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Underground with an outsider: 10 finds from the James Castle house dig

Conducting an archaeological dig at famed outsider artist James Castle’s West Boise homesite required a special mindset, University of Idaho Professor Mark Warner said.

Castle used odd items like handmade “brushes” fashioned from wads of cloth, simple pencils and ink made from soot and spit to create his evocative work.

Student archaeologists and volunteers had to be tuned in to “thinking a little differently” when exploring the Castle site, Warner said. “We were giving everyone a heads-up that there was stuff here being used in ways that isn’t normal use.”

The mindset paid off. Student archaeologists and volunteers found objects that in another context might not have been as meaningful, like a can that may have held Castle’s homemade ink, drawing sticks, a blackened wad of cloth they believe Castle used to apply paint, and more, including common household refuse, like an old Vaseline jar and a corroded spoon.

The dig ended Oct. 12. The homesite, at the corner of Castle Drive and Eugene Street, is the focus of a major city restoration project to transform it into a cultural heritage complex with gallery, artist’s residence and educational programs. The small trailer where Castle lived and worked for many years will also be replaced at its original site on the property. The James Castle Collection and Archive recently donated the trailer to the city.

The artifacts uncovered at the recent dig will travel to the University of Idaho to be cataloged and studied before returning to Boise. Some objects will end up in future displays at the homesite.

“This project checked a lot of boxes,” Warner said. “We were able to help the city in an important historic preservation project. Conversely, the city was savvy enough to know that archaeology could play a part. It’s learning for everybody.”

The idea of helping preserve the domestic history of Castle, one of Boise’s most notable if still somewhat obscure citizens, was also a lure, said Warner.

Around 300 people visited the site during the dig, which was open to the public. Students from Boise State University and College of Western Idaho also participated in the University of Idaho-led project.

The university has led numerous urban digs in Boise in past years, most recently on the grounds of old Fort Boise, now the VA Medical Center on Fort Street. While many think of Egyptian pyramids and crumbled Roman temples when they think of archaeology, the University of Idaho digs have focused on relatively recent history, exploring the lives of Boiseans who lived 100 years, or fewer, ago.

Warner said the university may lead more digs at the site depending on the construction schedule. The site is slated to open to the public in 2017.

Curious about what the archaeologists found?

Take a look.

For the original story and to take a look at what the archaeologists found click here.

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