Some pieces of glass and pottery. A broken brick or two. A few rusted nails.
Archaeologists are back at Fort Clatsop National Memorial, gleaning artifacts from several patches of ground around the park.
But they aren't after any traces of the long-sought original Lewis and Clark encampment. Instead, they're seeking evidence of two 19th century homesteads that, according to their owners, stood within a few feet of the remains of the historic fort.
This latest Fort Clatsop dig is also a learning experience for its crew, a group of students participating in an archaeological field school sponsored by the National Park Service and Portland State University.
The students, who explored a portion of the historic Fort Vancouver (Wash.) area last month, are spending two weeks at Fort Clatsop learning the basics of the discipline.
National Park Service archaeologist Doug Wilson, who is leading this year's field school with fellow archaeologist Bob Cromwell, joked that "because we're not looking for Lewis and Clark we'll probably find them." But whether or not they come across evidence of the long-sought fort, the work his students are doing will be valuable in fleshing out the rich history of the area, he said.
Jason Lang and Tom Becker excavate around a metal and brick structure found under one of the two Fort Clatsop homestead sites.The homesteads are historic sites in their own right. The owner of one, Carlos Shane, was one of the area's first settlers when he built his home in 1848 and planted an orchard. William Hampton Smith, who settled there with his family in the 1870s, was a prominent potter who collected clay from a nearby site that was both made into bricks for local buildings and shipped to Portland.
The homesites lie roughly on either side of the fort replica, which shows that the builders of that structure probably hit the right spot when they erected it in 1955. Pinpointing the exact location of the houses could help nail down the fort site, because both Shane and the Smiths reported that remnants of the structure lay just feet away from each of their homes.
"We think somewhere between the Smith and Shane homes was where the original fort lay," he said.
The first archaeological searches for the historic fort began in the 1940s. In 1995 a new round of research began that included magnetic ground imaging, core sampling and other techniques, all aimed at finding evidence of the Corps of Discovery and pinpointing the fort. None has yet turned up definitive proof of the original fort's exact location.
While ground-penetrating radar and other high-tech tools have greatly helped advance the science, modern archaeology still requires getting down in the dirt. At Fort Clatsop the field school students excavate in square-meter patches, scraping off the soil layer by layer and sifting the material in mesh screens to uncover artifacts. The exact locations of significant items are recorded.
The crew will dig down about two feet "or until the artifacts run out," Wilson said.
Rashelle Roggenkamp completed the field school last year but returned as a hired excavator for this season.
"It's fun to get your hands dirty and be outside," she said as she sifted a bucket of soil and picked through the pieces left behind. "It's a lot better than sitting in a classroom and reading about other people digging."
Archeologists all dream of the "big find," but the search itself is rewarding, she said. "Even when you find nothing, that tells you something."
The findings in each thin layer of soil are carefully noted. Because archaeological excavation is by its nature destructive, it's important for the crew to document what and where items are found for the benefit of future researchers, Wilson said.
As the students scrape and screen soil and catalog their findings, they describe their work to park visitors. An important component of the field school is teaching the students how to explain their work to the public, and the Fort Clatsop project provides an excellent forum, Wilson said.
"Other field schools are out in the middle of the wilderness," he said. "Here we have a unique opportunity to show the public what we do."
Student Aushwol Westley has an extra motivation for his involvement in the field school. A member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, he's training to be a cultural resources technician. He'll be an on-site monitor for excavation and construction projects on tribal property and ceded lands.
Fort Clatsop has yielded some Native American artifacts, some of the wide variety of artifacts that make the area such a historical treasure, Wilson said. Along with the Native American presence and Lewis and Clark history, the area also featured a lumber mill and steamship passenger dock, in addition to Shane's orchard and Smith's clay business.
"In this very small area you have the whole history of industry and agriculture in the Pacific Northwest - all that and Lewis and Clark too," he said.
But not much evidence of Lewis and Clark. The area has been notoriously stingy in yielding many clues about the Corps of Discovery, both because of the lack of material left behind and subsequent activity on the land.
Carlos Shane cleared the entire area for planting, and even tried to burn one of the old logs he believed to be a remnant of the fort. The wood was too damp and rotten, but the plowing he did prior to planting his orchard would have obliterated most remaining traces of the fort, Wilson said. The remnants of holes for corner posts, if they were dug deep enough, would probably be the only remaining physical evidence of the fort itself.
The Corps of Discovery left few items behind for modern-day researchers to find. They needed every tool, trade good and other possession for the return trek, Wilson said. Aside from a musket ball and a bead found during earlier excavations, there have been virtually no artifacts linked to the expedition.
TOM BENNETT - The Daily Astorian
Rashelle Roggenkamp sifts through soil in search of artifacts at the site of one of two homesteads near Fort Clatsop.Another archaeological project gained attention a few years ago when researchers looked for concentrations of mercury, an ingredient in medicinal pills taken by Corps members, in what appeared to be the remains of a man-made pit. The team hoped large amounts of the metal would point to the pit's use as a privy by the Lewis and Clark group, but soil testing shows no such concentrations, Wilson said.
Searches for concentrations of bones from elk - the staple of the Corps' diet - have also been conducted, but bones don't last long in the wet coastal climate.
The field school crew has turned up nails, brick, bits of glass and pottery and other artifacts from the two excavation sites believed to date from the homesteads. The Shane homestead is providing fewer items - Carlos Shane was a bachelor farmer and lived in the house about 10 years. The Smith house was occupied for about 20 years, and burned in 1905.
The Shane site has turned up some more recent items, including a 1941 penny, possibly left behind by a visitor, and gravel believed to have been from an old park path was also unearthed. Though the fort replica was built in 1955, the area was operated as a public park from the turn of the century, when the Oregon Historical Society acquired the land.
For Fort Clatsop resources chief Scott Stonum, the appeal of archaeological projects like the field school isn't just in the chance of finally finding the original Fort Clatsop, but in giving the public, especially children, the chance to see such work up close and maybe spark the same interest he felt taking nature hikes as a kid.
"I grew up in the city, and it opened my eyes to a whole different world," he said.
Visitors can watch the field school excavations and talk with crew members about the project through the rest of this week during the park's public hours.