Mary Anne Davis '87
Alumna insures the preservation of Idaho's history and historic places as state archaeologist
Mary Anne Davis knows Idaho. From ancient fishing grounds on the north fork of the Clearwater River and 19th Century Basque settlements in Boise to a Hatwai Indian village near Lewiston, Davis has been to tiny towns, mining camps, settled cities, and wilderness areas so remote even global positioning systems get confused. But, as the Associate State Archaeologist in the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), it’s all in a day’s work – and she loves it.
Since graduating from the University of Idaho in 1987 with her Master of Arts Degree in Anthropology, Davis has built a successful career by not only knowing these unique places, but by understanding their historic importance and insuring their preservation.
As an official in the SHPO, which is funded by the National Park Service and is part of the multi-faceted Idaho State Historical Society, she is involved in reviewing a myriad of activities — from investigating finds at sites on the National Register of Historic Places to making sure proposed US Forest Service building and road projects do not impact places of cultural importance.
Not surprisingly, her duties often find her visiting the work of fellow Vandals, whose widespread archaeological research in the region is nationally known and respected.
At a recent such excursion, Davis traveled to the Kooskia Relocation Camp to oversee the archaeological excavation being done by UI professor Stacey Camp and her field school students. An all-male Japanese labor camp set up during World War II, the place confined men of Japanese ancestry while also providing labor for the construction of Idaho’s Highway 12.
“It’s an important site and a forgotten one,” Davis explained. “It’s been an internment camp, a place for road building, and a federal prison. It’s also a place you can definitely tie descendants to. . . . When you look at a site, you look at how they modified the place to make it more acceptable.”
Given the artifacts uncovered from the site, such as decorative pottery, gaming pieces, and handcrafted items, she says that it is becoming clear that the men made the best of a bad situation.
“That’s the thing about historical archaeology . . . you have a written record, but you fill in the blanks with what you find in the ground. . . You need to be able to teach the whole story.”
Shannon Vihlene, the ISHS Cultural Records Manager who visited the Kooskia site with Davis, agrees.
"Written records are very bias, and archaeology helps us put a face to a place and understand every day living that necessarily wouldn't be in the written record," Vihlene adds.
Further, Davis submits that the internment camp research will have a national and international impact.
“It provides information about that period of history, so anyone studying that time can draw on the work being done here. People are more open now about talking about these sites. We need to understand “why” it happened.”
Davis adds that beyond the obvious historic importance of the site, the impact can also be measured in the hands-on educational opportunity that the field school provides to students.
“The University of Idaho has always been known for its historical archaeology research and its ability to provide excellent training. . . I'm proud to be a Vandal!”
It is on this same training and knowledge that Davis has built her career and continues to take with her - no matter what remote region in the state or unique preservation project she may find herself at next.
Article by Micki Panttaja, College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences