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Public Archeology at Fort Vancouver

Douglas C. Wilson here describes his approach to conducting public tours of Fort Vancouver NHS.

(photo) Group of tourists in front of the reconstructed north gate at Fort Vancouver NHS.

National Park Service archeologist giving an archeological walking tour at the reconstructed north gate at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. (Douglas C. Wilson)

In October of 1999, during the Oregon and Washington archeology month celebrations, I gave the first archeological walking tour of Fort Vancouver. It was a perfect Fall day in the Pacific Northwest: the air was crisp, the sky was clear, and there was only a hint of the long winter rains that would start later that month. The large group assembled was eager to learn. I have always believed that archeology is a very unique way of seeing the world, one that reveals fresh new insights from old discarded things. It was great fun to explain the significance of Fort Vancouver through these eyes. I started with a brief summary of the fur-trade post (1829-1860) and military fort (1849-1948) and its importance in the settlement of the area by Americans and the development of the Pacific Northwest though World War II. I then revealed that hundreds of thousands of artifacts, in context, lay directly beneath our feet and shared that these comprised the most important resource of the park and one of the primary reasons for its preservation. I indicated how these small pieces of debris—shards of glass, ceramic sherds, rusty nails, buttons, beads, and buckshot—are the direct, tangible, put-in-your-hand evidence for the people (both famous and common) and the events and activities (both significant and mundane) that had occurred at the site. I explained how these artifacts and features tell us how buildings were constructed, how they were used, and what people did in and around them.

(illus) Hand-wrought nail.

Artifacts, such as this hand-wrought nail, help visitors understand the past. (Douglas C. Wilson)

I spent some time talking about the differences between history and archeology and how they are complementary and can be used to tell a fuller and more poignant story of the past, but also how archeology can be used to verify historical records and accounts. I also spoke about fieldwork and showed them the site datum (hidden under a water service cap). I explained how geographic information systems (GIS) have helped us tie in all the past excavations (over 50 years of them) to a single computer database. This GIS also contains layers of information on historic structure locations from historical maps and current conditions that we can compare and study to help us better preserve and interpret the site.

We peered down the old Well #2 shaft in the northeast corner of the stockade, marveling at the size of the boulders used to line the well. I explained the significance of these “shaft features” and how wells, pits, and privies were often used for refuse disposal, making them “time capsules” of 19th century remains. We talked about the many layers of history at the site and I pointed out the brown areas of grass that mark the subsurface remnants of the World War I Spruce Mill. The Spruce Mill was a U.S. Army undertaking that cut large amounts of Spruce lumber to make early aircraft, while significantly changing (and modernizing) the local lumber industry. One of the most obvious additions to the site caused by the Spruce Mill is about a foot of cobbles and gravels that cover and protect the earlier 19th century deposits. I mentioned the flood of 1894, the largest recorded flood in Columbia River history, and how a thin layer of silt was deposited across the fort site—the remnants of that catastrophic event. Below this flood were the remains of the U.S. Army post and earlier fur trade fort.

(photo) Archeologists screening for artifacts.

Archeologists screen for artifacts on a Kids Digs program at Fort Vancouver NHP. (Douglas C. Wilson)

The highlight of the tour was the walk out to the Hudson’s Bay Company “Kanaka” Village. The Village was where most of the workers and their families at the fort lived. The Village was a unique multicultural community which included French-Canadians, Scots, Irish, Native Hawaiians, Iroquois, and people from over 30 other regional Native American groups. I pointed out where the pond was, which had been filled with Hudson’s Bay Company and U.S. Army debris from the 19th century, and the location of the hospital – a legacy of the epidemics that swept the area in the early 1830s. I also mentioned the Civilian Conservation Corps headquarters and barracks complex that lay lightly on top of the house and garden sites of the villagers and chatted about its significance in history.

The tour was highly successful, and provided a very different and broader view of Fort Vancouver than the visitor gets when viewing the ca. 1845 reconstructed buildings and stockade. The tour began the development of a Public Archaeology program at Fort Vancouver. Now, as one of the many programs at the fort, archeologists and interpreters together tell the story of Fort Vancouver using an archeological perspective. One of the most exciting events is the annual field school. University students from around the nation come to a seven-week dig at the fort site to learn the techniques of archeology. One of the most unique parts of the program is the workshop, given by one of the park’s interpreters, which gives the students some fundamental skills in interpretation. As part of the curriculum the students are required to interpret the dig site to the visiting public. The students report what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we are finding. It is sometimes daunting to students who are most familiar with dead, static things, to have to interact directly with the interested public, but it is one of the most rewarding parts of the training. It forces student archeologists to explain themselves in terms that are readily understandable and succinct, something that will benefit them long after the shovels and screens are stored and the excavations are backfilled.

(photo) Two archeologists helping three children learn to excavate.

Students excavate a site at Fort Vancouver NHS with archeologists. (Douglas C. Wilson)

Another important component of the public archeology program is the Kid’s Digs. Archaeologists and interpreters make mock dig sites in large gray bins. Layers are created to mimic the layers at Fort Vancouver, representing the Hudson’s Bay Company, the U.S. Army, and modern times. Children are given a short talk on archeology at the Fort site and then get to “excavate” the bins, layer by layer, recording their “finds” on forms, and bagging the artifacts. The boundless energy of the children, combined with the love for the field of the professional and student archeologists, and the expertise of the park interpreters creates an amazing synergy. It brings a new perspective to everyone on what we are trying to do and protect at Fort Vancouver. To me the most moving part of the Kid’s Digs program was developed by Interpreter Ed Reidell and Museum Technician Tessa Langford. At the end of the program, the ranger asks the children, “Who owns the artifacts found at Fort Vancouver?” and begins pointing to individual children, parents, and staff. The children uniformly deny that anyone individually owns these artifacts. At that point, the ranger says, “You’re all wrong!” as he points to each one in turn “You own it…and you own it…and you own it…WE ALL OWN IT! It belongs to all of us and to future generations of Americans.” That’s why it’s not OK to pick artifacts up and take them away with you.

Public archeology at Fort Vancouver, through its public tours, public lectures, kid’s digs program, field school, and other programs has brought new energy, new perspectives, and a new appreciation of the cultural resources protected by the National Park Service. The close collaboration between interpreters and cultural resources specialists continues to be a key to the success of the program and has enriched the quality of service and preservation message that we provide to the public.

by Douglas C. Wilson, Ph.D., National Park Service