Beyond the Bubble: A month spent back in Putnam County

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Sophomore Emily Fox and fellow May Term classmate sophomore Kady
McKean spend time at their dig site in the Deer Creek Fish and Wildlife area.
PHOTO COURTESY EMILY FOX

To echo the sentiments of my fellow students, leaving DePauw for the summer can be hard. I was lucky enough to return shortly after leaving for a May Term course on campus—only this wasn’t your typical class.

We arrived the first day at 8:30 a.m. to the archaeology lab in Asbury. From here the class traveled ten minutes to Deer Creek Fish and Wildlife Area. We spent five hours a day, five days a week digging at this location.

Although my friends laughed and made references to the popular Disney movie, “Holes,” we weren’t just digging to “build character.” We were excavating.

This course, led by Professor Lydia Marshall of the Sociology & Anthropology Department, was an Archaeological Field School. A course intended to teach students the basics of archaeological methods of survey, excavation and analysis.

The excavation site was the location of two residences in the late 19th century—one belonged to the property owner and his family, while the other belonged to a family of Exodusters. In 1879, hundreds of African Americans migrated to Putnam County from the South in search of better conditions for work and in everyday life. Despite their influence on the history of Putnam County and the surrounding areas, we know very little about their everyday lives.

Through our research, we hoped to find materials, specifically trash, which show the products of everyday life. We planned to compare the trash from this Exoduster family to the materials found at the home of the property owner.

We began at the site of the white family’s residence. And thanks to an old map, we knew the general location of each house. We had amazing success at this site: finding bricks indicating the structure, as well as a trash pit.

The three excavation units we established in the area of the trash pit contained a few thousand artifacts ranging from small shards of glass and pottery to nails, animal bones, an ax head and a metal bucket.

Despite what you see in museums and pictures, trash is among some of the most valuable artifacts to anthropologists. It is through this material that we learn what the people of this time had access to on a daily basis.

Pottery, which is often discarded because it breaks easily and becomes unusable, communicates many characteristics of its users. For example, the level of decoration indicates wealth.

We can use pieces of glass as well as pottery to accurately date a site. This is possible because the composition of these materials has changed over time, as well as the form into which they are made.

The sheer amount of information we found at the first site astounded us.

However, we were unfortunately unable to locate much of anything at the site of the Exoduster family. After digging many soil test pits: 1 ft. x 1 ft. x 1 ft. holes spaced at equal intervals on a grid, laid out on the site, we still had nothing to show. And our three and a half week term was quickly coming to a close.

We spent our last few days cleaning, cataloguing and analyzing artifacts in the lab. But the work doesn’t stop here—continuing this carful lab work will takes months, and after that Professor Marshall is planning another field school for the summer of 2017. She hopes to revisit the site of the Exodusters home.

I am proud to say that after a month of hearing about a movie she’d never seen, during lunch on the last day Professor Marshall watched Holes with us. All the while we made plenty of references to our own experiences—jokingly, of course!