Sifting through history

Archeological digs, presentations at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site are open to the public

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If you go

2016 Public Archaeology Field School 

This summer, National Park Service archaeologists are teaming up with Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver to conduct archaeological excavations. Students and professionals will dig east of the fort stockade, near the Spruce Mill Trail west of Pearson Air Museum, as well as on the national parks' waterfront. The excavations will focus on the World War I Spruce Mill, and the Fort Vancouver Waterfront Complex.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, through July 30, the Spruce Mill dig site will be accessible to the public. The Waterfront Complex dig site will be accessible from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays through July 29.

Directions to both sites can be found at the park's Visitor Center, 1501 E. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver.

"Kids Dig!"

This program introduces children ages 8 through 12 to the world of archaeology. Kids excavate a mock site with the help of student archaeologists. These programs will take place July 9 and July 23 at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., inside the reconstructed Fort Vancouver. Space is limited to 20 children. Spots for each program can be reserved in advance by 816-6250.


Public lectures in this series explore archaeology with particular ties to the historical of the region. All lectures take place at 7 p.m. in the Tex Rankin Theater at Pearson Air Museum at Fort Vancouver. The July 20 lecture will take place at the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum.

Thursday, July 7: Ongoing archaeological investigations at Pickawillany, Miami County, Ohio: Making sense of the first gunfight in the West, presented by Bill Pickard, assistant curator of archaeology, Ohio History Connection

Thursday, July 14: Archaeology and historic preservation on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, presented by Christopher J. Donnermeyer, heritage program manager, U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Wednesday, July 20: Exploring the Chinook Middle Village and station camp, presented by Douglas C. Wilson, National Park Service, Pacific West region. The Middle Village is a contact-period Chinook Indian village near the mouth of the Columbia River.

July 21: Archaeological studies of African American life, presented by Theresa A. Singleton, department of Anthropology, Syracuse University

For more information, contact Wilson, National Park Service archaeologist at 816-6251 or

A student carefully sifts through dirt at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on a hot summer day.

Others focus on excavating a former tent city. In its heyday, 3,000 soldiers called it home. Now, its past is only evidenced by old tire ruts, nails and other items buried in the earth.

Members of the public drop by to ask questions: What are you looking for? Why are you doing this? How is it significant?

Patiently, Doug Wilson, National Park Service archeologist, answers the questions, along with field director Amy Clearman.

“We are excavating in two areas of the Spruce Mill site, west of the trail and east of the stockade,” Wilson said. “We are hoping to find bits from the factory, and learn more about the industrial heritage of the site, as well as remnants of the soldiers’ lives.”

The digs are part of the Public Archeology Field School, where archeologists hope visitors will have the opportunity to interact with students as they uncover the history of the area. The field school is a joint undertaking of the Northwest Cultural Resources Institute at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Additionally, Kids Dig programs introduce children ages 8 through 12 to the world of archaeology. In this program, participants excavate a mock site with the help of college student archaeologists.

“It is a great way for kids to learn about archeology, while getting their hands dirty,” Wilson said.

Lastly, a presentation series will bring archaeologists from around the country to the national park to discuss their work with the public.

“We are very excited to participate in this public archaeology program during the centennial year of the National Park Service,” Wilson said. “We look forward to the many visitors who will get the opportunity to talk to students and staff about the importance of this premier heritage site.”

The U.S. Army’s Spruce Production Division operated the Spruce Mill from 1917 to 1918 to produce lumber for Allied aircraft manufacturing during World War I. Students will perform test excavations at the site of the main mill, repair and machine shop areas, as well as the site where mill workers’ bunkhouses and tents were located.

Olivia Jensen, an Evergreen State College, is taking the field work class through Portland State University. She is passionate about the subject of archeology and looks forward to sharing it with others.

“This is something I have known I wanted to do as a career since I was in the 10th grade,” she said. “I know a lot of people get started in this field later in life, so I wanted to get as much experience as I could now. It’s also been a great experience to connect with the public and tell them what we are doing.”

Efflie Helmers, a junior at PSU, noted that archeology is something that is better learned in the field than in a classroom.

“This is the moment we get to test our skills and we also look forward to interacting with the public,” she said. “This morning, we had kids here from an OMSI summer camp. By bringing this to the public, we can show them how history matters.”

The biggest find the students had uncovered was an Indian Head penny from 1893, which was discovered just under the 1894 flood deposit.

“That was a pretty exciting find,” noted student Idah Whisenant.

In addition to evidence of the Spruce Mill site, the team is also looking for evidence of a 1890 water closet.

“Hopefully, we will find some remnants of that,” Wilson said. “It was really a progressive era. These bases were on the leading edge of sanitary and water systems.”

An Army base was located at the Fort from 1849 to 2012. The National Guard and Army Reserve still use the post for certain events, Wilson added.

“The history of the Army here is very strong,” he said. “Hopefully, by doing these excavations, we can find out even more. The students are ready and willing to interact with the public so that they can learn more as well.”