When garbage is good

Most people would not be excited to discover trash while on the job.

Chelsea Rose is not most people.

Old animal bones, scraps of paper and porcelain tableware are signs of a good day for the staff archaeologist at Southern Oregon University's Laboratory of Anthropology and her crew.

"We love to find garbage piles" left behind by people who once lived here, she said. "The garbage allows us to see what they were eating and eating off of."

Rose labors alongside anthropology and sociology students who are doing field work across Oregon to piece together the past. Together, they have excavated land in Jacksonville where Chinese miners lived during the 1850s gold rush as well as the site of city father Peter Britt's Victorian house, which was lost to a fire in 1960.

But on most school days, the teacher and her undergraduate students are on campus, inside the lab known as SOULA.

Here, glass displays and cases protect fragments of pots, dishware and other artifacts. Students photograph the items and create reports documenting their archaeological treasures.

SOU anthropology professor Mark Tveskov designed and developed the lab over the past 10 years.

Rose earned her master's in cultural resource management from Sonoma State University before joining the lab in 2009. She has excavated Amisfield Towers, a castle built around 1600 in the south of Scotland. She and the SOULA team are working to document and analyze the remains.

SOULA collaborates efforts with government agencies at all levels: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon State Parks, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Jackson County and the Medford District Bureau of Land Management.

Faculty and students also work with the nonprofit Southern Oregon Historical Society, which collects and preserves artifacts, and they have ongoing research projects with the Coquille Indian Tribe.

Students earn practicum credits and professional experience carefully digging to collect artifacts throughout the state. They then return to the lab to do the majority of the work — clean, photograph and analyze the objects.

"The field work is the easiest part in some ways," Rose said. "Students spend a lot of time in the lab with the artifacts and writing (reports). This way students can own part of the research."

So far, Rose and her dozen or so students have found mismatched buttons, opium paraphernalia and gaming pieces — providing a glimpse into the homes and hobbies of the Chinese immigrants living in 19th-century Jacksonville's Chinese Quarter.

During the 1850s, people flocked to the Rogue Valley hoping to unearth gold and strike it rich. The artifacts Rose and her team have discovered, including diaries, court records and city maps, reveal more of Jacksonville's history and relay previously untold stories of the miners.

"The presence of the Chinese miners has been marginalized and ignored," Rose said. "Not everyone's history has been preserved."

She looked around the lab that provides scientific study of once-prized objects.

"The Chinese miners represented a large chunk of the town and we just don't know much about them," she said.

But just give Rose and her crew time.

Nia Towne is a Southern Oregon University journalism student and editor of the campus newspaper The Siskiyou.

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