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Chelsea Rose holds a piece of a telescope that was used during the Civil War.

Courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS2.A

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 6

TEKS: Science: 3.3B, 3.7B, 4.3B, 4.7B, 5.3B, 6.3B; ELA: 3.7B, 4.7B, 5.7B, 6.6B

Dirt Detective

Chelsea Rose digs up old objects to uncover the everyday lives of people from the past

When Chelsea Rose was 11, her family took a trip to Nevada City, California. The town was built in the mid-1800s, when gold was found in a nearby river. The valuable metal drew thousands of miners to the western U.S. hoping to strike it rich. Rose was fascinated by the town’s past. “To me, it was cooler than Disneyland!” she says.

Rose went on to turn her love of history into a career. Today, she’s an archaeologist. That’s a person who studies the past by examining human remains and artifacts, the objects people leave behind.

Most recently, Rose has been studying the miners who came from China to the U.S. in search of gold in the 1800s. These immigrants were treated unfairly in many ways. That led many of them to leave the country. “It’s important to tell their stories,” Rose says. “Otherwise people won’t know they were here and what happened to them.”

When Chelsea Rose was 11, her family took a trip to Nevada City, California. The town was built in the mid-1800s. That’s when gold was found in a nearby river. The metal was worth a lot of money. It drew thousands of miners to the western U.S. They all hoped to strike it rich. Rose was amazed by the town’s past. “To me, it was cooler than Disneyland!” she says.

Rose loved history. She turned that passion into a career. Today, she’s an archaeologist. That’s a person who studies the past. Archaeologists examine human remains. They also look for artifacts, the objects people leave behind.

Rose has been studying miners from China most recently. They came to the U.S. in search of gold in the 1800s. These immigrants were treated unfairly in many ways. That led many of them to leave the country. “It’s important to tell their stories,” Rose says. “Otherwise, people won’t know they were here and what happened to them.”

Courtesy of Southern Oregon University

Miners used this iron pan to sift through dirt to find gold.

Buried Treasure

To know where to start her digs, Rose looks at old maps that show the locations of the camps where miners lived and worked. Sometimes she uses planes equipped with high-tech tools that can detect evidence of the camps from above.

Some artifacts are right at the surface. Others are buried underground. Over time, rainwater and wind move sediments like silt, sand, and rock from place to place. After many years, objects can get covered by several feet of soil.

The amount of moisture in the soil affects how well the objects are preserved. Materials such as wood or leather break down in wet soil. But if the soil is dry, the artifacts will likely be better preserved.

Before Rose starts digging, she tapes off her excavation area. She uses shovels and brushes to carefully remove the dirt and dig up the objects. 

Last summer, Rose and her team found hundreds of items at a mining site in Oregon. They collected glass bottles, pieces of ceramic cups, and chicken bones. Those objects may sound like trash. But they show what the miners ate and drank after a backbreaking day of work. “We put together big stories using small, humble artifacts,” Rose says.

Rose looks at old maps. They show the locations of miner’s camps. That’s where they lived and worked. Then Rose knows where to start digging. Sometimes, she uses planes. They have high-tech tools. They can spot evidence of the camps from above.

Some artifacts are right at the surface. Others are buried underground. Silt, sand, and rock can move from place to place over time. Rain and wind can shift these sediments. That can cover objects in several feet of soil after many years.

Some soil is wetter than other soil. That can affect how well the objects are preserved. Materials such as wood or leather break down in wet soil. These artifacts will likely be in better shape if the soil is dry.

Rose tapes off her dig area. She uses shovels to carefully dig up the objects. She removes dirt from them with brushes.

Rose and her team found hundreds of items last summer. The items were at a mining site in Oregon. Rose’s team collected glass bottles and pieces of ceramic cups. There were even chicken bones. Those objects may sound like trash. But they show what the miners ate and drank after a hard day of work. “We put together big stories using small, humble artifacts,” Rose says.

Courtesy of Don Hann

Objects like this ceramic bottle contain clues about what miners ate and drank.

Telling Tales

Courtesy of Southern Oregon University/Laboratory of Anthropology

After the excavation is finished, Rose examines her findings. She creates detailed maps of the site. “Then we start recognizing patterns,” she says. For example, if animal bones and pans are clustered in one spot, that could be where the miners cooked.

Clues like these allow archaeologists to piece together what everyday life was like for the Chinese miners. That’s important because historians know very little about them—besides the discrimination they faced. “But you cannot tell someone’s story purely based on what they were not allowed to do,” Rose says. 

Some of the coolest artifacts Rose has ever found were old toothbrushes made of animal bone. She found several in Jacksonville, Oregon, where the house of Chinese immigrants burned down in 1888.

“Think about it next time you brush your teeth,” Rose says. “Maybe 150 years in the future, somebody’s going to find your toothbrush!”

Rose examines her findings after the dig is done. She creates detailed maps of the site. “Then we start recognizing patterns,” she says. For example, animal bones and pans may be all in one spot. That could be where the miners cooked.

Clues like these allow archaeologists to piece together history. They can learn what everyday life was like for the Chinese miners. That’s important because historians know very little about them. The biggest thing they know is that the miners faced discrimination. “But you cannot tell someone’s story purely based on what they were not allowed to do,” Rose says.

Rose has found some cool artifacts. They include old toothbrushes made of animal bone. She found several in Jacksonville, Oregon. That’s where the house of Chinese immigrants burned down in 1888.

“Think about it next time you brush your teeth,” Rose says. “Maybe 150 years in the future, somebody’s going to find your toothbrush!” 

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