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Archaeologists Dig Up Unusual Relics From Boise's History

BOISE — A porcelain-toothed dollhead so creepy archaeologists took to calling it "Chuckie" after the murderous movie doll.

Intact bottles whose stamped glass tells tiny tales: "Sarsparilla, Lowell, Massachusetts."

A shoe made of scab-brown leather as delicate as papyrus.

A porcelain lid from a jar of "Oriental Tooth Paste," advertised as "England's Favorite Dentifrice," guaranteed to "impart a delicate fragrance to the breath."

Those are some of the 7,000 to 10,000 bits and pieces of Boise history turned up during a twoweek excavation in August of an old well on Boise's Basque block.

University of Idaho archaeologists also found marbles, tobacco tins and shards of flowered china in the well next to the Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House on Grove Street.

Upper-class living

The items, some of which will become part of a permanent exhibit, offer a glimpse of what life was like for upper-middle-class Boiseans in the post-Civil War years.

"They help us see what strivers of that era were emulating," said U of I anthropology professor Stacey Camp, who co-directed the dig with her fellow professor Mark Warner.

Camp thinks many of the artifacts date to the era of the house's original owners, the Jacobs family, who built the home in 1864. It did not become a Basque boarding house until the following century.

Cyrus Jacobs was an entrepreneur and merchant who owned a number of businesses. The preponderance of toys and remnants of imported products found — French shaving cream along with the English toothpaste — reveal a family with expendable income, Camp said.

Why and how items ended up in the well is anyone's guess. The well could have doubled for a time as a garbage disposal, and residents also could have dropped items into it by mistake. The children of Grove Street could have been experimenting with their toys, never intending to lose them forever — or until a team of student archaeologists pulled them up again in 2012.

The excavated items will be the centerpiece of a lab course Camp is teaching next semester. Students will catalog the objects and see whether they can match or "crossmend" any of them to shards and objects unearthed during an earlier Basque block dig in 2004.

International recognition

The community beyond Idaho has taken notice of the significant Boise dig. Archaeology Magazine included it in the "World Roundup" column in its latest issue, along with the discovery of a slave ship in the Bahamas and a Neolithic bow in Spain.

Camp called the August excavation a "dream dig." More than 1,000 people stopped by the Cyrus Jacobs/Uberuaga House during the effort.

One of the purposes of the project was public outreach to give the community a rare chance to see active archaeology in the heart of a busy city.

The excavation team, which included several U of I students, was able to dig down 11 feet into the well adjacent to the historic house. Its timing was perfect: hitting the impassable water table and a layer of "sterile," or artifact-free, sand on the last day of the dig.

"We had worried that we would have to close up the well and leave items behind," said Camp.

The old well was hidden for more than a century. Workers found it in May when they began renovation of an old porch on the east side of the house.

A number of other groups also supported the dig, including the Idaho Archaeological Society, the Idaho Heritage Trust and The Boise National Forest.

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