Jorden Peery carefully brushed dirt off the clay bricks buried deep in the ground on the grounds of what had been Fort Lane.
"This was an unmapped building," explained Peery, 18, a senior majoring in anthropology at Southern Oregon University. "We are not really sure at this point what it could have been.
"One thing that is strange about this is that most of these units end at this hardpan layer," she added. "It is very shallow and hard to get through. With this, we punched through and found a soft, almost topsoil layer we hadn't seen before ... very strange."
What has been dubbed the "mystery building" is one of many intriguing items that have surfaced this past week as the result of work done at the site during a field school for 10 students from SOU's Laboratory of Anthropology. The lab's staff worked in conjunction with landowner Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and volunteers from the Southern Oregon Historical Society in the ongoing archaeological investigation.
The public was invited to stop by the site on Saturday to learn more about the history of the old fort located off Gold Ray Road in Central Point.
Built in 1853 and occupied by the U.S. Army for three years, the fort was on a 24-acre parcel purchased from Jackson County by the state in 2008.
Built by the U.S. Army's First Dragoons based in Benicia, Calif., the fort represented the Rogue Valley's only civil authority back in the day. It served to protect residents of the short-lived Table Rock Indian Reservation, acting as a buffer between the tribes and the increasing number of settlers drawn to Southern Oregon.
Shaped like a giant horseshoe, the original fort had more than a dozen buildings, including enlisted quarters, officers' quarters, kitchens, a small medical building, guard house, blacksmith shop and store.
The mission of the dig this past week was to focus on one of the enlisted men's barracks to help archaeologists understand the lives of the fort's occupants, observed SOU archaeologist Chelsea Rose.
"Last fall we looked into the officer's quarters, so this time we are investigating the enlisted men's barracks," Rose said. "We want to compare what life was like for those two very different groups living here at Fort Lane."
The enlisted men's quarters were barracks that back up to each other, chimney to chimney, she noted.
"They had collapsed over the years, so you get a mound of rubble," she said. "We have been meticulously removing the rubble down to the big foundation stones. We are trying to trace the footprint of the chimney, which helps us orient ourselves to the building."
There were four barracks, each one about 20 feet by 15 feet, said Mark Tveskov, an associate professor of anthropology at SOU and an archaeologist.
"Each one had about 25 guys stuffed into them," he said. "They were pretty tight quarters."
Research indicates that the soldiers interacted with local Indians, he said, noting that the post commander, Captain Andrew Jackson Smith, had a relationship with an Indian woman that produced a son.
"Before the Civil War, Captain Smith went back to St. Louis, where he had a wife," Tveskov said. "He lived the rest of his life back in the East."
He left his son by the Indian woman behind, Tveskov said. That son, also named Andrew Jackson Smith, first went to the Siletz Indian Reservation, then the Warm Springs Reservation, he said.
"We have found a whole bunch of glass trade beads that were manufactured in Venice and other places in Europe that were a common medium of exchange when interacting with Indian people," he said.
But the lion's share were found in the officers' quarters, he said, noting the officers had more access to the trade beads than did their enlisted counterparts.
And there are the broken alcohol bottles found on the site.
"You weren't supposed to drink on the post but, of course, there are alcohol bottles found all over the fort," Tveskov said. "But the officer's quarters had the most by far. There have been just a couple found in the enlisted men's quarters."
That doesn't mean they didn't have their booze, he said.
"It just means they were in greater fear of getting caught than the officers were," he said. "They had to be more sneaky about it."
Like Tveskov, Nancy Nelson, archaeologist for state parks, was interested in the fact many more glass beads were found in the officers' quarters that were investigated last fall.
"What we know about Captain Smith is that he had a baby with an Indian woman," she said. "It makes me wonder if she lived there with Captain Smith. Or it could be the Indian encampment was near the officers' quarters."
Artifacts found this week were on display Saturday in a glass-covered case at the site. Inside were several buttons, parts of a clay smoking pipe, musket balls, a hinge to the door to the quarters, various buckles, a mouth harp and several brass labels, including one with an 1846 patent date.
"This is a .69-caliber musket ball, the standard long arm the dragoons were armed with," Tveskov said of the model 1847 rifle used at the fort.
One rusty item that was uncovered had them stumped until Ben Truwe, a Medford historian and SOHS volunteer, pointed out that it appeared to be a blade for an old carpenter's plane used at the fort.
The historic materials will be taken to the SOU anthropology laboratory, where they will be cleaned and studied further for clues about their past.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.