University of Idaho’s Boise dig turns up historic trinkets

A three-week archaeological excavation on the grounds of the Boise VA Medical Center ended on Friday, Aug. 5. Relics recovered included buttons from military uniforms, bullets, shell casings.

“And what was a little unexpected, were two or three kids’ toys, including a toy gun,” said Mark Warner, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Idaho.

For most of its past as a military fort, cavalry training ground, rehabilitation hospital and tuberculosis ward, the site was home to families as well as military personnel, which explains the toys.

Beyond the artifacts, Warner said the dig cemented good relations with the Boise VA Medical Center and the larger community. A 2014 dig explored the old surgeon’s quarters on the site. This year’s dig also drew 300 visitors and 85 volunteers. Several veterans, and local metal detector enthusiasts also pitched in. Students from the College of Western Idaho and Boise State University also participated.

The artifacts, which are owned by the VA, will travel to University of Idaho to be cleaned and catalogued. It’s possible that the artifacts will go on public display at the VA some time in the future.

The site where the dig took place, just south of Officer’s Row, the line of historic buildings on the old fort’s northern edge, is destined to become a parking garage. Because the site is historic, law required the Boise VA Medical Center to do an archaeological survey to locate any artifacts.

Digs like that at the VA that are accessible to the public help give residents a sense of ownership of their city, said Warner.

“We recognize that cities need to grow. You need buildings with modern conveniences, but what holds a city together and gives it character, is its history, places like the VA, or the Idanha Hotel, the Basque Block, all those places that have not been turned into steel and glass. They make history tangible,” said Warner.

Past University of Idaho summer “urban digs” in the oldest parts of Boise have taken place on the Basque Block and in Boise’s River Street neighborhood. Warner said he doesn’t yet know where crews will dig in 2017.