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Ohio Archaeology, Part I: Summer Field School

Tuesday, June 19, 2001 at 8:44 AM

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Ever have a hankering to follow in the footsteps of Indiana Jones? Well, now you can. This week at sites around the state, archaeologists are inviting the public to participate in some hands-on activities that let you be the scientist. As part of Ohio Archaeology Week, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History will hold an Archaeology Day this Saturday, where you can watch a demonstration of flint-knapping or learn to cast an ancient spear thrower called an atlatl. But for those who crave the real, dirt-grubbing experience, there's a special opportunity available through the museum every summer. That's a field school, where anyone can join a team of excavators on an archaeological dig. 90.3's Karen Schaefer brings us this report from a prehistoric village site in Independence.

Karen Schaefer- No one knows the name of these Native American settlers or where they went after they abandoned this village perched high on the banks of the Cuyahoga River. But archaeologists from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History are trying to learn more. For the last two years, they’ve been excavating this 500-year-old village site from the late Woodland period, trying to unlock secrets buried deep in the earth. Directing the excavations is Dr. Brian Redmond, the museum’s curator of archaeology.

Brian Redmond- We do know the people who lived here left the area by 1650. As to where they located their villages, there’s almost always a steep drop-off, a hillside or a cliff face that is on one edge of the village, a kind of natural defense. So, by inference, there was a lot of warfare at the time

KS- But as important as the work is to scientists, it’s even more exciting to the team of volunteer excavators who will dig here for three weeks this June. Mary Lou MacGuire is a 7th grade earth science and math teacher who’s been a member of field school digs for years. Today she’s working in one of three two-meter excavation squares mapping a circle of fire-cracked rock and charcoal debris that may once have been a cooking fire.

Mary Lou MacGuire- We’ve mapped the major rocks, basically kind of go at anything as large as my fist. And kind of eyeball sketch the rest in as accurately as possible and adjusting and taking a point every now and then to make sure we’re right in there with the ones we’re eyeballing.

KS- Using tape measures, a level, and a plumb bob to record depth below the surface, other workers in the same square are carefully noting the exact location of a scatter of darker soil stains. They may be holes once filled with upright posts.

MLM- That’s going to be our next task is to take each one of those one at a time, section them down, cross-section them so we can get a side view. And from the profile we can tell whether they snake off in weird directions - those are rodent holes.

KS- More important to archaeologists than individual finds are the spatial relationships between one artifact or feature and another. MacGuire says if workers can uncover a pattern of other post molds, they may be able to establish the edge of the village. And that could help determine how many people once lived here. MacGuire says she’s developed a passion for the work.

MLM- I consider myself an archaeology groupie, yes. I’ve learned so much, I keep coming back for more. I think it makes me a better teacher. I wasn’t keen on science as a kid, so I thought it’d be neat if I could find a way to get excited about it myself.

KS- Not everyone here shares MacGuire’s expertise. In a neighboring test square, the Sauers, husband and wife, are digging a former storage pit that later filled with trash. On the surface, the outline of the pit is clearly visible as a line of darker soil. Six feet down, Bruce Sauer is excavating a cross-section that exposes each layer of debris.

Mrs. Sauers- This is our first dig. It’s really something.

Mr. Sauer- It makes me wish, if I’d been involved in some of this as a youngster, it might have meant a career change for me.

KS- As each bucketful of dirt is lifted from the pit, workers empty it onto a wire screen suspended from a tripod. They shake the screen back and forth, letting smaller pieces of dirt drop through the mesh. Then they carefully pick through what remains. Bits of stone, pottery and charcoal are bagged for further study back at the archaeology lab. Plant remains from this early farming site are found using flotation, a technique where deposits are dumped into a bucket of water. The lightweight plant materials float to the surface. It’s hot, dirty, often tedious work - until Bruce Sauer makes a find.

Sauer et al.- Oh, you have pottery?
Yeah. Pieces.
Let me get you a brush so you can see what you’re doing.
Yup, as Martha would say, I think we’ve found the Big Kahuna.

KS- It’s the moment everyone’s been waiting for, when Sauer lifts a 500-year-old potsherd from the dirt. By the end of the day, more than a dozen big pieces of pottery have been found, probably all from the same large cooking pot. And that’s not all that was discovered today.

Archaeologist et al.- Any questions? We found a feature, our group, feature nine. You guys sectioning post molds, you get any real posts?
About 7 or 8.
Out of how many?
20-some...

KS- Yet despite the rich remains at this site, archaeologists will close the dig after this summer. Just 1% of the village will be excavated now, but that’s enough to tell researchers a lot about this settlement, one of several that once lined the Cuyahoga River. That will also leave plenty of the past for future archaeologists to uncover, both amateur and professional alike. In Independence, I’m Karen Schaefer, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN News.

Additional Information

* Cleveland Museum of Natural History
* Sunwatch Village near Dayton
* Fort Ancient

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