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Archaeological Research in Urban Neighborhoods: Searching for the First Fort Vancouver

June 10, 2019

Written by: Amy Clearman, SHPO Archaeology Intern

Archaeological research is often hidden from public view, leading to misconceptions about archaeology and an underappreciation for the relevancy of this research to non-archaeologists. Over the last few decades, archaeologists have increasingly called for sharing our work with the public and even including community members as partners in archaeological research.

As a graduate student in archaeology at Portland State University, I undertook a thesis project that partnered heavily with community members. My work took place in two residential neighborhoods in Vancouver, Washington where I worked with homeowners to archaeologically excavate in their backyards. The intent was to search for the material remains of the first Fort Vancouver built in 1825, located somewhere on the bluff above the Columbia River about one mile northeast of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, a commemoration of the second (1829) Fort Vancouver.

Twelve homeowners volunteered to allow excavation in their yards, and with these residents I was able to dig 32 small holes to search for artifacts. I discovered over 500 artifacts, which were a mixture of modern and historic items, some dating as far back as the early-nineteenth century. While I did not find evidence of the exact location of the first fort, a combination of archaeological, documentary, and ethnographic research resulted in discovering the most likely area where the fort existed.

In addition to archaeological discoveries, this project explored ways of making archaeology and heritage personally relevant to residents in the project neighborhoods and in the wider community. I found that archaeology has the power to spark people’s imaginations in a way that nothing else can. The act of unearthing objects used and discarded by people in the past significantly affected homeowner’s feelings about the place where they live, work, and play, and by the end of the project most residents expressed feeling more attached to and more proud of their neighborhood as a site of heritage. These residents are now wondering what other stories are buried under the ground about the those who have occupied the landscape over time, and I am so pleased that this project has helped pique curiosity about archaeology, heritage, and past people not only in these residents but the wider community, as well.

Amy Clearman served as the State Historic Preservation Office archaeology intern for spring 2019. She is a graduate student at Portland State University studying historical archaeology, focusing on public archaeology and the early history of Fort Vancouver in Vancouver, Washington. Visit FirstFortVancouver.com to find out more about her thesis project.

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