JACKSONVILLE — Archaeologists will examine 50 pounds of animal bones that are more than 125 years old in hopes of determining what Chinese residents of the area ate in the late 1800s.
Southern Oregon University archaeologist Katie Johnson has received a $20,000 Heritage Commission grant from the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation to study the bones from a Chinese house that burned in 1888. Findings are expected to yield a detailed look at what the residents ate and how they prepared their food.
Students and a hired assistant will work with Johnson to determine just what type of bones were uncovered during a 2013 excavation of the site along Main Street made before roadway upgrades were undertaken. One goal is to determine how much of the food was of local origin and how much was imported
“That will give us an idea of their daily lives, and did they have preferences,” said Johnson. “Were they eating a specific cut of pork? How was it prepared? What type of butchering techniques, chopped or sawed?”
Johnson’s grant was one of 20 to be awarded in the latest cycle out of 55 applicants. Archaeology documents generated by digs may be useful only to other archaeologists, said Kuri Gill, a Heritage Commission grant coordinator. The grant will help spread information to a broader audience.
“This will make it useful for everyone to be included into their research effort, so it’s a really nice translation for the general public,” said Gill.
“There are a lot of Europeans in the histories of Oregon,” Gill said. But there’s not a lot about people who do not have written histories, especially groups such as Chinese and Black populations, she said. Studying how people lived is one way to construct those histories.
Johnson estimates that 50 pounds of bones will be analyzed. Cooking implements were also uncovered.
“We have a lot of cuttlefish bones in the collection but, of course, it is not local here,” said Johnson. The cuttlefish were likely dried and salted in China before being shipped across the Pacific.
In other cases, similar local products were likely substituted for foods available in China. Pile perch are found off the California and Oregon coasts. Abalone probably came from Pacific Coast shores.
There won’t be any sophisticated instruments making the comparisons. Instead, Johnson and her helpers will compare bones from the dig with available resources. People will be sitting down and going through each bone.
“It’s pretty much just what you are seeing,” said Johnson.
Local ranchers have donated bones from livestock. A hunter recently donated bear bones to the lab. The University of Oregon has a large collection of fish and bird bones that can serve for comparisons. The team also can confer with a California researcher when it wants to check on something about which they are uncertain.
“We have some examples from other sites that have been excavated,” said Johnson. “We can look to those and see if we are seeing the same type in our collecting or something different.”
Part of the site had been disturbed before the excavation, so researchers are working only on bones from the undisturbed portion. Much of the house was covered over shortly after the fire, which burned parts of the Chinese quarter when Main Street was extended west.
Efforts are underway to determine who may have lived in the house, but there is not an exact identification yet. “It changed ownership several times through the years,” said Johnson.
Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org