National Park Service archeologist Doug Wilson leads a student dig along the waterfront at Fort Vancouver.

National Park Service archeologist Doug Wilson leads a student dig along the waterfront at Fort Vancouver.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

In a small trench, squeezed between a railway line, a street, two airport flight paths and a river, Portland State University archeology student Jenna Jula sweeps freshly dug soil into a dustpan.

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“Wait. Here ... oh!”

Something catches her eye.

“We just found actually several large chunks of melted glass, and then also another piece of darker colored melted glass. It’s kind of in like a tear-drop shape,” she said “Glass is not unique to where we’re digging today. I think yesterday we bagged up about 120 pieces. But this one we just found is definitely a different shape.”

Jula is part of a team of two dozen students — mainly from Portland State University and Washington State University — who are at Fort Vancouver this summer to learn about archeology. They’ve opened several pits and are focusing on the Columbia River waterfront, historically the main route to Fort Vancouver. The pits will help reveal some of the history of a small village where indigenous Americans, native Hawaiians and European fur trappers and laborers lived.

PSU student Jenna Jula finds a drop of melted glass. It could provide evidence of historical glass manufacturing in the area, or it could be from a burned trash pile.

PSU student Jenna Jula finds a drop of melted glass. It could provide evidence of historical glass manufacturing in the area, or it could be from a burned trash pile.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Over the years, archeologists have dug up a lot of Fort Vancouver, the old military outpost and Hudson’s Bay Company home that sits just across the Washington state border from Portland. But at 200 acres, it’s a big site. The National Park Service thinks there are more artifacts to be found.

The waterfront was along a busy area with homes, a wharf, a shipyard, a distillery and tanning pits. And it’s still busy. Vancouver’s popular Waterfront Renaissance Trail cuts right through it.

“This is closer to what we call public archeology where the public is your client and you want to let them see what you’re doing,” Jula said. “You want to show them the cool finds because we’re doing this for them.”

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The National Park Service, which is behind the dig, asks students to keep a count of their conversations. Jula is averaging 10 to 15 a day, like the one she had recently with Miguel Simon, a second grade teacher who was just walking by.

“There’s a lot of history along the Willamette and the Columbia River. We grew up with Fort Vancouver and all the historical figures and facts that were around here,” he said. “So it’s something I kind of want to know a little bit more about.”

National Park Service archeologist Doug Wilson hopes to find artifacts that illustrate the lives of people who lived around Fort Vancouver hundreds of years ago.

National Park Service archeologist Doug Wilson hopes to find artifacts that illustrate the lives of people who lived around Fort Vancouver hundreds of years ago.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

National Park Service archeologist Doug Wilson says they chose the dig sites after sweeping the area with ground penetrating radar.

Much is already known about the area. For example, ships were refitted there, and salmon was barreled and sent to Hawaii. But Wilson thinks archeology can still teach us more. He says historic records tend to have been written by the elite, while what they find underground tells the story of everyday life.

“What archeology can do is give people back a sense of the place and to restore some of those histories that were maybe more biased by the colonial lens,” Wilson said.

Students think they may have found the edge of an old pond, which could produce artifacts lost in the water.

Students think they may have found the edge of an old pond, which could produce artifacts lost in the water.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Part of the plan involves digging at a place experts believe was a hospital in the 1830s. Patients there suffered through one of the first recorded epidemics to sweep the region.

“Everyone inside the fort probably got sick,” Wilson said “They had some medicines that would treat it, some quinine. It was probably malaria. But for the indigenous people of the lower Columbia, it had tremendously devastating impact.”

The Parks Service estimates that 90% of nearby indigenous residents succumbed to the disease. Entire villages were wiped out.

So far, the student archeologists have found bottle glass, ceramics and pieces of flaked stone, which likely came from tool making. Whatever else turns up will help the Park Service decide future interpretive trails and other ways to help people experience Fort Vancouver and to understand its complicated history.

Washington State University student Ryan Parker sifts through the soil taken out of the dig. He helped chose the dig sites after sweeping the area with ground-penetrating radar.

Washington State University student Ryan Parker sifts through the soil taken out of the dig. He helped chose the dig sites after sweeping the area with ground-penetrating radar.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

The dig is scheduled to continue until the end of July. The archeologists are on site between about 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. weekdays.

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