CORVALLIS - Late last week, as nearby city work crews pounded jackhammers and wayward drivers negotiated a temporary dead-end street, more than a dozen Oregon State University students eagerly gathered around a test pit, hoping they'd found a century-old outhouse.
And who says archaeology ain't glamorous?
The scene was on First Street in Corvallis, between Adams and Washington --- just west of the Willamette River. The project: part of the university's archaeology Summer Field School, a six-week annual outing that gives the OSU students real-life experience, while at the same time adding to the knowledge of northwest history.
Usually, the students head to more remote locations to unearth clues to the region's past. They've excavated prehistoric sites in the Columbia River basin, along the scenic Rogue River, and in the arid highlands of eastern Oregon. This year, however, field school director Barb Roth chose a project much closer to home - and more recent in history.
The students are digging test pits on a site owned by the Benton County Historical Society. They are hoping to find remnants of early Corvallis, and compare their discoveries with the written record.
"It's a little bit different than most of the field schools we've done," Roth said. "We often focus on prehistory in rural locations that haven't been developed. But this has been a blast. It's good for the students, because they find lots of things and it teaches them proper mapping and cataloguing techniques.
"But we've also gotten to talk to a lot of people who have wandered by and related their experiences living here in the 1950s, '40s and even '30s," she pointed out. "They've added a lot to our study and put a focus for the students on community archaeology and public outreach."
The history of Corvallis is reasonably well-documented. Joseph Avery and William Dixon each staked claims on the land in 1845, then Avery chained off 12 acres two years later. In 1851, he platted 24 blocks and began the town of Marysville, which later became Corvallis.
Much of the town's growth came during the next 25 years or so, and the block studied by the OSU students is inside the oldest part of town. The students are using Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1884, 1888, 1890, 1895, 1912 and 1927 to determine what likely was located on the block during those years.
But, as Benton County Historical Museum director Bill Lewis points out, not all history is recorded.
"We've found over the years that that written sources are fairly accurate, but it's important to add details when you've got the opportunity," he said. "This is a great project, because it helps raise awareness of the university's programs and of our programs, and gets people thinking about the history of Corvallis.
"It would be nice if we could continue to do these types of projects, expanding the study to private property, if the owners were willing," he added.
Thus far, the students have found a spur off an old railroad track, evidence of old stoves and a stable, old car parts from the 1920s, and some of the remains they believe trace back to an 1888 home.
"We've found a lot of stuff you usually find outside of a house --- old buttons, parts of pipes, and even an old coin or two," Roth said. They've also found hundreds of pieces of metal, glass, wood and other items that each are carefully mapped and recorded - all part of a chain of evidence that hopefully will let them learn a little more about the history of Corvallis. What they haven't found yet are the two privies identified on the 1890 map. And to an archaeologist, a privy is --- believe it or not --- the Holy Grail for historic artifacts.
"People threw all sorts of things down a privy," Roth said. "There's no better way to learn about the residents of a place than by examining their privy, as strange as that may sound."
The student archaeologists will be on-site until Aug. 1, and welcome visitors.
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Barb Roth, 541-737-3849