An archeological dig in downtown Boise is unearthing scores of artifacts from a 19th century family. What was trash in the past is now treasure for local history lovers.
A group of archeology students and experienced volunteers scratch in the dirt next to one of Boise’s oldest standing buildings. One of them stops, excited by what she’s found. She shows her find to dig director Mark Warner. He’s excited too and wants to see it in the sunlight. They step out of the shade and Warner rubs the dirt off a chunk of glass as long as his thumb and twice as big around.
“What we’ve just found is a fragment of a cobalt blue bottle that says & Hitchcock company,” he says. “We don’t have the whole thing, W York which is presumably New York and then it says menthol ice.”
The glass came from a well at the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga house, part of Boise’s Basque Museum. Cyrus Jacobs built the house in 1864. His family lived in it for 40 years before it became a boarding house for Basque immigrants.
The well has probably been covered for more than a hundred years. At some point before that the Jacobs family started filling it with garbage. For archeologists garbage is gold. Stacey Camp teaches archeology at the University of Idaho with Warner and co-directs this dig.
“One of the exciting things for me doing archeology is we often learn things that aren’t documented in the historical records,” she says. “You know we don’t know what kind of toys the Jacobs family’s children were playing with, and here now we do know. We’ve found a porcelain doll head, we’ve found BBs, we’ve found marbles.”
Camp says one of the most exciting things about this dig is its location. While most archeological sites are way off the beaten path this one is already in a museum. The dig has attracted hundreds of visitors. Mark Warner says it’s one of the best experiences he’s seen for raising awareness about his field.
“You know I would bet at the end of two weeks we’ll have 500 to 1,000 people come through this site,” says Warner. “That’s probably more than many archeologists have visit their sites in their entire careers.”
Visitors can watch the digging, see loads of dirt sifted through wire screens, and watch volunteers clean and catalogue the artifacts.
Seven year old Dallin Baker scrubs a metal fragment with a toothbrush. He says he might become an archeologist someday but not if he has to do the digging. He says he likes cleaning stuff.
The project is not just attracting kids. 87 year old Raymond Larson peers at a tray of artifacts. Larson is well-known at the Jacobs-Uberuaga House. He’s the great-grandson of Cyrus Jacobs. He points to one of the prize finds from the dig, a porcelain doll’s head smaller than an egg.
“The story is that on the second birthday my great-grandfather gave each one of his daughters a doll that had their same hair color and same eyes,” he says. He wonders if this is one of those.
The archeologists don’t know who this doll belonged too. But Mark Warner holds a picture from the museum collection dated 1870. It shows some of the Jacobs family in front of the house, including a little girl.
“And if you want to engage a little bit in flights of fancy, there’s her doll,” Warner says. “The pins that were holding up the hem of her dress are now in our archeological collections. I’m stretching it a little bit. But to spin the story, you know, here’s the leftovers of their lives.”
Warner says spinning those stories of people’s lives is why a dig like this is important. He says all too often as we look forward, we forget our roots. He pats the 150 year old brick wall of the house and says this building is the roots of Boise.
The public can visit the dig site through Saturday. The archeologists will take their findings to the University of Idaho for analysis. Eventually many of them will be displayed at the Boise Basque Museum.