Whenever I talk to my family while at the field school they always ask me what I am doing and what I am learning about. If I tell them that we went on a field trip that day they always seem shocked like they thought we would always be working outdoors learning about archaeological methods and strategies of excavation. While a big part of the field school is learning about these techniques, a large part is also about when and how to use archaeology to both include and benefit the wider public. Recently, we visited Fort Vancouver to learn more about this approach to archaeology.
At Fort Vancouver we met a team of archaeologists and their students who were practicing public archaeology. They were doing work in what is believed to be a WWI Spruce Mill. They explained their excavation methods to us. I noticed a lot of similarities and differences between the excavations being done at the schoolhouse and the mill. For example, logistically our excavation techniques are very similar. Their units consist of 1 x 4 meter trenches and larger 3 x 3 meter open area excavations. While our project with the Grand Ronde THPO emphasizes low-impact methods, we are using similar open-area excavation units to investigate a privy at the Grand Ronde School.
While the techniques of excavation are similar, the communities for which we are doing this work are different. The archaeologists of Fort Vancouver do their work to educate the public, while the work being done at the schoolhouse is part of an indigenous approach to archaeology. Therefore, the work we do through FMIA is directly informed by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde’s needs and cultural values. This means that all of the knowledge that is gained from working at the schoolhouse site would not be possible unless the tribe, THPO, and the archeologists doing the work had a respected trustful relationship.
Fort Vancouver uses different methods to inform the public about what they are doing. All of their work is on display to the park’s visitors and they regularly host family fun activities. Both the open lab display, where there is a large window that allows people to observe the students processing artifacts, and excavations outside the fort allow anyone to walk by and see what the team is doing and ask questions.
I thought it was interesting that Fort Vancouver has a children’s dig. It was explained that the artifacts were organized within mock excavation units by time. As the children dig in these units they first encounter mostly trash. As they dig further they find older items like a grenade, representative of the fort’s history a US Army base, and finally a hearth associated with the early fort. They explained how after the children have dug up the artifacts, they are returned and not kept. I thought this was an effective way to get children and the community involved with archaeology, and to learn at a young age that archaeologists do not keep what they find. An important aspect of public archaeology is engaging the general public and letting them know what’s going on. Fort Vancouver does this by working with the local news to help spread the word about what they are doing.
It was nice to see archaeological work in a different setting, and to see the methods being used to include the community.