Walking into David Brauner’s office in Oregon State University’s Waldo Hall is like walking into a Victorian time machine.
The cozy space is crammed with book-lined shelves and curio-filled display cabinets, and every square inch of wall seems to hold a memento from his lengthy career as a field archaeologist and professor of anthropology, much of it focused on the 19th century.
But now all those treasures are starting to find their way into boxes. Brauner retired last summer after 41 years at OSU. This year he’s on a part-time faculty appointment to give him time to pack up his office, close down his labs and wrap up a couple of projects.
He started out as a history major but switched to anthropology after taking an introductory class in archaeology partway through his junior year at Washington State University.
“I got really tired of history because it was great men, politics and war — that’s all it was,” he said.
“It’s the average people who make every culture work, and the only way to get to them is through archaeology.”
Much of his early research focused on the prehistoric peoples of the Columbia River Plateau, but he found himself increasingly drawn to historical archaeology — and finding ways to fill in the gaps in the history books.
One of his research specialties is the Civil War military history of Western Oregon. While no battles were fought in the state, it was a hotbed of secessionist sentiment, so the federal government maintained garrisons at Fort Hoskins near Kings Valley and Fort Yamhill near Grand Ronde.
Built in the mid-1850s to monitor traffic going in and out of the sprawling Coast Indian Reservation, the forts were kept open during the Civil War to keep tabs on pro-Confederacy Oregonians. When the war ended in 1865, however, the forts were decommissioned and their buildings sold off or dismantled, leaving nothing of the state’s Civil War history behind.
Or so it might seem to a casual observer. For an archaeologist like Brauner, however, there was a treasure trove of artifacts to sort through — most of them broken and often found in the pits of old latrines, where all kinds of things had a habit of falling in.
“You find eyeglasses, sometimes you find a pocketwatch, you find pipes,” said Brauner. “Privies are great!”
The — um — filling in the pits does a fine job of preserving historical relics, Brauner noted, and over time it converts to something akin to potting soil, making the task of sorting through the contents much less onerous than you might imagine.
One frequent find: liquor bottles. Although officers were permitted to have a little brandy, the forts of Western Oregon were supposed to be dry posts — yet the enlisted men still managed to get their hands on plenty of cheaper spirits such as gin and schnapps.
Brauner was a bit puzzled over finding so many unbroken bottles in the outhouses at Hoskins and Yamhill — until he came across a journal entry by a soldier stationed elsewhere explaining the procedure for hanging a flask of contraband hooch from a nail in the enlisted latrine: “The only place an officer won’t inspect,” the diarist wrote, “is under the seat of a privy.”
Brauner has done extensive work at both sites, but he’s especially fond of Fort Hoskins, which he helped turn into a Benton County historic park.
“Fort Hoskins is the first site I excavated, in 1976,” he said. “In the early ’90s, I was on a citizens group that raised the money to buy the park. It’s just kind of my baby.”
He’s also done a good deal of work in the French Prairie region, where a number of French-Canadian fur traders settled after years of working for the Hudson’s Bay Co. They were important figures in the early history of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, but little is known about them today.
“Nobody writes about the French-Canadians,” Brauner said. “I found out a whole decade, the 1830s, is missing from our history books.”
The rough-hewn cabins where they set up housekeeping are long gone, but like the soldiers at Fort Hoskins, they left plenty of clues behind for someone who knows how to piece the evidence together — literally.
“At these historic sites, a lot of what we find is broken cups, bowls and plates,” Brauner said.
Over the years, Brauner has become an expert on the glazed ceramic dishes these men and their families used, most of which came from just a few manufacturers in England. Because of the distinctive patterns, paints and glazes, even a small fragment can be enough to pin a time frame on a forgotten settlement.
Other elements that can help fix a date are the types of iron nails, glass bottles and fired-clay tobacco pipes found at a site.
“You add up all the details from all these fragments of information and you can really bracket the time of occupation,” Brauner said.
The many thousands of artifacts unearthed in the area by Brauner and his team now occupy the drawers of a compact storage system in the basement of Waldo Hall. Each piece, no matter how tiny, is labeled and catalogued for reference. Even though he’s retiring, the collection will remain available as a resource for scholars.
“This is the best collection of French-Canadian material culture anywhere, so hopefully it will continue to be used,” Brauner said.
Brauner himself will certainly continue to use the material — as the basis for a book he hopes will fill in some of the gaps in the historical literature regarding these influential Northwest pioneers.
“The only way we learn about these men is through the junk they left behind,” he said. “Without archaeology, we’d be deaf, dumb and blind.”