Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Way to Go, Idaho: Archaeological Dig at the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House

Okay, how cool is this? Boise, the biggest city for 300 miles around, just had it’s own archaeological dig at a former boarding house downtown. The house was built in 1864 and was owned by Cyrus and Mary Jacobs (who died in 1900 and 1907, respectively.)  By 1910, a Basque family by the name of Uberuaga had moved in and opened it as a boarding house.  The Uberuagas bought the house in 1928 from the Jacobs family, and ran the boarding house until 1969. jacobshouseIn May of this year, a well, three feet in diameter and about four feet deep, was discovered under the house.  No one in recent history had even known the well was there!  The staffers at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center put together an archaeological team in under two months, and in August, they began excavating.
I learned about this dig through an article in the Idaho Statesman and saw that it was open for public viewing, with a special, hands-on archaeology session for kids.  Archaeologists would be on hand to give a basic introduction to their work. 
Cool, right?  So, of course, we had to go.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we got there—but our visit started with a lot of paperwork---safety waivers and whatnot.  I had to fill out forms for each kid before we did anything else.  While signing our lives away, I met a bubbly, enthusiastic woman by the name of Stacey Camp, who I learned later is a professor of anthropology at the U of I, and was one of the leaders of the work on the well.  Stacey was excited to have kids arrive, and told us all about her work there and at another dig north of Kooskia, Idaho in a former WWII Japanese Internment camp.  She told us how much she enjoyed having her own kids on site with her, and she invited us up to get involved in that dig as well, if we were interested in making the long trip up past Kooskia. (Um, YES!)
After the paperwork, we were given a brief history of the house, and taken to the dig site.  We got to watch the workers in action!
We got to see bits of dishes, pieces of mortar from the house, and a couple of ink pots that had been dug up.  We got to handle the inkpots (one of which was stoppered and still had ink residue in it!) and the broken crockery.  Calvin really wanted to get down in the well and really do some digging—but--- “authorized personnel only!” He was disappointed, but---
fortunately, they weren’t kidding when they said it was a “hands-on” activity. We moved on to these giant screens that are used as dirt sifters.  After a demonstration, the kids each got to put on gloves and give the sifters a few shakes.  The kids “found” buttons, mortar, and pieces of glass.  They were all pretty excited at what they found and wanted to know if they could keep it.  (No.)
After sifting, we were led to a table of artifacts and we learned about how the items are catalogued and cleaned. 
Look at the porcelain doll head in this gentleman’s right hand! The doll head was featured in the newspaper article about the dig.  I think that MADE the experience for me—seeing this cast-off part of a child’s toy—something a little girl had played with, and perhaps lost.  I wondered what the doll had looked like when it was new, and I wondered who had owned it. What was her name? How old was she when she received the doll—did she play with it? What was her childhood like?  It was fun to contemplate, and made me think about the toys I kept from my childhood for my kids to play with (an embarrassing number of them, actually) and what they might look like, dug up a hundred years from now!
We even got in on some of the cleaning action—with toothbrushes, and a bowls and buckets of water.  The kids actually spent a LOT of time at this station. Gloria was especially thorough---and I couldn’t help observing that each of the kids’ time and focus cleaning the artifacts correlated to their individual attention to their own oral hygiene! (Gloria’s my most dedicated brusher.)
When the kids had finished cleaning their “artifacts,” we were at the end of the session and it was time to go home. On our way out, Stacey Camp gave the kids some cookies and cups of water—a reward for all their hard work unearthing all that history!

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