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Julie Schablitsky: Expert Q&A

On July 16, 2007, Julie Schablitsky answered questions about the Donner Party, pursuing a career in archeology, and more.


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Q: I am a creative writing major attending Stanford in fall 2007, and I am writing a short story about the 1886 expulsion of all Chinese persons from my hometown of Eureka, California. According to a 1936 newspaper article, a construction excavation in what had been Eureka's Chinatown turned up a cache of relics. These unspecified items were put on display. I wonder what sort of everyday items might have been turned up in such an excavation? Carla Baku, Eureka, California

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Julie Schablitsky: Dear Carla,
Chinese sites, whether they are located in Oregon or California, contain many of the same domestic and personal items. Beginning in the mid-19th century, food, dishes, gaming, and opium paraphernalia were shipped from China to western towns to be sold in general stores. Euro-American or Chinese merchants sold these products to the Chinese men who labored in the local mines, built the railroads, and participated in the service industry as cobblers, servants, launderers, etc.

The type of food and the way meals are prepared, served, and consumed by immigrants is the last ethnic identifier to disappear from a culture. Therefore, we often encounter evidence of these ethnic markers in an archeological site. For example, if you eat at a Chinese restaurant today, most of the meals are prepared by stir frying, and the meat is chopped into small bits. When archeologists study the waste bones from meals enjoyed years before, we note that the bones have been chopped with a cleaver into small pieces to facilitate stir frying. Opening a modern Chinese menu today would show you a variety of meals, with an equal number of seafood, poultry, pork, beef, and seafood dishes. At historic-period overseas Chinese sites, archeologists primarily encounter a higher number of pork and bird bones that include chicken and duck. The variety of dishes found in our contemporary Chinese restaurants is reflective of the American palate and preference.

In addition to bone remains, archeologists commonly encounter brown stoneware food jars that held preserved foods such as tofu and cabbage; spouted jars that held soy sauce, black vinegar, or oil (like the jar found on my NOVA scienceNOW profile); and bottles with flanged openings that held drinking alcohol.

Serving pieces found on many Chinese occupied sites in the United States include coarse porcelain spoons, cups, plates, and bowls that were mass-produced with limited and hurried designs. The most popular styles include celadon (robin-egg blue in color, without decoration), three circles and dragonfly (hand-painted circles and linear brush strokes), double happiness (cobalt blue, swirled design), and the four seasons pattern (four flowers representing spring, summer, fall, and winter).

Perhaps the most exciting personal objects found at these ethnic sites include gaming pieces that look like black and white small rounded buttons. The Chinese gambled against each other in "fan tan" and sometimes used these pieces in the strategic game of "go." The historic Chinese drug of choice was opium. The dark sticky substance arrived in rectangular tins, twice the size of a cigarette pack, and the Chinese (and in the last quarter of the 19th century non-Chinese) removed the drug from the tins, heated it over a small lamp, and placed it over a pipe bowl (or top) where it was inhaled for euphoric effects. Squashed opium tins and fragments from thin-walled stoneware and redware opium bowls (that look like door knobs) are ubiquitous on overseas Chinese sites.

Although the 1936 dig would have turned up Chinese-made brown stoneware, crudely decorated porcelain dishes, and personal items such as gaming pieces and opium artifacts, other Euro-American goods such as glass alcohol bottles and English dishes were likely associated with the assemblage.

If you will be at Stanford in the fall and are interested in knowing more about Chinese archeology in your own backyard, you are in luck! There is a multi-year project on the San Jose, California Market Street Chinatown. You can learn more about their work on this website:

Q: What other immigrant groups do you believe have not yet been given the attention they deserve through excavations, particularly in California? I am a transfer student to Berkeley intending to study archeology in the fall and am interested in local discovery. Your story was inspiring. Thank you. Frances Bright, Millbrae, California

Schablitsky: Hello Frances,
Another large ethnic group (that I would not necessarily consider immigrant) that deserves additional academic research and attention in California would be the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. An archeologist at Stanford, Stacey Lynn Camp, is actively researching Mexican immigrant communities. One such project is the Mount Lowe Archeological Project. 

Q: I am retiring from teaching in a year and am very interested in volunteering on archeological digs. What do you think are important attributes for a volunteer to bring to a dig? Rob Childers, Fairbanks, Alaska

Schablitsky: Hello Rob,
The most important attributes to bring to an archeological site as a volunteer are a good attitude, a willingness to learn, and the ability to play well with others. Some of my best experiences in archeology have included working alongside enthusiastic volunteers who love history and are excited about the opportunity to work and learn alongside professionals. The western United States has a number of opportunities for volunteers on archeological sites. The USDA Forest Service has a very successful volunteer program called Passport in Time (PIT). It allows school-aged children and adults the opportunity to record historic-period buildings, dig archeological sites, and help conduct oral histories. Here is a link:

Avocational archeology groups are active across the United States. Here is one in Alaska:

Q: I have always had a passion for archeology, but I've been hesitant about making my passion a career. What inspired you to become an archeologist, and how did you go about becoming one? Jessica, Flower Mound, Texas

Schablitsky: Hi Jessica,
Since I was seven years old I always knew I wanted to be an archeologist. My inspiration came from a natural interest in history and a desire to learn about the people who came before me. I fed that interest by reading books on Native Americans, Mesoamerica, and Egypt. At 15 years old, I participated in my first archeological excavation at Blood Run, South Dakota, where I excavated a prehistoric trash pit. By the time I reached college the opportunities to work in an archeology laboratory and participate in fieldwork were numerous. While in college, instead of attending summer schools, I found archeology technician positions with cultural resource management firms and governmental agencies such as the Forest Service and Park Service that provided me paid employment throughout the summer.

Q: Can you recommend any type of archeological summer programs that high school students may participate in? What schools did you go to for your education?

What courses would you recommend? Katie DeMeritte, 8th grade, Silver Spring, Maryland

Schablitsky: Hi Katie,
There are a fair number of opportunities for children and high school students interested in archeology. I suggest looking at the following websites:

While in high school, I suggest you take as many classes as possible on history and social studies. In addition, art classes are excellent for gaining skills in sketching and ceramics. The ability to draw is very useful when you are conducting an archeology survey but not collecting any artifacts. You can still take the information away without removing the projectile point (arrow head), bottle, or other artifact. In fact, when traveling to public archeology sites, you may see artifacts lying on the ground surface. It is important not to collect these pieces of pottery or arrowheads from the surface since they are important to the archeological record, not to mention that collection of artifacts from public lands is against the law. However, you can take out your notebook, sketch the artifact, and still have the experience of being close to the past without taking the object home with you.

Taking pottery or ceramic classes allows you the ability to see what techniques are used to make a jar, bowl, or plate. These types of pieces are ubiquitous on archeological sites. When it comes time to identify the type of ceramic or the fragment of a vessel, you will be able to quickly call upon the skills you learned in these types of classes.

One of the most important skills to master to be an archeologist is writing. If you are able to effectively communicate, through your writing as well as verbally, you will be able to do very well in the field of archeology. Writing skills are very important, because archeologists need to document their methods and findings in the field. Additionally, archeologists are responsible for publishing and presenting their findings in front of their colleagues and the public.

Most universities have an anthropology department where you can take classes on archeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, and physical anthropology. After your undergraduate education, it is imperative to obtain a graduate degree (masters and/or doctorate) in anthropology or a related field. I obtained my undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The U of M is one of the better universities in the midwestern United Sates. The anthropology department has many opportunities for undergraduate students to get hands-on education as well as classroom exposure to archeology.

Since I wanted to move outside of the Midwest to experience a different part of the country, I applied to a variety of graduate schools, from South Carolina to Oregon. I chose Oregon, because the idea of working with Dr. David Brauner on a Civil War Fort near Corvallis was intriguing to me. When it came time to continue my education, I found that the only doctorate program in anthropology in Oregon was at the University of Oregon. Unfortunately, they did not have any historical archeology professors on staff. Therefore, I applied and was accepted to Portland State University in the urban studies department to study under Dr. Carol Abbott, a prolific scholar in the field of urban history and community development. Working in concert with Dr. Ken Ames in the anthropology department, Dr. David Johnson in the history department, and Dr. Abbott provided me with a well-rounded education in urban archeology.

Q: A relative of mine, Jay Fosdick, was among the Donner Party and died as a member of the Forlorn Hope. Can you tell me where (a museum?) most of the artifacts and documents pertaining to the Donner Party are contained? I'd like to contact someone there and find out if there are any pictures available of Jay or his wife, Sarah, who survived. Thanks. Keep up the good work. Cathy Ward, Parkesburg, Pennsylvania

Schablitsky: Dear Cathy,
The only Donner Party artifacts on public display are located at Donner Memorial Park in Truckee, California. The archives, including original I.O.U. notes from the mountain entrapment and photographs, are located in Sacramento at Sutter's Fort and the California Sate Archives.

Q: How can we access your findings about the Chinese immigrants in Oregon? Also, are there any interesting websites about the Chinese immigrants in the U.S.? As an adoptive mother of a Chinese daughter, I would like to collect as much information as I can about the history of the Chinese people in this country. Thanks in advance for any leads. Tomoko Ichikawa, Chicago, Illinois

Schablitsky: Dear Tomoko,
The study of Chinese immigrants has been a popular research topic for over 20 years. Visiting a local university library would provide you with a large number of scholarly journal articles and books on the subject. My work on Kam Wah Chung is ongoing, therefore no book or articles have been published on the site yet. There are archeological reports on the site available from the University of Oregon, Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Q: Are you using tools in your research such as remote-sensing techniques like magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar? It was great to see your piece tonight on PBS. Shawn Steinmetz, La Grande, Oregon

Schablitsky: Hi Shawn,
Remote sensing is an important first step in the investigation of many archeology sites. Whenever I need to narrow down my search area I use techniques such as ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry. These technical tools not only can provide me with information on where to dig, but the maps produced can reveal a hidden landscape beneath the modern ground surface. Whenever possible, I incorporate modern technology into my work in order to learn more about our past cultural landscapes and the people who interacted within those environs.

Q: When I took archeology in school, we used trowels and a line level. We didn't have ground-penetrating radar or DNA analysis. Do you consciously leave part of a site unexcavated so that future archeologists can use their not-yet-invented tools to investigate the site in not-yet-conceived-of ways? David Montgomery, Huntington Beach, California

Schablitsky: Hello David,
Absolutely. Although we still use traditional field methods, archeologists have added additional tools to their archeology dig kits. Realizing that our modern technology can advance at an alarming rate, archeologists understand that although we are unable to answer some research questions today, future techniques may successfully address these mysteries. As a result, not only are archeologists leaving parts of their sites unexcavated, but also they are beginning to entertain the idea of returning to old sites to gain new information. In a sense, this philosophy is coming full circle. The sites left fallow for several decades are now being looked at a second time by second and third generations of archeologists. Previously studied archeology sites are not only interesting because we have new technology to answer old questions, but also we often are interested in different questions about the site.

Q: How do you keep archeology exciting? I imagine there are frustrating dead ends, hot and sweaty digs, academic conjecture, papers, etc. I am choosing my graduate studies direction, and archeology is my world. Blake Tedde, UNC, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Schablitsky: Hi Blake,
When you are passionate about a subject, it takes no conscious effort to keep it exciting. Every archeology site, whether determined significant or not, has something to tell us. It is up to the archeologist to figure out what that "something" could be.

There are many directions you can go in the field of archeology. If you are not interested in fieldwork or the academic setting, there are prestigious positions in cultural resource management or regulatory agencies such as the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Although it is imperative that all archeologists have adequate experience in directing archeological projects and experience in the field, cultural resource management is a very important part of the discipline of archeology and one that can be pursued by professionals not interested in pursuing their own research or publishing.