Digging through history

Archaeologist Chelsea Rose carefully scraped away dirt at the bottom of the 4-foot hole in the historic Britt Garden overlooking Jacksonville.

It was Feb. 20, chilly and drizzly.

But she continued working, slowly removing a thin layer of dirt to expose a rusted, metal, gold-mining pan held together largely by roots and wet dirt. Beneath it she found another pan, also barely intact.

Gently removing the second pan, she discovered a historical nugget in the form of a partial glass plate negative containing photographic emulsions revealing an image.

"I screamed," the staff archaeologist at Southern Oregon University's Laboratory of Anthropology recalled.

"We had been working out there for months and had found a lot of glass plate negatives," she explained. "But there was no emulsion on them. This was the first and only one we found like this."

The image is of a painting of an alpine landscape with two billy goats standing on a ridge while looking down into a mountain valley.

"Because we recognized what it was, we immediately went into conservation mode," she said. "We got it into a dark place and kept it cold."

Rose, along with other department staffers, students and volunteers, had been conducting exploratory digs since September at the site where pioneer photographer Peter Britt, a native of Switzerland, had built a home and raised his family.

The site is in the Britt Garden now owned by the city, which is restoring the garden that Britt planted in the late 1800s. The popular Britt Festivals are held on the property each summer.

Hailing from the Swiss village of Obstalden, Britt was 33 years old when he arrived in Jacksonville in the fall of 1852 to mine for gold. Although he found precious little gold, he became a celebrated photographer, painter, horticulturist, vintner, beekeeper and businessman credited with planting the seeds for the orchard and wine industries of Southern Oregon.

He first built a small cabin on the hill immediately west of First Street in Jacksonville, then began erecting a two-story house for his family in 1856, including spacious living quarters, a wine cellar, solarium and two photography studios. He died in 1905 at age 86.

The historic house was destroyed by fire March 16, 1960.

In the past eight months, the archaeologists dug some 40 holes in the garden. They recovered a rich variety of items, including glass bottles, ceramic dolls, square nails, a clay tobacco pipe, a silver necklace, even a pair of silk stockings believed to have belonged to Amalia "Mollie" Britt, Peter's wife.

The digging has been halted while the city decides how it will go forward with its garden restoration plans, Rose said, noting that SOU looks forward to continuing to provide archaeological expertise to Jacksonville during the project.

And the work continues to research and identify the hundreds of artifacts that have been unearthed, she said.

Numerous glass plate negatives likely used by the photographer were found, but time and the elements had wiped all traces of emulsion from the plates, which are about 41/4 inches long and 31/4 inches wide. The sole negative image discovered is on the broken top half of a glass plate.

"Where it was found, there was a whole concentration of artifacts," Rose said. "It looked like spring cleaning in the 1870s."

She was referring to what archaeologists describe as a midden, which is basically an historic garbage dump. Based on the depth of the excavation and other items found in the area, she believes the glass plate negative is at least 130 years old.

"One of the challenges we are facing is that glass does deteriorate, especially if it has been in the ground for 130 years or more," she said. "Some of the emulsion is sloughing off."

The department's staff documented it with photographs and computer images, she said, noting they are now researching how best to preserve it.

"This image was a lot more detailed than we expected — we're very excited about this," she said. "But this does not reflect the Southern Oregon landscape."

Rose went to the Southern Oregon Historical Society office in Medford to see if the image matches any of his paintings of Switzerland.

"He had a dozen paintings of Switzerland that he did or someone else did that he owned," she said. "My working hypothesis is that he took the photograph of a painting he might have given away or sold."

The mountains in one painting of his childhood village look very much like those on the glass plate, she observed.

"You can see glacial snowpacks in there," she said. "He was painting somewhat from memory since he left Switzerland as a young man."

The image will eventually be given to the Southern Oregon Historical Society, which has a large collection of Britt's glass plate negatives.

Over at a table in SOU's anthropology lab, college senior Heather Holgate of Bly, majoring in anthropology with an emphasis on archaeology, was sorting through square nails and other pieces of metal she helped unearth in Jacksonville.

"I love the fact that this used to belong to someone, that this was part of their home," she said. "It is so much fun to go in, to find these pieces and help paint a picture of what life was like back then.

"As as kid, I loved playing in the dirt," she added. "So archaeology really appeals to me. And Chelsea is super enthusiastic. When she finds something, she yells and hollers. It gets you really excited about finding stuff as well."

The last person to have touched many of the items was likely a member of the Britt family, she noted.

"It's fantastic to think about that," she said.

At her desk, Katie Johnson, a zoo archaeologist on the staff, was studying animal bones unearthed at the site to help the researchers determine the Britt family diet.

They found many bones from butchered wild game in the midden, indicating that Peter and Amalia and their two children often dined on deer or elk, Rose said.

The bottom line, she said, is that the artifacts from the excavations help paint a fuller picture of the Britt family.

"We have toothbrushes, combs, eyeglasses, plates, cups, silverware, food remains," she said. "All of these little items help us understand their daily lives."

Paul Fattig is a reporter at the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4496 or email pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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