Recently, I went on an archaeological dig uncovering the history of the Hopewell Native American Culture. The dig also dug some memories of my great-grandmother and old childhood fear that I finally get to lay to rest. It is a story about overcoming fears, much like my previous story of swimming from one island to another.
Long ago, great-grandma came to dinner at our house. This was a rare event, and I was to be on my best behavior. I think I was about six or seven years old. In the 1970s, the fashionable colors were brown and yellow. Or maybe it was just my memory making it seem that way. We sat at the table eating dinner. I don’t even think my feet touched the ground back then. My great-grandma Leigen asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was proud to answer, “An archaeologist.” By the way, this was before the movie Indian Jones came out, which became one of my favorite, all-time movies.
“Do you know what that means?”
“A scientist that digs up bones.” Great-grandma Leigen looked like a bag of bones herself. For the record, archaeology is the study of human history using the remains of artifacts, like, arrowheads, pottery, mussels and deer bones, and architectural features, like roads, post holes and trash pits.
“Well, you’re not going to want to do that.”
How could she know that? I thought. “Why not?”
“You’ll change your mind. You’ll see.”
“No. No, I won’t. Someday I’ll be a famous archaeologist.”
“No. You don’t really know what it means to be an archaeologist. You’ll see. You’ll change your mind.”
This memory has worried me for decades. I felt sabotaged. I didn’t know that concept, but what I did know is that she didn’t believe in me. My young mind concluded that there must be something wrong with me. In my adult years, I chalked it up to the Stoll side of the family being a strict, no-nonsense, I-don’t-need-anesthetic-when-I-go-to-the-dentist kinda family. Still, the memory stuck with me.
As you can guess, I never became an officially trained archaeologist. It fell under the category of “How are you going to get a job doing that?” So, I went to school to become an artist, which didn’t have much better job prospects.
Let me pause that story and fast forward to now.
The Archaeological Research Institute in nearby Indiana offered people a chance to volunteer in a real dig. I was happy to volunteer thinking I’d be nothing more than a grunt, but I was surprised at all the guidance and training that we got. I learned more in one morning than an entire college class. And the lead archaeologist, Marcus, confirmed, “Archaeology is something you need to get out into the field and experience.”
Ironically, the dig site was less than a mile away from Lawrenceburg’s biggest attraction — a casino, which dwarfs the ancient village. The village was on the edge of a farm field next to a road, which was next to a train track. A nearby plaque read, “Abraham Lincoln made a famous pre-inaugural speech from his train platform near here Feb. 12, 1861, placing emphasis on the people’s part in justice and good government.” And just beyond the train tracks was the Ohio River.
My job was to excavate the trash pit. Yep, there were all kinds of treasures buried here. My own backyard has a lot of treasures, too. Back when my house was built there wasn’t sewer or trash pick up. Instead, people built privies, a type of outhouse, and just threw garbage into piles. Quite often, the garbage ended up in the privy. Nowadays, collectors and treasure seekers—modern-day archaeologists—like to excavate the privies. I’ve found all kinds of stuff in my backyard. I present the photo of a railroad tie, fossils and other things as exhibit A that I am indeed an archaeologist. Granted the fossils are more in the domain of being a paleontologist, but that would be a cool job, too.
We were studying the Hopewell culture. This phrase describes more of a region or a network of exchange among “pre-contact” Native American cultures rather than any one culture. Whoever, the Native Americans were that occupied this land are gone and no one knows much about them or where they went. It’s quite likely that all that remains of these people and their culture is buried beneath our feet. And, that’s what we are here to find out: who are these people and where did they go?
This site is at the intersection of the Ohio River and the Great Miami River, so the village served as a trading post between important rivers, which were much like highways. The materials and the design of the artifacts we are uncovering have been shown to come from as far away as Canada.
Pictured here is a map of the ancient village. It is a magnetic gradiometry map, it’s like an MRI for the ground. Anytime the ground is disturbed it changes the structure of magnetized objects in the soil. The large black squares are where the houses stood, and the smaller circles are trash pits, storage pits or hearths. The faint ring is a fence. Probably used to keep the children and animals from running away. Also visible are train tracks. It appears half of this ancient village was destroyed by modern construction.
I found lots of shards of pottery and some deer bones. The prize of the day was a beautiful shiny black spearhead. After several consultations, it was decided that we had found a Hopewell obsidian ceremonial spear point that was about 1800 years old. In archaeology vernacular, instead of “years old,” we say “before present.” So, 1800 BP would be about 200 AD. The spearhead was slightly damaged at the base, so it was probably discarded because it was impractical to tie onto the spear. We weren’t allowed to take photos of anything we found, but this illustration shows what it looked like.
These people didn’t have a wide variety of food in their diet, but, surprisingly, they ate a lot of things that I eat today, like deer and Goosefoot (chenopodium), which grows like a weed in my backyard. When my girlfriend isn’t watching, I occasionally add it to our salads. It’s very nutritious but has an unappetizing fuzzy texture. The natives here cultivated sunflowers, which I grow in my garden, and a type of wild corn that looked more like fat grass. They also domesticated dogs. Sadly, I once ate a dog by accident in Vietnam. (That’s another story. Barf!) And, they ate a lot of river mussels, which I’ve never had.
The site had a pit excavated with hundreds of broken mussel shells. There used to be over a hundred species of Ohio River Mussels, now 11 mussel species are extinct, and 46 others are classified as endangered or species of concern. There are none in the river nearby. And, even if you found some, it’s not recommended to eat them. The Ohio River has recently won the award for the most polluted river in the country.
It was tedious work to excavate our tiny plot of land. I was impressed that the Archaeological Research Institute plans to save much of the site for future generations. Presumably, technology and methods will improve. Besides, it’s a great experience. It really made me feel alive to dig a piece of muddy history out of the ground.
Well, there’s a lot more to be said about the Hopewell culture, but I digress.
I loved every minute of my archaeological dig; however, it wasn’t the dig that made the biggest impression on me. It was being able to lay to rest a bad memory. I was now a tried and true archaeologist. The proverbial weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I actually did feel lighter on my feet. When I work with children, I often tell kids them that they don’t have to wait to start living their dreams. If they want to be an astronaut, start living the dream by looking up to the sky and learning where the planets are and the names of the constellations. And even the lead archaeologist Marcus, confirmed that being an archaeologist begins with the spirit and that we can study human nature anywhere and anytime.
So, take that, great-grandma Leigen. May your rest in pieces. Haha. Get it. That’s an archaeology joke. Seriously, though, I am now on a quest to dig up more bad memories and transform them into exhibits at the Museum of Scott.