McGOWAN - When archaeologists began working at a site behind St. Mary's Church here last month, they found mainly artifacts related to early salmon canneries in the area. As the dig continued, though, what they found became a lot more interesting.
Musket balls, a lead bale seal used for sealing the cords around furs, British-style gun flints and thick pieces of dark green glass "characteristic of Hudson Bay Co. rum bottles," were some of the most recent finds, according to the principal investigator at the site, Brian Harrison of Columbia Diachronic Services Inc. in Astoria. The musket balls are being sent to the University of Missouri for lead isotope trace element analysis, Harrison said.
"Every lead mine has a different set of trace elements and will tell us if the lead came from Missouri or Cornwall. That will help us determine who owned them." In the 1790s, there were "probably 200 British, French and American ships in the mouth of the Columbia River, trading with the Indians," he said.
The crew at the site also found about 80 glass trade beads, Chinese export pottery and shell-edge design pottery popular before 1830.
"It's unusual to find that many trade beads in so few units unless there was a store or trading center at the site," Harrison said. The pottery found at the site could have been made as early as 1790, indicating an early non-Indian presence at the site.
"It's good to have the National Park Service specialists from Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on this dig," Harrison said. "They specialize in fur trade-era materials, so they're very familiar with them." He said Fort Vancouver has the largest collection of these items in the world - about 1.5 million pieces.
The recent finds on the dig also included Indian artifacts such as a large rock grinding stone, a small arrowhead and half a softball-size stone net weight.
All these finds are significant, Harrison said, because "here is early evidence of trade. What makes this site significant is that it's protohistoric - at the transition between history and pre-history and the first contact between Indians and British, French and American traders."
One of the most valued items traded between the ships and the resident Indians were cuirasses - clamon in Chinook - arrow-proof vests made of elk skin.
"These were in great demand and became a popular trade item," Harrison said. "The British traded the Indians for them here, then took them to British Columbia where the Indians greatly desired them."
With the Fort Clatsop Expansion Bill nearing approval in Congress and construction due to begin on the Station Camp park and highway relocation, it's important that the investigation into the history of the site continue, and soon. Harrison said he and the other investigators at the site are submitting information to the state Historic Preservation Office for possible eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places.
Permission to resume digging at the site is expected in early September.
And, Harrison said the preliminary study of the site "couldn't have been done without the Garvin family," who own the property. "They've been very cooperative," he said. "We really enjoyed working with them."