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Britt archaeology study reveals the past

JACKSONVILLE — Emil Britt wasn’t hitting the bottle in a workshop attached to the family barn that was unearthed in 2014, archaeologist Chelsea Rose has concluded after finding bottle remains.

“At first I thought maybe he was drinking in the barn,” said Rose. Closer examination found that the tops had been broken off and the bottoms scored before being cut away. The altered bottles likely served as seedling covers for young sprouts.

The discovery shows that Emil Britt continued the experimentation in agriculture that his father, Peter, had started in the 1800s, says Rose. The senior Britt was known for bringing in non-native seeds to see whether they would grow in the area. Many items in the workshop date apparently were associated with Emil, who was born in 1862 and died in 1950.

More than 1,700 artifacts were recovered at the barn site when the Britt Music Festival and the city excavated the property to create a handicap accessible ramp off First Street that leads to the festival grounds. State and federal laws require that archaeological studies be done when excavation occurs at known historical sites.

The amount of preserved material surprised Rose, a research archaeologist at Southern Oregon University. The barn and attached structures apparently were collapsed on-site in the 1960s when the festival created its current performance stage. Fill was then placed on top of the structures.

“It was really exciting to see how intact it was,” said research lab staffer Katie Johnson. She created GIS mapping of the site and profiled artifact locations.

Metal roofing on the workshop created voids that were uncovered by the 30-by-10-foot excavation, which was up to 9 feet deep. Safety was a consideration with loose soil. A backhoe operator carefully pulled back layers, said Rose, allowing volunteers and students to plot and retrieve artifacts.

“It was not a typical excavation,” said Rose. Workers didn’t go down into holes, and the work progressed rapidly to avoid construction delays.

Findings, such as early electrical items, suggest Emil Britt used the workshop during the 1920s and '30s. Plaster may have been from finished walls, and linoleum remnants were also uncovered. There was a wood stove for winter warmth.

There was no evidence animals had been kept in the attached space, although documents mention a stable that was likely in the main 40-by-60-foot structure. The barn had several side structures.

Vials with broken tops that once held animal vaccines were found, but the medicines were probably prepared at the site for use in the stable.

Pottery from the Hannah family kiln in Shady Cove was also found. There was a small, spoked wheel of uncertain use. Glass with wire in it, such as Britt had in his nearby photo studio, was also found. Whether it was being stored there or was part of the workshop couldn’t be determined. A brick foundation uncovered in a small area of the barn may have been part of a granary.

Common household items, such as porcelain pans that had been altered, pointed to the type of improvisation Peter and Emil did to carry out their research. Peter Britt was known for being frugal, but he also had to work with what was at hand, said Rose.

“They both were innovators,” said Rose. “What makes the site particularly interesting is we know so much about the Britt family and their contributions to the region.”

Only representative samples of the 917 construction material artifacts found were retained. Other items fall into categories related to function such as commerce, personal, domestic, hardware, food storage, electrical, heating and lighting, furnishings and a category called "indefinite," which was the largest group with 517 artifacts, including many containers.

People going up the new Britt ramp on the south side of the festival grounds are on top of the covered-over workshop. The majority of the barn likely remains underground immediately to the west and north with whatever artifacts it may contain. Excavation would probably only happen, Rose said, if a construction project takes place in that area, which is adjacent to the back of the Britt main stage.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

An archaeological dig at the site of an old barn at the Britt property in Jacksonville produced such artifacts as a wash tub, bottles, pottery and a possible carriage wheel. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell
Chelsea Rose