UI students dig for history in their backyard
September 27, 2023
This story by Anthony Kuipers appeared in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News on Sept. 27, 2023.
Remnants of the past are lying just underneath the feet of Moscow High School students as they walk to and from school every day.
Thirty-five University of Idaho students have made it their mission to find and study those remnants.
The property around Moscow High School has been transformed into an archaeological site to find artifacts from the old high school building that was built 1890 at the same location and later razed in 1939.
Led by University of Idaho professors Katrina Eichner and Mark Warner, these students have carefully dug into the soil in multiple locations to see what is buried there.
Warner said it is an opportunity that is rare for student archaeologists, because they usually have to do their fieldwork at an exotic location far from home during the summertime. This time, they can gain valuable experience in their own backyard during the fall semester.
“This is relatively unique archaeologically in the sense that it’s right in town,” Warner said. “It’s very accessible for the students and for the public to come see archaeology.”
Pieces of glass bottles, a toy gun, a decorative metal leaf, ceramics and even a denture are among the items they found in these dig sites.
At one site on the north side of the school campus, Nicole Rojas and Sophie Straiff uncovered the foundation of the old school after slowly skimming off layers of soil with their trowels.
Angelee Hoots was one of the students digging up the west side of the property where there used to be a residential alleyway. She and her fellow students found nails, pieces of wood and even a plastic chicken the other day.
She said there are clues that can help them determine what period of time the artifacts are from, such as whether a nail is round or square, what type of ceramic an item is made with, and whether a glass artifact is made of milk glass.
Eichner said they will look at old Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs to figure out when items were produced and sold. How far down they were buried is also a clue as to when they were deposited into the soil.
Bella Taylor said she feels lucky to be a part of this project because she would otherwise have to earn fieldwork experience far from Idaho.
“But this makes it really available, which is great, and we’re finding a lot of really cool artifacts and it’s interesting to be able to uncover really local history and history that’s maybe more relevant to us being in the area,” Taylor said.
Kelly Pape said the artifacts they find are going to be studied by students in an artifact analysis class scheduled for next semester. For her, connecting with the past through her findings is one of this project’s rewards.
“There’s something so unique about the material culture, about actually being able to hold the things that people 100 years ago held and made,” she said. “It’s just incredible. I think it’s so cool.”
Grace Gardiner and Zoe Rafter were digging next to the west staircase of the current building. Gardiner said one of the primary goals of the project is to better understand how students behaved in the past. She suspects students back then were not that different from today’s.
“In 1930, maybe we had different things and we did different things but overall our behavior is pretty similar,” she said.
Warner and Eichner are hoping the public will find this project as worthwhile as the students.
Warner said UI students have conducted nine excavations in Moscow, Boise and Coeur d’Alene with the goal of showcasing Idaho’s history to the public. They have branded themselves as Idaho Public Archaeology.
They organized public tours of the Moscow High School site, documented their progress on social media and encouraged people to stop by the school and check it out. The Moscow project will run until the middle of October.
Massey Jordan, who is studying for her master’s degree, said the site attracted about 250 site visitors Saturday.
“People seem to be really interested in it,” she said.
Jordan, who is interested in the benefits of public archaeology, is planning to build an online exhibit that will feature photos of the artifacts. It will invite community members to give feedback about what these artifacts mean to them.
To learn more about the project, follow Idaho Public Archaeology on Facebook and Instagram.
Kuipers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at uidaho.edu.