It’s hard to believe that it has been more than a year since the River Street Archaeology Project started. Last year around this time, I was sweating it out in the blistering Boise sun along with some of the most dedicated volunteers and students I could ever hope to work with. Their efforts paid off. Here is a summary of how the project went.
Why dig where we did?
The Erma Hayman House and the surrounding parcels were particularly suitable for this project because some of these parcels had been occupied by the same families for decades while others had been developed after the 1980s. This provided a contrast in sediment stratigraphy and a chance to demonstrate historical sediments may remain beneath modern disturbance. It also helped archaeologists attribute dated deposits to family tenures.
Historical maps also showed a number of different dwellings had once existed here along with a diverse population of residents that changed over time. Sanborn maps were particularly informative. The 1912 and 1949 volumes in particular showed accurate depictions of the earliest period in the neighborhood’s development and showed where buildings had once existed beneath the modern landscape. It was understood that while historical maps are important, the features they depict may not exist anymore. It was clear that archaeological deposits may still exist, but a research design was created that would locate and explore archaeological features shown on maps, if present, and search for other undocumented features. Finally, we also needed to document the extent of intact archaeological deposits and their relationship to modern disturbance. In order to accomplish these goals, a program of formal excavation units was used in conjunction with a shovel probe grid.
If there is one true adage in archaeology it is: You can’t predict what’s buried under ground. We did as much as we could to determine the presence or absence of archaeological materials in this area but there are no guarantees in archaeology, especially when you are digging in the city where things are built, destroyed, and re-built numerous times.
Fortunately we did find stuff. And, people came to help us dig. The preliminary excavation results are summarized below:
-54 volunteers served at least 4 hours at the site
-Over a dozen students received college credit from the University of Idaho or College of Western Idaho
-Approximately 1,400 volunteer hours
-Over 6 hours of oral histories recorded from five interviews
-Eight local news stories covered the project (including feature stories in the Idaho Statesman and Boise Weekly) during the six-week field school Over 10,000 artifacts recovered, cleaned, and bagged
-52.1m² area excavated from 13 excavation units and 34 shovel probes
-12 archaeological features identified ranging from postholes to building foundations
We were fortunate to find intact archaeological materials, but they were not distributed evenly across the site. Large portions of the excavation area had been disturbed by construction and, although there were artifacts, the disturbed soil around them made it difficult to make archaeological inferences from this items. We were able to recover items from intact soil that will be important for reading the history of this part of Boise.
Was the project a success?
The River Street Project was also successful in that it welcomed dozens of volunteers of all ages, provided a rare opportunity to dig on an archaeological site in their own community, and helped them become more aware of the way race-based discrimination led to the creation of spaces like the neighborhood. All of the expectations for this project were achieved. We collected information on the archaeological deposits across the project area, identifying locales of disturbance and how they relate to historical material deposits. Building foundation remains, refuse scatters, and other archaeological features were identified. The remains of the earliest Basque handball court in Boise was discovered, the knowledge of which contributes to Basque heritage in Boise. It was presumed that the realignment of River Street had destroyed this feature in the 1970s, but the archaeology project revealed that much of it remains intact beneath landscaping.
Most importantly project participants learned about how archaeology contributes to our understanding of the past. They experienced how local communities can come together to help reclaim heritage. Students and volunteers saw how the remembrances of the elderly folk within a community can provide a different form of information that aids scientific investigation while also providing a chance for them to contribute to heritage conservation. Project participants gained an understanding of how history is created—through meticulous research and analysis. Because of its collaborative nature, the River Street Archaeology Project provided an opportunity for government entities, preservationists, and the general public to participate in a civic-minded project and a chance to reaffirm their commitment to the community via local media venues. As it was rooted in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial enclave, this project also provided a space where project participants and the wider community could address racism, discrimination, and stigmatization in the past and how it shapes the present.
The holes have all been filled in. Grass is now growing in the spaces where we dug. The land is going back to what it was before our arrival—a sorely needed open space for the current residents of the River Street Neighborhood.
A technical report of the 2015 season is in progress. All of the artifacts belong to the Capital City Development Corporation (CCDC) and the Boise City Parks and Recreation because the excavations took place on their property. They will be returned to their rightful owners once the archaeological analysis is complete.
Our discoveries will be used to help write the history of working class and African Americans in Boise, Idaho. At present, there are no plans for excavation in the future. Hopefully, the intact archaeological materials that remain in this area and the Hayman House will be preserved for future generations. This information is the focus of my PhD studies at the University of Arizona, so stay tuned for my dissertation.