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Students Dig for Credit


Charlton discusses a pit profile, a map of the soil types and found artifacts, with junior anthropology majors Katie Burroughs and Tom Stoeffler. - photo by Meghan Nichols

The ultimate triumph for some archeologists might be uncovering the tusks of a 10,000-year-old mastodon or the tibia of a Neanderthal man. But for archaeology students digging in Johnson County this May and June, their equivalent of the Holy Grail was unearthing an outhouse.

The students were part of a three-week course on farmstead archaeology, an area that’s growing in prominence in the United States and Canada, according to Tom Charlton, professor of anthropology. Charlton, who organized the dig along with his teaching assistant Bill Whittaker, says the field course offers an opportunity for students to explore 19th and 20th century Iowa farmsteads. Charlton, whose research often takes him to digs in Mexico, also has been sifting the soil for 25 years at Plum Grove, the home of the Iowa’s first territorial governor, Robert Lucas.

This year, for the first time, his 17 students also dug for artifacts on a farmstead that includes Secrest Barn, an octagonal structure built in 1883 near Downey and currently under restoration by its owner, Richard Tyler, professor of otolaryngology.

“Farmstead archeology is useful in determining consumption patterns,” Charlton says, “which is a fancy way of saying figuring out where goods that weren’t locally produced came from.” For example, the china used at Plum Grove between 1840 and the early 1900s was a whiteware that came from England, while dishes from between the World Wars came from Japan and Germany. Dishes from a pottery in East Liverpool, Ohio, also have been discovered.

“These things tell us about wider trade networks reaching into Iowa,” Charlton says.

Charlton uses a transit to take elevations on a pit. - photo by Meghan Nichols
Farmstead archeology also can help historians learn about things not found in written accounts. One Plum Grove dig turned up evidence of the large-scale slaughter of cattle and other animals. The remaining bones were from heads, tails, and other parts of cattle with no commercial value.

“We determined that these were from the time when refrigerated railroad cars were invented, which coincided with an increase in consumption of meat in America and of shipping meat to markets in the east,” Charlton says. “It wasn’t something that was written about in accounts of Plum Grove.”

Details of domesticity, often deemed unworthy of mention in historical records, also have been uncovered. Canning jars and children’s toys, including wagon wheels and marbles, are clues to the daily activities of Plum Grove residents.

Except for a few items on display at Plum Grove, students take their findings, mostly small, broken pieces, back to the lab, where they wash and sort them. Later they’re cataloged, and students use them to learn archaeological analysis and interpretation.

“They can use the Sear’s catalog to learn what an item cost, which helps in determining the economic status of the family who lived at the site,” Charlton says.

Charlton’s digs at Plum Grove began at the request of the Department of Natural Resources and the State Historical Society. By discovering architectural remains underground, it was possible to determine the original structure of Gov. Lucas’ home.

“Conservators in Iowa were ahead of their time,” Charlton says. “They bought Plum Grove in the 1940s and restored it. Unfortunately, they restored it as a park, when it had actually been a farmstead, and none of the outbuildings were preserved.”

Each year the farmstead archeology students also search for evidence of other structures.

“So far we’ve found three cisterns, a well, and some footings of other buildings,” Charlton says.

The dig at Secrest Barn came at the suggestion of Tyler, who saw one of Charlton’s presentations and offered the farmstead for student use. Most of the findings there were small—square nails, gun cartridges, bits of pottery, coal cinders—but they pleased the students who unearthed them.

“When you sit around a pit for eight hours a day and dig in the mud, you get pretty excited when you find just about anything,” says Jack Johnson, a junior anthropology major.

A few of the students, including Johnson, may use the skills they honed this summer to work on digs abroad, at sites in France, Ireland, and Israel.

Despite their enthusiasm, the ultimate prize still eluded these archeologists.

“We haven’t yet found an outhouse,” Charlton says with a sigh. “It’s a shame, because there’s always a lot of interesting trash thrown in….”

Definitely a case of one man’s trash being another’s treasure.

by Linzee Kull McCray

June 11, 1999
Volume 36, No. 17

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