The first archaeological and historical investigations in German Gulch were initiated by renewed interest in mining during 1981. As dictated by federal law archaeologists visited German Gulch and recorded the remaining fragments of the area's rich mining history. By 1984-1985, rough boundaries for the German Gulch archaeological site had been established by the United States Forest Service and private Cultural Resource Management firms. After intensive survey, archaeologists noted that the site now included at least five localities, or areas, where potential Chinese settlement may have taken place during the late 19th century [MAP]. Mitigation efforts in 1988 and 1989, in anticipation of mineral exploration, further established a possible Chinese occupation at the site. Opium pipe fragments, Chinese brownware and porcelain ceramics, floral (plants) and faunal (animal) remains that seem to originate in Asia, were recovered in the excavations.
The 1988 and 1989 mitigation excavations, carried out by GCM, Inc., yielded thousands of artifacts relating to both Chinese and Euro-American occupation of German Gulch in the last half of the 19th century, and the early 20th century. The Butte Ranger District of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF) housed the collection since the 1980s, but lacked the funding and space to provide federally mandated levels of curation. During the winter of 2008-2009, after receiving the collection on loan from the BDNF, Chris Merritt and Bill Norman of the University of Montana (UM) donated time and materials to bring the collection up to basic modern archival standards.
During processing Merritt and Norman noted much of the material needed to be re-bagged and housed in archival quality bags/boxes, with much work still to be done. During this initial processing it quickly became apparent that the artifact catalog included with the original 1988 excavation report was incomplete and sometimes inaccurate, and Merritt and Norman attempted to note omissions or inconsistencies with the paperwork.
In addition, Merritt and Norman observed that many of the German Gulch materials are no longer in the present collection, as some materials were loaned out in the 1990s for a truck stop display but could not be located by the time of this proposal; locating these missing materials is among the foci of this proposed project.
The German Gulch archaeological collection represents one of the most intact and significant assemblages of 19th century Chinese and Euro-American rural mining communities in Montana. Many similarly aged placer towns have been heavily disturbed and even destroyed by re-mining activities over the last 130 years. Given this, the German Gulch collection provides a remarkable time capsule of information that can help understand a variety of historically and archaeologically relevant research objectives, such as the degree of residents' socio-economic integration into the world system, and the effect of rural geographic location on material culture choices in German Gulch, as opposed to urban population centers.
University of Montana archaeology students painstakingly reconstructed artifacts like this large Chinese stoneware jar
While one scholarly work has already been completed relating to late 19th and early 20th century Chinese occupation at German Gulch comprehensive artifact analysis still needs to be completed in order to extract the data potential of this significant site. Moreover, little has been done to analyze spatial correlations of artifacts within localities or the overall site, or to compare German Gulch to other well-excavated Chinese or Euro-American mining sites of the contemporaneous period. Comparative analysis of archaeological materials by individual feature within German Gulch are also among the goals of the project; the results of such intra-site analyses should help uncover specific patterns of human behavior dependent upon various themes such as class, ethnicity, and gender. After completion of a rigorous analysis of intra-site features and assemblages, the database could then be compared to other archaeological collections similar in age and context.
In spring 2010, archaeologists at the University of Montana and the BDNF worked with volunteers to rehabilitate the German Gulch collections. Over one-week, volunteers cleaned, sorted, bagged, and catalogued over 7,000 artifacts. The efforts of volunteers and staff already yielded significant new discoveries that were missed by the initial processing, including tools associated with early firearms and opium smoking paraphernalia. Bill Norman is currently using these new findings to produce his Master's thesis with a estimated completion date of spring 2011.