Archeologists, volunteers sift through history

By: Laura Newell, Telegraph Staff Writer
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In the current plaza project work, construction has the ability to uncover past artifacts. To keep those artifacts safe, the City of Folsom contracted with PAR Environmental Services, Inc., to conduct archeology work. “It’s fun to watch the progress and piece the patterns together,” said Mary Maniery, PAR Environmental Services president. “It really personalizes our history.” Maniery and her husband, James Gary, started PAR in 1982. While the PAR team works daily on the project as well as others throughout the country, the Folsom project needed help. PAR and the City of Folsom asked volunteers from the community to help sift through found items so they could be washed, dried and cataloged. “We are so grateful of the City of Folsom,” Maniery said. “The city has been so responsive in helping us preserve the history. They have been so helpful in allowing us to use volunteers during this process.” Becoming a volunteer gives community members a unique look and understanding into their city’s past. Barbara Leary, 62, has lived in Folsom for 19 years and volunteered for three days. “I’ve always been interested in the historical aspect of Folsom,” Leary said. “We have a wealth of history here from the Native American period to the gold discovery to the development of the railroads.” An average day on the field includes starting outside early in the morning to beat the heat. The archeology area is set up directly near the construction site. Archeologists have sifters set up for the artifacts. Workers brush and wash nails, bones, bottles, bowls, chamber pots, toothbrushes and anything else that’s uncovered. Dennis Merritt, 63, of Sacramento works as an independent contractor for PAR. “Some items come out of privacies (outhouses),” Merritt said. Merritt said items found in outhouses are safe to dig through because items were dumped 100 to 150 years ago. “Depending on artifacts found in a given location, it can prove a hypothesis of what was once there,” Merritt said. “For example, a group of nails could have been a cabinet.” Maniery said many times trash was thrown into outhouses because there was no city dump or trash services. “The thing with archeology is the story it tells,” Maniery said. “A bottle is just a bottle, but when we tell the story that Dr. Smith discarded wine bottles frequently, we knew he was a heavy drinker. Or if he discarded medicine bottles, we knew his wife was ill.” She said archeologists pull items in layers of soil through time. A top layer is the most recent artifacts and each layer under it is a later time period. She said much of the Folsom items found are from the late 1850s to early 1900s. “We can see how California is adjusting to be how it needs to be,” Maniery said. “By finding bottles from other countries and eventually finding bottles with stamps from Folsom, we see they were tired of getting ale from Scotland and found it easier to just make it and stamp it themselves.” Maniery said one interesting story they discovered was a pit full of meat bones. Next to the barbeque pit, was an outhouse filled with whiskey bottles and opera glasses. Stones from a building were found near the two locations. She said a theory could be that the location was a theater house where people would eat barbeque and drink whiskey then watch the theater with their opera glasses. She said it told the story of a community event. She said many times old local newspapers, like the Folsom Telegraph, are used as community event records. She matches the location and type of event to the artifacts to put the story together. The second part of the day includes cataloging artifacts. “Some people say the real archeology is done in the lab while identifying and cataloging because you are doing the research behind the item to learn and record its history,” Merritt said. This process includes working inside the lab labeling and cataloging all items found. The items will then be put into the database to better determine the exact function of the item. “We find catalogs of the price of meat from bones found to tell the wealth of people and community members or the nationality of who bought the meat,” Maniery said. “That’s what we can tell by the things people threw away. When cataloging you get to take the time to think about the item and research the item to put the whole story together.” Monica Nolte has worked with PAR as an archeologist for 10 years. She said cataloging takes a certain personality to sit in a lab and catalog all day “This job is for someone who enjoys putting together a 2,000-piece puzzle,” she said. “That’s why archeology is so exciting. There is a variety of jobs, working outside digging and sifting or working inside cataloging. There is always something new to find, so it’s always exciting.” During Leary’s three volunteer days, she worked outside and inside. She said she learned about the cultural diversity in Folsom’s history including Europeans, Irish and Chinese people. “This volunteering process has helped me explore that cultural diversity a little more because we are seeing items that these people brought to Folsom from their homelands,” Leary said. “I think it’s important to learn about Folsom’s history and pass it onto our kids. It’s important to learn what our local heritage is.” While much of the volunteer work has concluded for the plaza project, Maniery said there is a possibility work will continue into August. For more information on how to volunteer, e-mail