Ancient trash a modern treasure

For the past five summers, Southern Oregon University archaeologist Chelsea Rose has been digging for the treasures of everyday life in the garbage dumps of a 400-year-old Scottish village.

She's brought back scores of baggies full of broken dishware, tiles, liquor bottles and metal gadgets for her students to clean, analyze and glue back together, all to learn the art of archaeology.

A cross-section of household items is spread out on a lab table while junior Jorden Peery brushes and glues together puzzle-like pieces of broken redware, locally made clay ceramic.

The Scots, Rose explains, were poor in money, but rich in land, labor and resources, so they owned mostly handmade local wares and some fine China from London.

Rose says the redware is very similar to what SOU faculty and students found recently at a dig on the Peter Britt grounds in Jacksonville.

"Britt came from Switzerland and didn't bring anything, so, what we see here in Oregon from the 1850s is almost the same, most of it crafted from locally available resources and some packed in from Crescent City, a shipping port," Rose says.

The oldest Scottish artifact on the table was a slate roofing tile, dating back to about 1600. A well-made but broken ceramic light fixture looked like a charming candlestick but had a tell-tale hole in the bottom for an electric cord.

The dig, led by the University of Maryland, is in the shadow of Amisfield Tower, a private castle built in 1600 near Dumfries in southern Scotland. Archaeologists are also there to research the boyhood home of American Revolutionary sea hero John Paul Jones.

Some of the Scottish artifacts proved mystifying, but elderly local residents were able to identify a curious metal gadget that turned out to be a pull to ring a bell that would summon servants. Other artifacts were apothecary and face cream jars, drawer pulls, stained glass and leading to hold the glass. Found coins of many centuries ago are not valuable, but are helpful to fix exact dates of nearby artifacts, she says.

Students welcome the inflow of artifacts from faraway lands as they represent a break from the familiar items of the Northwest, Rose says.

The Scottish dig was made easier by the use of ground-penetrating radar, which could readily identify anything underground that wasn't dirt and rock. Digging several feet into the ground, Rose mapped, photographed and numbered hundreds of objects, which, when studied in labs, tells the story of what went on in the village and how it changed with varying climate, economy or political situations.

The dig turned up many animal bones, with lamb and rabbit being the favorites, says Rose, noting the fare was similar to the pioneer Jacksonville items being analyzed by Brenden Kelly, an archaeology senior who had just found and cleaned a slate pencil.

"It's mostly glass and nails, bottles, redware, a lot of elk, deer and bird bones," says Kelly. Seeds and pollen in dirt from the Jacksonville site are being analyzed to show what plant foods the pioneer dined on.

At the next table, students are analyzing fish bones from a midden (trash heap) of Coquille Indians at Bandon, which was occupied for at least 3,500 years.

About 80 percent of archaeology happens in the lab, says Rose, with only 20 percent in the field.

Once analyzed, all Scottish artifacts will be returned to a museum in Dumfries, near the dig.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

Share This Story