Do You Dig History?
University Students Analyze Sandpoint’s History: Little Things Tell a Lot About the Big Story
by Amanda Cairo
Over the past two years, University of Idaho faculty, alumni and students have been digging up the past in Sandpoint, Idaho. Now they are shaping an enriched history of the town, and northern Idaho.
“What we found tells a different story than what the textbooks tell you,” says Mark Warner, associate professor of anthropology and co-leader of the project. “The artifacts from this excavation are helping discover Idaho’s past; it’s going to be an incredible story.”
While history books talk about the extraordinary events – Sandpoint was founded in the 1880s, boomed until the 1920s when mill operations declined and has evolved into a trendy tourist destination – Warner says items from the excavation, “people’s trash from 100 years ago,” tell the story of what everyday life was like.
The project is a collaborative endeavor between SWCA Environmental Consultants, the Environmental History Company and the University of Idaho. It is being directed by Jim Bard (SWCA), University alumnus Bob Weaver (EHC) and Warner for the Idaho Transportation Department. The roughly $360,000 contract from ITD that Warner and his students are working under is one of the largest the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences has received in recent years.
Now that the excavation work is finished in historic Sandpoint — an old logging town encompassing rail and steamer stops, a small Chinatown district, a commercial district and a restricted area with saloons and brothels — lab workers in Spokane and Moscow are analyzing and cataloguing what the team found.
“It’s really interesting to put the pieces together and discover what you are holding,” says anthropology junior Mary Kienholz, who worked on the dig and in the Spokane lab, and currently is working in the Moscow lab. “It is a really good learning experience.”
A majority of the artifacts have been sent to the SWCA Archaeological Research Laboratory in Spokane, but the University is one of the few places in the region that has the technical expertise to analyze the 67 boxes of animal bones, which will help Warner’s team discover what people in Sandpoint were eating in the different districts 100 years ago. The Moscow lab is also working on cataloguing the glass, ceramic and metal fragments recovered from several of the smaller excavation areas.
As his team began sifting through the boxes of bones, Warner was surprised to see few wild game bones and discovered mostly domesticated farm animals like pig, chicken, sheep and cow bones. The cuts of meat also show how well, or poorly, people in different economic areas ate.
“You would think in a place like Sandpoint they’d be shooting their own game, but we’re seeing almost nothing but domesticated farm animals,” says Warner.
Kienholz says looking at the large amount of opium bowls, lanterns and tins has been an interesting learning experience, as well as looking at old pharmacy bottles and learning how to date them.
Other interesting items that turned up on the site are an intertwining turtle locket; a wedding ring; a Hohner Marine Harmonica circa 1900-14; parts of a bird cage in the Chinatown district; Randall grape juice bottles manufactured in New York state; Spokane liquor caps from one of the largest liquor distributors in the West; part of a White Rose Whiskey bottle from Minnesota; and a “Round Up” watch fob in the shape of a saddle from Pendleton, Ore., in Sandpoint’s Chinatown district.
“We’re finding out how a small town in northern Idaho is also thoroughly tied into the global market,” says Warner.
It is not just anthropology students who are involved in the project, but chemistry students as well. The Sandpoint team recovered about 25 to 30 bottles that still had their original contents, and the University’s chemistry department is analyzing some of the compounds.
Students discovered mercury in the ingredient list for a face cream which was advertised as “taste-tested”, and found that a tonic advertising it will restore hair probably did not, but it most likely provided unadvertised health benefits that include increased blood circulation and was an anti-inflammatory and fungicide.
“The little things tell you a lot about the big story,” says Warner.
The team has recovered 600,000 to 800,000 artifacts from the site, which will take them into the next year to analyze.
“Right now we’re digesting it and going through everything,” says Warner. “Sandpoint is a relatively small story that is representative of a larger story of settling the West.”
Eventually a large portion of the artifacts from Sandpoint will be housed at the University as a continuing resource for students.
“I feel very fortunate for this opportunity," says Kienholz. "I have learned so much, and I am grateful to the people who have helped me.”
While still deciding her plans after graduation, she is leaning towards field work as a result of her Sandpoint experience.
“I’m still trying to find my niche, but I’m really enjoying working on this project; it really helped me learn what really goes on at a field site,” she says.
Warner added the University’s connection with the project is a great opportunity for students not only on the practical side, but several students and faculty will present papers and sessions on Sandpoint archeology at the Northwest Anthropological Conference on Sandpoint in March.
The site of the excavation is now under the Idaho Transportation Department’s Sand Creek Byway project.