Dig into Oregon history and culture with PSU's Archaeology Roadshow
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Posted: May 22, 2019

Pottery shards and stone tools dating back hundreds of years ago. Crocks and jars once used for fermenting. Cedar bark used by Native Americans to make baskets and other household items.

These ordinary objects offer glimpses into the region's past — but can also provide insights into our present and future.

 "A lot of people think that archaeology is happening in faraway places like Egypt and Greece, but it's also happening right here," said Lyssia Merrifield, a graduate of Portland State University's anthropology program and coordinator of the Archaeology Roadshow, now in its eighth year.

Every spring, PSU anthropology students, faculty and alumni team up with community partners to put on the Roadshow as a way to introduce the public to local heritage and the science of archaeology through fun, hands-on experiences.

It all started with Virginia Butler's Public Archaeology class in 2011 when she realized that archaeology as a field had so much to offer the public but wasn't being effectively shared.


Saturday, June 1

PSU's Walk of the Heroines, next to Stott Community Field and the PSU Farmers Market

Saturday, June 8

Deschutes Historical Museum, 129 NW Idaho Ave, Bend, OR 97701

Saturday, June 29

Hines City Park, Hines, OR 97738

Admission: Free

More info:

"There's archaeological sites being identified all the time in our area, state and across the country when roads, utilities or housing developments are being built," said Butler, professor and chair of anthropology. "We look at this Roadshow as a way for archaeology organizations to share with the public what they're learning about these places for the public good."

Butler says it's important not only to preserve the past but to learn from it.

"Our past has informed so much about who we are, why we are in this place, why things play out as they do," she said. "And whether people fully appreciate that or not, our past is affecting what we're doing right now. A better understanding of that past could help direct us in the future."

The inaugural event in 2011 came together in three weeks and was held in the South Park Blocks. The following year, the Roadshow moved to the basement of Cramer Hall. Community partners hosted exhibits and a panel of experts helped identify artifacts that people brought from home. With each year, the event has grown in size. In 2013 and 2014, the Roadshow was held at OMSI before it outgrew the space and returned to PSU's campus in 2015. 

Today, its numbers get a boost from the nearby Farmers Market, with last year's event drawing more than 1,200 people. Exhibitors come from universities, federal and state agencies, tribes, cultural resource firms, nonprofit organizations — even a third-grade class from Portland's Cottonwood School of Civics and Science that has incorporated the Roadshow into its lessons about the Chinook people.

This year, events will be held on PSU's campus, Hines City Park in Harney County and for the first time, Deschutes Historical Museum in Bend. Merrifield and Butler hope that satellite events can be taken to communities across the state as more financial support is secured.

"Students get to know communities outside of Portland and build connections with people at those museums and agencies," Butler said.

 Each Roadshow now has a theme, with this year's being "Archaeology of Daily Life." Butler says human beings are creatures of habit, which is one reason why archaeologists can figure things out about our past.

"There is repetition to daily life and that gets played out over and over again," she said. "Unconsciously, we leave material traces – bits of our daily lives – in the same place. Our task is to understand the patterns left by these physical traces, and use them tell stories of what people's motives were or why they changed through time."

Students in Butler's Public Archaeology class have been brainstorming ideas for exhibits since the first day of class. In past years, projects have ranged from a student making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to mimic the stratigraphic layers, or soil and debris, that are unearthed in excavations to another student preparing samples of northern pikeminnow, a native fish that had been important years ago but is now seen as a threat to salmon populations.

The Roadshow also features artifacts from the department's teaching collection, stone tool-making demonstrations, samples of beer based on historic recipes, mock excavations, and the opportunity to throw an atlatl, a prehistoric throwing spear.

Visitors can also bring artifacts they own to have them identified by archaeologists and geologists. The experts don't place a monetary value on any of the objects, but rather examine them and try to provide some knowledge about how old they think they might be and what their importance might have been.

"The way archaeology has been communicated or shared with the public is often very exclusive," Butler said. "For example, in museums, we put up glass between visitors and artifacts; we don't let you get close to them. I think the same spirit that moves people to collect things is what moves them when they hold these old objects. We're trying to break these boundaries down by creating a hands-on, living heritage experience for visitors, and making it free to encourage as many people to come as possible."

Photo captions: At top, visitors to the Archaeology Roadshow make stone tools. (Credit: G. Shine). At bottom, a visitor to Harney County's Roadshow event prepares to throw an atlatl.