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A decade later, Britt artifacts being studied

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The Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology received a $15,000 grant from the state to finally analyze and report on 30,000 artifacts found during a 2010-2011 excavation at the Peter Britt Gardens site in Jacksonville.

SOULA archaeologist Chelsea Rose, who has managed the project since 2009, said the grant will allow a large chunk of the unfinished project to be completed. The project was never finished due to a lack of funding after the excavation.

With the grant, Rose will write a technical report on the findings, but will also work with staff at Hannon Library to create a public digital exhibit that will tell the story of Peter Britt’s life, his family and their impact on the region.

“It’s one of the most important archaeological collections of Southern Oregon,” Rose said. “The Britt site is already well documented, which means we can use these artifacts to ask nuanced questions about their lives.”

She said the dig unearthed everyday objects such as dinner plates, wine bottles, buttons and toothbrushes, but also glass plate negatives Britt used in his photography, and even the family’s trash.

She said examining the objects and where they were found can help to tell the story of how Britt and his family lived. The big picture is better formed with the miniscule details. For example, Rose said they found food bottles and animal bones. Information about their diet can help to paint a picture of their economic and social standing in addition to the other findings.

“A lot of things he had in his parlor were for show, but seeing what made it into the garbage allows us to get to know the Britt family on a more intimate level than what they showed the community,” Rose said.

Archaeology is an expensive endeavor, Rose said, because for each hour spent in the field, several hours are spent cleaning, examining, researching, reporting, preserving and curating the objects.

Because funds dried up for the project, these 30,000 objects have sat in boxes in the SOU archives and have been studied only occasionally — once funded by a donation from a Peter Britt descendant and a few times by Rose or other students volunteering their time.

“They’ve just been sitting there because we never had the money to do the back-of-house side of things,” Rose said. “It was one of my first big projects, and the fact that it never got completed has always weighed on me.”

She said completing the report and the project will fulfill the legal obligations required for the dig, help the city manage the property without further damaging the archaeological components of the property and make the information more accessible to the public.

After the digital exhibit is created, the artifacts will remain in possession of SOULA for protection and will be kept in case any museums wish to create a physical exhibit or other scholars wish to further study the artifacts.

“Several researchers have been looking into his wine endeavors,” Rose said.

Because the Britt family was the only family who lived in the house, researchers were able to find artifacts from various phases of Britt’s life, she said.

“From early days when he was a miner living on the hill to later days when he was a well established photographer, it shows a spectrum of him and his children while they lived on the property, which is pretty rare to see someone’s lives through artifacts,” Rose said.

She said Britt was an entrepreneur dabbling in pursuits ranging from agriculture and beekeeping to photography and real estate. She said he was one of the first people in Southern Oregon to grow pears and produce wine, but he always went back to his photography, documenting the people and places of the region.

“We don’t know a lot about what life was like for artists in the 1850s in Oregon, and this is a way to add that to the historical record,” Rose said. “He was more interested in doing things creatively, which isn’t utilitarian and is more unique than the average settler in Southern Oregon.”

This will be the third exhibit SOULA has created in conjunction with the SOU Hannon Library special archives, Rose said.

One of the exhibits focused on multiple digs in the Chinese quarter of Jacksonville, with which Rose was also involved.

“This grant helps us do our due diligence, and we can do some interesting things like compare the Britt site to the Chinese site to compare what two different immigrant families were like in the 19th century,” Rose said.

Sarah Sissum, who is in her final year at SOU as a double major in English and history and has lived in Jacksonville for 10 years, is helping Rose determine which items to use in the digital exhibit, which will feature roughly 100 artifacts.

“(We’re) figuring out what aspects you can make a story out of. For example, we have a lot of dinnerware products and products they would use in their everyday life, but sometimes you have to eliminate parts that won’t give you as big of a story,” Sissum said. “You want to look at something specific that kind of differentiates it from the other things, especially things about the women in his life because they often weren’t as explored.”

Rose said because there is not a brick-and-mortar historical museum in Southern Oregon, the digital archives will suffice to teach of his impact not only in the local region, but on the impact his family may have had in other communities where they lived.

After Britt’s children died, his photographs were given to the Southern Oregon Historical Society, which has shaped much of the history we know today, but these excavations are what fill in the gaps.

Rose said the site is protected to preserve what is still in the ground.

She said it’s always important to save portions of archaeological sites for future excavations.

“Artifacts are becoming increasingly microscopic,” Rose said. “We’re just now getting access to DNA, and can test the soil for certain chemicals, and in the future archaeologists can find out even more amazing things from just the dirt I’m throwing out, especially when you know it’s a site where there will be continuing interest. The Peter Britt site will always be a site of relevance and interest in Southern Oregon, so it’s important to keep it intact.”

The grant comes from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Oregon Heritage Division for historic and archaeological projects.

Peter Britt was a Swiss landscape and portrait photographer and painter who settled in Jacksonville in 1852. He established the first photography studio in Oregon. His photos of Crater Lake were instrumental in the creation of the national park.

In 2010, the city of Jacksonville employed SOULA to excavate the site prior to some major infrastructure improvements and development planned for the lower portion of the Britt gardens leading up to the 150th anniversary of Jacksonville.

The Britt house burned down in the 1960s, burying and damaging a lot of artifacts.

“Artifacts are always where people live, everywhere we go we’re creating a material record of being there and what you did on that place,” Rose said.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Andy Atkinson / Daily Tidings Britt artifacts to be cataloged at SOU Wednesday.
Andy Atkinson / Daily Tidings Britt artifacts to be cataloged at SOU Wednesday.
Andy Atkinson / Daily Tidings Top of a wine bottle found amongst other Britt artifacts that are being cataloged at SOU.