The dark object about the size of a small marble rolling around in the palm of Chelsea Rose's hand wouldn't impress most folks.

The dark object about the size of a small marble rolling around in the palm of Chelsea Rose's hand wouldn't impress most folks.

But to the archaeologist, it unveils an untold story of the early days of historic Jacksonville.

"Some of them look like peanuts but I think they were lychee nuts — something the Chinese imported," she said of the seed from the fruit that grows on lychee trees in Canton, China.

"The Chinese imported a lot of their food," she added. "The preservation in here is so good we are finding actual evidence of the seed in addition to bones that may have come from their food."

The archaeologist with Southern Oregon University's Laboratory of Anthropology is leading a dig into Jacksonville's Chinese quarter that began Wednesday.

The site is just off Main Street immediately uphill from the La Fiesta Restaurant, 150 S. Oregon St., Jacksonville.

The archaeological team is searching for evidence left after the Chinese section burned in 1888. The Chinese quarter was established in the mid-1850s, making it the oldest urban inhabitancy of its kind in Oregon, Rose said.

The dig, which expands on three previous excavations in the immediate area, will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today.

Visitors will be able to chat with archaeologists and SOU students about the excavations and view artifacts.

By Friday morning the sleuths had found several items, including the bottom third of an opium pipe and remnants of a fantan gambling game, an ancient Chinese pastime.

"That is equivalent to finding part of a whiskey bottle and a deck of cards from the white section," Rose said of the old mining town.

The site is where building first began when the gold-rush community sprang up, Rose said.

"We know this part of the block was the first to be built in Jacksonville," she said. "The first log cabin was built by W.W. Fowler that first winter of 1851 and 1852.

"After that, early development, including a tent city, popped up right here," she added. "Within a year or two, people started moving out and built more permanent structures elsewhere in town. The Chinese moved into this spot."

The 1888 fire burned that section of town, she said, noting the area was made more level with the introduction of fill dirt.

"So the deposits we are looking for are below the fill material," she said. "But the good thing is the fill has protected the material we are interested in.

"Separating the deposits is how archaeologists tell time," she added of uncovering the layers of material. "This is a clock for me and we're going backwards."

The remains of the house they are searching for was behind a Chinese laundry on California Street, she said.

"There will be some documentation on who owned that business," she said, noting that should lead them to the name of the person who lived in the house hard up against it.

"Not only will that tell us the name of the owner but we will know he had a different kind of role in the community," she said.

Only a few names of the Chinese who once lived in the area have survived over time, she said.

"For instance, we know that a woman named China Mary lived on the south side of the block," she said. "She was here after this area burned."

This marks the fourth formal dig in Jacksonville's Chinese quarter in the past decade, two of which included both SOU and the University of Oregon.

"The first three digs confirmed that, yes, China town was here and, yes, there is some archaeology left," she said. "The goal now is to fill in some gaps. Where were the building footprints? What were the people like? We are trying to take our research to the next level."

As she spoke, Matt MacFarlane, 54, who has a degree in anthropology from SOU, was carefully scraping a thin layer of soil into a dust pan with a trowel in his square meter of earth.

"You do it incrementally, slowly, as you go back in time," explained MacFarlane, who has worked on both historic and prehistoric sites for SOULA.

A meter to his north was Greg Applen, 67, another longtime SOULA hand who had retired from the lumber industry.

"See that dark organic soil that Matt is in now?" he said. "Well, I've hit it right here. It slopes down. What we want to do is get it down to the same level."

That is expected to take them to the era uncovered during the nearby 2011 dig of the Chinese habitation, he said.

"That's where I got into an awful lot of Chinese things — buttons, ceramics," he said, then added, "I enjoyed digging in the dirt as a kid and I enjoy it now. It is certainly a lot more fun than going to the gym, I'll tell you that."

Nearby, volunteer Gayle Lewis, 67, a registered nurse by training, was using a shaker screen built by Applen to sift through the soil in search of artifacts.

"It's like looking for treasure," said Lewis, whose family has pioneer roots in the Applegate Valley. "There is no monetary value but there is a story. And I really like the story part."

So does volunteer Jeanena White Wilson, 65, whose family arrived in the area in 1852.

"I love cultural history," said the former teacher of computer graphics as she worked another shaker screen.

"The idea of being somewhere an entire culture once existed but is no longer present is kind of heartbreaking," she said. "But to find the relics of their lives helps to keep them present."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at