Archaeologists find little but tar balls at site of old cannery, Chinook village

<I>NANCY BUTTERFIELD photo</I><BR>Archaeologists Brian F. Harrison and Leslie O'Rourke examine a tiny bead found in one of three sites investigated at the Station Camp site behind St. Mary's Church at McGowan last week.

McGOWAN - Archaeologists have been investigating the area behind St. Mary's Church since last week, looking for artifacts that may have been left behind by residents and salmon canneries in the area. Work must be completed before the construction of a new highway at the proposed Station Camp park site began.

Brian Harrison of Columbia Diachronic Services in Astoria is heading up the dig along with several National Park Services archaeologists from the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site who have been busy digging holes, sifting dirt for artifacts and bagging what they find. Also working on the site is Deborah Wood of the Fort Clatsop National Memorial and several volunteers.

Harrison said he and NPS archaeologist Leslie O'Rourke started investigating the area about two years ago, looking for cannery artifacts. The people who lived in the area and the canneries "were very neat and tidy," Harrison said. "They left no trash behind. That's not good for archaeology."

No Indian artifacts or shell middens, bones or evidence of burials have been found so far. But there have been lots of tar balls left behind from the times when tar was used to coat fishing nets as a preservative.

"They're all over the place," Harrison said. And, small pieces of ceramic and glass and some beads have been turned up. Whatever is found is carefully placed in plastic bags for more study and will eventually be displayed at Fort Clatsop.

Last week Harrison and Larry Conyers of the University of Denver began working with ground-penetrating radar to locate anomolies, areas where underground disturbance indicates evidence of human habitation.

"GPR is like a CAT scan of the ground," Harrison said. "It shoots a cone of radar waves that overlap at different levels and show slices 75-cm below the ground. Most of the bottom area in the pits is made up of sand, "evidence of floods and river action," O'Rourke said. "Above that is organic substances such as fish oil."

The three two- to three-foot holes the archaeologists have dug contain layers, or profiles, of darker material above the sand that possibly indicate the presence of fish fat and other detritus left from the canneries.

The archaeologists and their helpers make careful drawings of the stratigraphy or layers in the pits.

Digging in an area like McGowan "provides lots of information never recorded in history books," Harrison said. "It's a supplement to historical information we read in journals, maps and diaries, such as where privies were located. It's historical archaeology, post-contact. Day-to-day information that wasn't recorded."

Besides Harrison and O'Rourke, Fort Vancouver archaeologists Bob Cromwell and Danielle Gembala; Elaine Dorset, a volunteer at Fort Vancouver; Deborah Wood, cultural resources manager at Fort Clatsop; Sean Johnson, a seasonal ranger at Fort Clatsop; and student volunteers are working at the site. "These are very well-trained and experienced people," Harrison said.

The dig is directed by the Seattle regional office of NPS and is expected to wind up Friday.

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