JACKSONVILLE — To most folks, the small piece of corroded metal found buried in the earth doesn't look like much. But to Chelsea Rose, it may be an important key that could open a door to the past.

JACKSONVILLE — To most folks, the small piece of corroded metal found buried in the earth doesn't look like much. But to Chelsea Rose, it may be an important key that could open a door to the past.

"We think it may be a frame from a daguerreotype camera," said the staff archaeologist at Southern Oregon University's Laboratory of Anthropology. "Once we clean it up, we'll look for any designs on it. This could be the back part of a frame. We're very excited about this."

Rose is leading a group of SOU archaeology students and Southern Oregon Historical Society volunteers in a dig on the site of the historic Peter Britt homestead, circa early 1850s. The week-long event, which coincides with the city's 150th birthday celebration, began Monday and has already yielded square nails, old glass, bricks, bones and other objects.

Britt arrived in Jacksonville in the fall of 1852, ostensibly to mine for gold. After striking out in the gold fields, he became a celebrated photographer, horticulturist, vintner, beekeeper and businessman who planted the seeds for today's orchard and wine industries in southwestern Oregon.

He would build a two-story house for his family on the hill immediately west of First Street, including spacious living quarters, a wine cellar, solarium and two photography studios. Britt died in 1905 at age 86. His house was destroyed by fire March 16, 1960.

Formerly owned by Jackson County, the park known as Britt Gardens is now Jacksonville city property and the home of the popular Britt Music Festival.

"The city wants to do some updating to the landscape," Rose explained, which includes making it accessible to folks in wheelchairs and restoring the gardens to their original state.

"But before they do any major alterations, we want to find out where the archaeology is still intact underground so that information can be incorporated in their upcoming construction," she said.

That's where Rose and her team come in. They are carefully making 30 test digs in and around where the Britt house stood.

"They've found charcoal and all different colors of mottled, ashy clay soil," she said. "That is what we see when a structure is burned."

They have found everything from expected pieces of glass and pottery to a stone pestle. There also are lots of rusty nails, both square and round.

"We've found a lot more of the square, cut nails," she said. "The round nail came in around 1880 and on. The back part of the house was built in 1883."

One hole dug by the archaeologists reveals a layer of bricks about 18 inches beneath the surface.

"You can see where they were mortared but we don't know if it was right here or if they were reused from something else and used to make a path or edging for a garden," Rose said.

It is tough slogging for those digging for history. The soil is nearly as hard as those bricks.

"I was not anticipating how terrible this soil is," Rose said. "Did Britt not compost? Everybody has been working really hard with breaker bars. It has been tough, slow digging."

Matt MacFarlane, a recent SOU graduate majoring in anthropology and native studies, was using a heavy iron bar to try to break the brick-like soil. He followed that with a trowel for the more delicate work.

"I'm at 60 centimeters now — I've got 10 more to go," said the former Chiloquin resident. "I love doing this type of work."

So does fellow Jacksonville resident Jeanena Whitewilson, a retired conceptual designer who spent the first 12 years of her life in Kerby. Whitewilson, who took a few archaeology classes in college, was sifting the dirt that MacFarlane put in buckets.

"The secrets are in the earth," she said, noting, "My family came to Jacksonville in 1852 — before some of them ended up in Kerby."

Ashley Shernosky, an SOU senior one class short of graduating with a bachelor's degree in Spanish with a minor in anthropology, says the work is a labor of love.

"I love that archaeology makes your imagination run wild — you can almost imagine the people and the time and what life was like," she said.

Longtime Jacksonville resident Carol Knapp, a semi-retired registered nurse, was filtering dirt through a steel mesh. She was one of the volunteers who discovered the buried bricks.

"When I first moved to Jacksonville, the gophers would push up these little bits of pottery and glass," she said. "I used to imagine what the people who once lived there were like. Archaeology helps fill out a picture of what the past was like in this area."

One of the oddest items found is an old bottle opener, an item that would receive the moniker "church key" in the 20th century.

"We know the crown-cap bottles didn't come out until the late 19th century," Rose said.

Another found item is a piece of decorated copper that Rose believes was once attached to a piece of furniture.

"In the Victorian era, they were putting 'bling bling' everywhere," Rose quipped, using modern vernacular for flashy trinkets.

They alsos have found the bones of butchered animals which could tell them whether the Britts were living high off the hog.

"Peter Britt has almost a mythic persona now — with this, we're hoping to find out what his daily life was like," Rose said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.