MCMINNVILLE, Ore. (AP) - Indiana Jones may not get excited seeing a tiny sliver of pottery sticking out of a handful of dirt.
But Briece Edwards is an archaeologist, so he does get excited about such things. Senior archaeologist for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, he finds an upright piece of pottery especially intriguing.
“Rarely do things fall upright,” he said as he examined his find. “Gravity usually does its job. That’s what makes this so interesting.”
Edwards is the first to admit that sifting through dirt, often speck by speck, doesn’t rank with the exploits of Indiana Jones for glamor and intrigue. “After a while, this gets to be monotonous,” he said.
If he were Indy, his last big summer blockbuster would have been called something like “Raiders of the Lost Privy,” or perhaps “The Temple of Doo-Doo.”
But he can’t help it. Finding the old Grand Ronde school’s lost privy was exciting for him.
And “privy” is the right word for it, he said, noting, “Privy is a nice, polite, genteel term. I would rather use that than one of the less polite words for it.”
Edwards was working on the site with a group of University of Washington archaeology students over the summer. The charred remains of the structure told a story only archaeologists could discover, he said.
The excavation unearthed everything from pencil lead to discarded earrings and hair barrettes.
The team also discovered some less-than-appealing lunch leftovers. “You have to remember this is the outhouse of a grade school,” Edwards noted.
Everything found on the site represents a key to history, he said - a history that extends back to the 1880s, when the school was created at what is now considered Old Grand Ronde, along Highway 22 and Grand Ronde Road.
The area surrounding the school was part of the original Grand Ronde Agency complex. The agency was created to oversee the tribes forced to relocate to the Grand Ronde reservation around 1855.
Before the school was built, Edwards said, an earlier school occupied the site, a Catholic school called St. Michael’s. In the early 1900s, however, the Legislature passed a bill requiring all tribal schools to be nondenominational.
All this history isn’t merely a subject of academic curiosity for David Harrelson, Edwards’ supervisor as program manager in the Tribal Historic Preservation Office.
“My grandmother went to the school,” he said. “Many tribal members have grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives who were students or teachers at the school. This is our heritage.”
As such, Edwards said, it requires a light touch. “Starting any new project, you want to go slow,” he said. “You want to examine the soil carefully.”
The people who use the tribes’ archaeology lab at the Chachalu Tribal Museum and Cultural Center operate on a “catch-and-release” policy, he added. There is a complex web of laws governing the discovery and collection of culturally sensitive artifacts, and the disruption those activities can cause in tribal lands.
Everyone connected with the tribes want to make sure the land and artifacts are eventually left to rest in peace. But he said that doesn’t make the archaeological finds any less intriguing as they are analyzed and catalogued.
Some basic work can be done in an archaeology lab. Other tasks, such as precisely dating what is found, have to be farmed out to more advanced labs.
Harrelson said tribal archaeologists can still tell a lot about the bits and pieces they collect.
“You can tell a lot from a bottle, for instance,” he said. “What kind of glass was used? What color was it? What about its seam? Does it even have a seam or was it blown? Was it a medicine bottle?”
When answering those questions, Edwards turns to catalogs compiled by people who’ve made it their mission to understand the minutia of artifacts.
“There’s this one guy who is passionate about the different kinds of tin cans, right down to the patterns on the lids and the subtle differences between them,” he said. “There are people out there who have spent years putting together a chronology of the everyday. There are some great resources out there.”
Edwards doesn’t spend all of his days excavating sites or sifting through dirt in the lab. He spends some almost entirely on the computer.
“Archaeology is not all lost temples in the jungle,” he said. “It is a profession that necessitates keen research skills, project and time management acumen, budget design and contract negotiation, and an intricate understanding of legislation.”
His knowledge of legislation comes into play when developers come to him wanting to build on land that could be culturally and historically important to the tribes.
Still, Edwards said he doesn’t see it as his job to thwart development at every turn.
“We operate with the laws in place with the idea that we’re trying to provide the best possible voice for the resources,” he said. “That doesn’t preclude things from happening and developments moving forward.”
Harrelson said that’s important to remember.
“We’re not here to tell people no,” he said. “We’re here to help them find solutions while making sure our heritage is not threatened.”
Assessing potentially sensitive land can be daunting.
The land of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde covers more than just the reservation surrounding Grand Ronde and Spirit Mountain Casino. Because the tribes are an amalgamation of numerous tribes forced to relocate to the area, the ancestral lands Edwards deals with cover most of western Oregon.
“It’s not all that clean and neat that all these people went to the same reservation,” Harrelson said. But he said, “We try not to overlap with other tribes too much. We’re not trying to tell their story. We have our own story to tell about our own people.”
The archaeology lab is also there for tribal members who need their own family artifacts assessed.
“Say someone has a collection of Grandpa Joe’s artifacts,” Edwards said. “We can help identify them and make sure they’re actually part of tribal heritage.”
Edwards is in the process of completing a doctorate in archaeological science through England’s University of Bradford. He received his master’s degree in archaeology from North Carolina State University in 1998 with a specialty in geographic information systems.
GIS, designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present all types of spatial geographical data, holds special interest for him. And not surprisingly, he has been using his GIS skills on this project, notably in reconstructing 19th century maps.
Before coming to Grand Ronde, he worked at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where he researched and designed an exhibit on central Asian textiles.
“I love my job, and I love being archaeologist,” he said. “This is the field that excited me ever since I was a kid.
“This is a particularly great place to work. I in no way work in a vacuum. I work with a lot of other people.”
Information from: Yamhill Valley News-Register, https://www.newsregister.com
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