Karly Law loves digging into history and this summer she’s been scraping through decades of it at Champoeg State Park one centimeter at a time - when suddenly:
“Oh, it’s a big piece,” she exclaimed.
The young archaeology student was about to make a little history herself as she pulled the palm-sized blue ceramic piece from the soil.
The OSU Archaeology student said the piece could date back nearly centuries:
“This will be something special!”
We’ll come back to Karly’s big find in a moment.
“This is the way we touch the past,” noted Dr. David Brauner, longtime OSU Archaeology Professor.
He explained that OSU’s Archaeology Field School touches the past that’s hidden in the dirt at an Oregon State Park that’s rich with artifacts from the early 19th century.
Brauner said that the first pioneers put down roots in this aprt of the Willamette Valley 180 years ago and they didn’t speak English.
“You would hear French – that was the dominant language,” noted Brauner. “The people, the language – all would have been French-Canadian settlers. In fact, the first floor in this house has their artifacts from the 1820’s and 1830’s and we didn’t expect that in any way, shape or form.”
Bryan Nielsen, the Champoeg State Park Manager added: “It’s the heritage of Oregon and part of our history that led up to statehood. We’re protecting something under the ground – that we didn’t even know was here. We are so lucky to have it in a state park.”
Park visitors are even luckier because they can join free-guided tours of the Champoeg dig site and watch the scientists in action.
OSU Grad student Molly Manion guided a tour (tours occur each Monday, Wednesday and Friday @10am sharp.) The groups range in size from a couple of dozen to as many as fifty park visitors.
The visitors can watch the action, ask questions and ponder a quite different time in Oregon’s past.
Manion said that this summer’s project is re-writing the Oregon story:
“By digging at this site, we’ve added 20 years to Oregon history that we never would have put together without putting archeology and the written archives together.”
One of the new discoveries that they are “putting together” is that the French-Canadians settlers lived a much higher quality of life than previously thought. That fact is measured by small classic comforts like porcelain dishware.
“The myth of pioneers living in a rude, dimly lit, poorly ventilated log cabins – well forget it,” said Brauner. “They had the finest – absolutely the finest English ceramics anyone – including the English – might have in that time. The same holds true for the cutlery – the knives, forks and spoons – also some of the finest you could get.”
So far, the dig team has unearthed more than 9,000 artifacts at the park site which brings us back to Karly Law who discovered a ceramic chunk with a telltale British trademark.
The ceramic piece was part of a larger vase or bowl.
It was rare, unusual and she couldn’t have been more proud.
“As I went further and further in the soil, it was ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be the back of something bigger.' It will help us figure out more about the cabin’s residents too – what was their life like. We can get so much information off this one piece. It’s really exhilarating.”
The dig, the tours and the rewriting of Oregon history continue each Monday, Wednesday and Friday through August 13 at Champoeg State Park. The tours start 10 am sharp.