Montana State University

MSU archaeology field course digs into history in Virginia City

August 16, 2013 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

MSU Archaeology in Virginia CityJohn Olson and Gheri Osborne work at excavating an archaeological site in Virginia City as part of a three-week field course with Montana State University. MSU Photo by Abbey Nelson.

MSU Archaeology in Virginia City

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BOZEMAN – The active archaeological site on Jackson Street in Virginia City in recent weeks has at times drawn the attention of the historic mining town’s legions of tourists, causing the Montana State University students working there to temporarily switch from digging archaeology to explaining it.

“That is just fine, because that is part of why we’re here – to try and tell the story of Jackson Street,” said Nancy Mahoney, MSU adjunct professor of anthropology. “And to have MSU students working on it and inviting the public in has made it more meaningful than your typical archaeological dig. We have had such an overwhelming response from both the locals and visitors.”

Mahoney has been leading eight MSU students through a three-week archaeology field course in Virginia City. In addition, MSU brought in a group of elementary school teachers involved with the educational outreach program Project Archaeology. Scott Carpenter, a Bozeman archaeologist who is on contract for the Montana Heritage Commission, has been overseeing work at the site on Jackson Street, which once connected the town’s main drag to the Alder Gulch gold deposits.

The group can now paint for passersby a picture – of miners returning from their labors along a thoroughfare lined with shops and bars, medicine show wagons and hucksters – told through the objects they’ve unearthed: An ivory handle that came to Montana via the Congo and then France; a ceramic cat; a cufflink with an interior hook that might have concealed a playing card beneath a shirtsleeve; the remnant of an old boot, the likes of which were worn by the bare-knuckle boxers of the day; an old medicine bottle labeled “St. Jakob’s Oel” so as to resemble a health potion concocted by German monks.

The group also uncovered well-preserved wooden boards and a post at depths that are below the wall foundations of the neighboring stone building, possibly the remnants of some pioneer structures that were built by miners flocking to the placer gold strike in the very early days of Virginia City.

Gheri Osborne, who is a senior from Browning, said having people stop by has helped her and her classmates put their work into perspective, with locals often giving them information that added to their understanding about what they were finding.

“It’s been really great to hear from people,” Osborne said. “We’re trying to tie it all together and all of that kind of information is very helpful. It’s like trying to piece together a puzzle we don’t have the full picture of yet.”

To supplement their outreach efforts, the students have been blogging about their experiences in Virginia City, with their work appearing on the Extreme History Project website.

The Jackson Street excavation site, known as Block 193, also hosted 11 teachers taking part in Project Archaeology. The five-day professional development and curriculum enhancement program helps Montana teachers meet Indian Education for All and other continuing education requirements.

Project Archaeology is an award-winning national program based at MSU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Through direct educational outreach and the training of teachers, the program aims to give students a deeper understanding of archaeology and engender respect for the nation’s cultural heritage and antiquities, Alegria said. Last year, Project Archaeology certified 86 educators in Montana alone, while the program certified 383 teachers nationwide, Alegria said.

With their day divided into two parts – half in the field and half in a classroom setting – the teachers were introduced to the use of primary documents including maps, illustrations, historic photographs and oral histories to solve historical and archaeological mysteries and learn to help students apply archaeological concepts as they investigate an archaeological site.

“They also benefited from working side by side with the MSU students,” Alegria said.

“It was very cool to see students teaching teachers.”

To round out their experience, both the teachers and the MSU students were treated to evening lectures, including a talk from Leo Ariwite, a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribe. Alegria said Ariwite described the arrival of gold-seeking pioneers in the Virginia City area, which had been the territory of the Tuku-deka, or sheep-eater, Shoshone bands. The Shoshone, along with the Bannock people, were later located to a reservation at Fort Hall along the Snake River in southeastern Idaho.

Alegria said Ariwite’s discussion was particularly interesting for the group because it highlighted how an archeological site can be presenting only part of the historical picture.

Osborne, who is a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, said she feels it is important to bridge the gap that has often existed between the anthropology community and the indigenous cultures that still live on the landscapes.

“That’s a big part of why I decided that I would major in anthropology,” she said. “I think it’s also important to try to help native people to understand what (anthropologists) do and why.”

Mahoney agreed. With time spent getting hands-on field training, her students are becoming sensitive ambassadors to understanding the past through the careful practice of archaeology.

“They are learning so much out here,” Mahoney said. “It’s just so exciting to see how that translates when they talk with the public about what they’ve been finding.”

Contact: Nancy Mahoney, adjunct professor of anthropology, (406) 599-2804 or