Unearthing history

The shovels are packed away, but archaeology students at Southern Oregon University are still digging up information on what life was like more than 150 years ago in a short-lived U.S. Army post.

Now, it's all microscope and desk work for the handful of students who recently finished excavating the officers' quarters at Fort Lane, an outpost built between Central Point and Gold Hill in 1853 and abandoned in 1856.

Mark Tveskov, associate professor of anthropology and director of SOU's anthropology laboratory, has been working at the site since 2004 and includes his students in every step of the research process.

"Fort Lane is a great resource locally," he said. "It's definitely a unique opportunity for the students. "… It's a chance for them to get their hands dirty with a meaningful excavation, and the lab work involved is pretty significant."

Digging about 20 centimeters below the surface, students unearthed buttons from the old uniforms of soldiers, a bear tooth, pieces of a French perfume bottle, a belt buckle, a sewing needle and a table full of other items.

"I think this is pretty freaking cool," said Jorden Peery, holding up the bear tooth.

"Who knows why they had it," said the 17-year-old, who is studying archaeology at SOU. "That's what we're trying to figure out."

"Everything we've found has to be cataloged," said Mairee MacInnes, a 20-year-old archaeology senior at SOU, staring at the shards of glass, bone and other artifacts neatly sprawled across the table. "It's going to take a while."

Both students were a part of the excavation at the old fort, and will help complete the laboratory portion of the research.

Built shortly after a clash between American Indians and Euro-American settlers, the fort represented the Rogue Valley's only civil authority in the early 1850s. It was constructed by the Army's First Dragoons, based in Benicia, Calif., and named in honor of Joseph Lane, Oregon's first territorial governor. Lane also led military campaigns against local American Indians in 1851 and 1853.

Shaped like a giant horseshoe, the original fort had more than a dozen buildings, including infantry quarters, officers' quarters, kitchens, a small medical building, guard house, blacksmith shop and store.

Aside from a few large foundation stones, nothing remains above ground now, save for the stone monument just east of the site built by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1929. Stones to build the monument were taken from fireplaces at the fort, Tveskov said.

Tveskov and SOU archaeologist Chelsea Rose led a research team that mapped out the site of the old buildings in 2006; students were also involved in that project, Tveskov said.

"We're really just trying to capture the human element of things," said Carly Eichhorn, a 21-year-old environmental studies senior at SOU. "Almost everything we find can give us some sort of information about the site."

To excavate the officers' quarters, students first removed all of the dirt, 20 centimeters deep, from the footprint of the old building, keeping track of the original location of each shovelful. The piles were then sifted through an eighth-of-an-inch mesh screen.

"The dirt was pretty hard out there," said Eichhorn. "You notice that a little more when you're knelt down for four hours at a time."

One corner of the building was loaded with buttons and other items, said MacInnes, thinking that it may have been a mending station.

"That's always what you want," she said, calling the small cache a treasure chest. "Finding something is the best part of it all."

Located just west of the 7800 block of Gold Ray Road near Central Point, the Fort Lane state heritage site is part of the state park system. It includes protection and research of historical sites, according to Nancy McLeod, ranger supervisor at the Valley of the Rogue State Park, whose jurisdiction includes the old fort.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

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