to share.

I headed over to the Kanaka Village, the culturally diverse area where where excavations on two houses started during last summer’s field school are continuing. The students had to excavate early 20th century railroad ballast from a rail spur that serviced the spruce mill that existed on the site during World War I. When I arrived, students and volunteers were beginning to carefully excavate levels associated with the Hudson Bay Company period of occupation. A student found a clay pipe stem, which is indicative of the time period. He said he didn’t know what he was getting into with the field school, but has found it fascinating and a great introduction into archaeology as actual work. Another student was surprised at how hard the digging of the ballast was, but that she felt much stronger now. One of the volunteers, who has gone on digs with the Oregon Archaeological Society, remarked how archaeology is a field in which one could never become an expert in all areas, and that learning never, ever stops.

I joined the survey crew over lunch. They have been doing pedestrian survey and digging shovel probes in another area of the World War I spruce mill complex. They were all dirty and dusty, and happy to be in the shade. They talked about how learning about the process of archaeology in class was bolstered by the practical experience they were getting in the field. What they were finding was the connection between the past and the present, and being able to engage the public was an unexpected pleasure—particularly with kids. One student said that she, “Loved to watch the kids’ eyes light up.”

My last stop was the crew working in the Old City Cemetery of Vancouver. They were just finishing their lunch, and spared me a few minutes before getting back to work. One student has another year till graduation, and looks forward his archaeological theory class this coming year. He appreciates having the opportunity to attend a field school in a national park. The resources available, and the knowledge of the park rangers is interesting. Another student was surprised by the level of detail and documentation in archaeology, but knows that it’s necessary.

My overall impression was of excitement and enthusiasm about the work being done by all of the students. Everyone is eager to get to work, whether it’s in the field, or in school. That kind of energy is what keeps us all engaged in our work, and looking towards the future.

NPS Fort Vancouver Public Archaeology Field School 2011

This is the last day at the 10th National Parks Service (NPS) Fort Vancouver Public Archaeology Field School  based in Vancouver, Washington. Over the past 7 weeks the 18 students from Washington State University Vancouver, Portland State University and a few graduate students from all over the United States have come together to excavate a multicultural village, called Kanaka Village by the Americans due to the large Hawaiian population brought in by the English traders, that served to support the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post on the Columbia River in the 1830s and 40s.  We have been well trained in field techniques and methodology while investigating the purpose of a fenced-in open area in the middle of the village. We have also been interacting with the public on a daily basis. Interpretative training is a part of our curriculum and an essential part of our mission to raise awareness and foster public involvement in the history of the Columbia River and the Oregon-Washington coast. In addition to all this we have been attending regular lectures from visiting archaeologists on topics ranging from Saloon Archaeology to Fur Trade Archaeology in the Great Lakes region, and race and ethnicity in a constructed landscape in the American South.

The Hudson’s Bay Company Village was built along side the fort in the late 1820s as a place for non-officers or ranking company officials to live. The population dwarfed the fort population at its smallest with around 250 inhabitants and could swell into the thousands during the brigade season. It was the most culturally diverse area of the Western coast of North America for a significant portion of the 19th century with workers being brought in from across the globe by the Hudson’s Bay Company trading and interacting with over 30 distinct Native American  tribes at a major trading hub along the Columbia River. Most of the historic record of this era concerns itself with the lives and dealings of the officers and officials of the company and their perspectives of the villagers. Almost nothing is known about the daily lives of the villagers that is not revealed to us through archaeology.

Each of our trenches were investigating a different aspect of the open area in the village and students were rotated from trench to trench and would hone their interpretive skills informing any visitors who came to see what we were finding. Many times we would learn more from the public than they did from us but this is part of the beauty of Public Archaeology, each party walks away with a new outlook on the site.

This last week in our field school has been spent working on survey techniques. We have been camping at the Yeon Property, a new Parks Service acquisition by the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park on the Oregon Coast. New properties must be first archaeologically surveyed in order to identify any sites of significance in the area and to set up an archaeological baseline to protect and preserve any cultural resources on the property. We have been split into three groups of 5 or 6 each and over the past few days have rotated between digging 1m deep shovel probes at regular 30m intervals, conducting pedestrian surveys through the woods and sea grass to the ocean, and mapping the property with hand held GPS devices and today is no different.  It will be sad to say goodbye to all of our new friends and the Fort and its Village which we’ve all come to know and love but this will be tempered by the knowledge that we got to participate in something special – a uniquely designed Public Archaeology endeavor that involves and educates the public and trains all of us students to enter the field as well-rounded professionals and future leaders in archaeology.


If you’re ever in the Vancouver/Portland area please come and visit the Fort and experience part of the rich colonial and frontier history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and US Army eras on the West coast of the Oregon Territory, you won’t be disappointed. For more information about the field school, Fort Vancouver, or Kanaka Village, please visit our website.