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New excavation highlights early domestic life among Basque in Boise


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« on: August 11, 2012, 09:01:36 pm »

New excavation highlights early domestic life among Basque in Boise
Published: Wednesday, August 01, 2012, 11:35 AM
The Associated Press By The Associated Press
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The Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House has revealed many treasures through the years: marbles, silverware, shoes, tobacco tins.

A new excavation began at the site Tuesday and promises to reveal even more about domestic life in Boise's earliest days. A University of Idaho archaeological team will spend the next two weeks digging out an old well found at the east side of the house.

What's remarkable about the dig is that no one knew the well was there until May, said Patty Miller, executive director at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center.

The museum staffers, historians and others were so excited about the discovery that they pulled together an excavation in less than two months, Miller said.

Archaeological crews will remove dirt from around the well, hoping to uncover items lost or thrown away by people nearly 150 years ago. The house and well were built in 1864. For context, that's one year after the city of Boise was platted and one year before the Civil War ended.

Only a couple of hours into the dig on Tuesday just "skimming the surface" of the area in the most literal sense the excavators had found two shell buttons, a rust-red tin of Prince Albert Tobacco, a shard of porcelain with a dainty pink flower design, canning lids with white glass tops intact, assorted bones and bottle caps, a porcelain doll head and more.

One of the key things about this type of domestic dig, said Mark Warner, is that it tells the story of everyday life through items that are often lost because no one considers them notable at the time.

Warner and Stacey Camp, both anthropology professors at the University of Idaho, are leading the work.

"You might write in a diary, keeping track of thoughts and emotions, but you don't write about getting up and eating peanut butter and jelly or that you bought a good bottle of wine," said Warner.

But those empty jars, bottles and other "trash" reveal much about everyday life what people ate, drank, collected and smoked. Broken medicine bottles reveal their ailments. Shards of expensive wallpaper reveal their aspirations.

"Archaeologists have done work at hundreds of African-American sites and hundreds of Chinese-American sites," said Warner. "But as far as we can tell there's been little archaeological work done in the Basque-occupied areas in the U.S."

The project will give the public the chance to see urban archaeology in action. The site will be open during the dig, with an observation area set up so visitors can watch the progress. About a dozen people visited Tuesday morning.

Onlookers will see about 20 people doing various jobs excavating, screening dirt, washing artifacts.

The well measures about 3 feet in diameter and appears to be about 4 feet deep, but Warner discovered that the well's floor isn't solid. Dirt gave way like a crust of sugar when he started to take a sample.

He and Camp will have to figure out the best way to excavate the well safely. They expect to dig down about 10 feet, until they reach the water table and the dirt becomes heavy, wet muck.

A large part of this project is public outreach, Warner said. It's rare that a historic dig takes place in such a public location.

Most of Stacey Camp's research, for example, takes place north of Kooskia at the site of the Idaho World War II camp where Japanese-Americans were relocated after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The camp was so remote, she said, it didn't have barbed wire. Camp leaders figured that anyone who tried to escape would get lost or injured.

The Basque Block dig is taking place a stone's throw from bustling bars and restaurants, down the street from City Hall.

The Boise project has support not only from the Basque Museum and Cultural Center and the University of Idaho, but also from the Idaho Archaeological Society and the Idaho Heritage Trust. The Boise National Forest is providing equipment, Warner said.

The actual dig will be the briefest part of the project, Camp said. After the excavation, artifacts will go to the University of Idaho, where scholars will study and catalog them before returning them to be displayed in Boise.

-- The Associated Press


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