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Oregon Unearthed: A Q&A With Archaeologist Chelsea Rose

OPB | July 1, 2014 midnight

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Chelsea Rose, a Time Team archaeologist, specializes in the early settlement and development of the American West.

Chelsea Rose, a Time Team archaeologist, specializes in the early settlement and development of the American West.

Tracey Whitney / Oregon Public Broadcasting

Anyone who’s watched the archaeology show Time Team America, coproduced by OPB, knows Chelsea Rose.

With her dusty hat and bright smile, her enthusiasm about digging in the dirt is definitely contagious. Rose’s passion for her work and for life in general makes her the kind of person you want to hang out with, which is great news for those of us in Oregon because she’s a longtime resident of our state (and she’s got the piercings and tattoos to prove it).

Rose is a staff archaeologist and adjunct faculty member at Southern Oregon University. Her research interests focus on the early settlement and development of the American west, and she involves student and community members in her examination of archaeological sites across the Pacific Northwest.

When she’s part of Time Team America’s archaeological team, Rose applies the latest technology and the team’s collective expertise to solving the riddles of the past — against a ticking clock. The team has just three days to find out what it can at each site they investigate.

Rose took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with Arts & Life about her work in Oregon, the greatest artifact she almost found, and the untold stories of our state’s past.

Q&A with Chelsea Rose

A&L: So what brought you to Oregon?

Chelsea Rose: I came here as a teenager, and for the most part have been here ever since. I worked at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History for a few years before coming to Southern Oregon University in 2008. I had several amazing archaeological mentors when I was at the U of O, and now I feel lucky to have such fantastic colleagues here at the SOU Laboratory of Anthropology and across the state.
 
A&L: What makes Oregon a unique place for archaeology?

CR: Oregon contains a huge variety of environmental and cultural contexts. From the groundbreaking Paleo-Indian research happening at Paisley Caves; to rich coastal shell middens [a site containing human-made debris]; to battle and military sites; to gold rush sites; and to the remnants of railroad, logging and fishing camps, there is enough archaeological diversity to keep researchers digging for years.

A&L: What are some of the challenges of doing work here?

CR: I’ve spent most of my life in the State of Jefferson, which means rugged mountain terrain that is rich in resources but hard to get in and out of. This creates logistical challenges for archaeology — how we’ll access the site, where will we stay during the dig, what we’ll do if we encounter Bigfoot, etc.

A&L: What are some of your favorite dig sites in the state?

CR: I’m lucky enough to get to spend a lot of my time in one of the state’s historical treasures — the small town of Jacksonville, which is a designated National Landmark District. Over the past several years I’ve worked at the rich frontier homestead of pioneer photographer Peter Britt, one of the oldest blacksmith shops in Southern Oregon, and just this fall we excavated a house in Jacksonville’s Chinese Quarter that burned in 1888.
 
A&L: What are some of the most interesting aspects of Oregon history?

CR: I find the settlement period of Oregon fascinating. Everything changed in the span of just a few short years, and the environmental and cultural fallout of that change is still visible today. The mythology of the Wild West runs throughout Oregon’s frontier narrative, and I love working on sites that allow me to tease apart the myth from reality and to get at the individuals and events that actually helped shape the state we live in today.

A&L: Any examples of busting those myths?

CR: I did my graduate work on a Native Hawaiian mining camp located outside of Jacksonville in the 1860s. Known as ‘Kanaka Flat,’ it was thought to have been a bachelor camp during the gold rush — a place where the only women present would have been prostitutes. However, archaeological research tells us plenty of women lived at Kanaka Flat, and that the area was much more of a community than mythology has led us to believe. The ‘invisible wives’ of the early gold miners were often Native Hawaiian and Native American, and as a result, left largely undocumented in the historical record penned by EuroAmericans. The role and experiences of the Native Hawaiian gold miners in general is something we still don’t know much about, and a story that needs to be told.

A&L: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found on an Oregon dig?

CR: We did a dig in a 4,000-year-old coastal shell midden in Bandon a few years ago, and there was a sea mammal bone that looked like it had a Chinese character carved into it. We were super excited about our bizarre find, until we sent it off to an expert who told us it was not actually a Chinese character. It was just a very suspicious-looking root etching! No need to rewrite history.

What would you like to see Time Team America investigate in Oregon?

CR: There are many great sites in Oregon, and so many colleagues I would love to help support with the cutting-edge technology and expertise we have access to with the show. However, the one I always come back to is the fur trade-era outpost at Fort Vancouver. The site is technically in Washington today, but it was such a critical component in Oregon’s history that I still think it counts.  

A&L: Anything else Oregonians should know about archaeology in our state?

CR: There is a lot of world-class research happening in Oregon right now — from innovative approaches to looking at climate change, pushing back the date for human occupation, to exploring the social complexities of the 19th century — and people don’t often realize the importance of the resources in their own backyards.  

Time Team America airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on OPB through July 7, 2014.

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