Anthropology department from USM searches for remains from the past

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2000

Bits of broken glass, a fragment of a smoking pipe, chunks of brick and mortar — all &uot;trash from the past,&uot; historical archaeologist Dr. Amy Young says. But what Young, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, hopes that &uot;trash&uot; can teach her and her anthropology students is how slaves lived on the antebellum Mount Locust plantation, now a historic site run by the National Park Service just off the Natchez Trace Parkway just north of Natchez.

&uot;What we’re really hoping to do is get a better understanding of Mount Locust times,&uot; said Kelly Kimball, a Lafayette, La., native and anthropological graduate student at USM. &uot;We’re getting a respect for the history of Mount Locust and the history of those enslaved here. I believe they should get the recognition they didn’t get in the past.&uot;

Tedious work

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Digging with trowels, small knives and even spoons, the students from USM&160;and the University of South Alabama work patiently, delving into just 10-centimeter layers of a 1-square meter unit at a time.

After mapping out a grid on the ground behind the main house, the students and their professors began digging at the site they believe was the slave quarters. They hope eventually to uncover parts of the foundation of the slaves’ houses.

And as they battle bugs and humidity, their patience yields small discoveries and often a larger understanding of slaves’ lifestyle.

As Kimball said, quoting her professor Young, &uot;It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.&uot;

&uot;We get an understanding of the kind of things enslaved people had in their houses,&uot; Young said.

Learning how slaves — who left few clues to their lifestyle — went about their daily activities is important, Young said.

&uot;It’s a huge area now in historical archaeology,&uot; Young said. &uot;Slaves left few written records.&uot;

At other sites Young has excavated, she has found evidence that slaves were literate, such as slate pencils and reading glasses.

By examining what they unearth at such excavation sites, archaeologists may also be able to determine how slave labor was organized on a plantation. For example, if there is evidence slaves hunted and fished, they likely worked on a task system which left time for those activities, Young said.

But slaves who worked in a gang system from sunup to sundown — such as on a cotton plantation — often didn’t have time for such activities, she said.

As students uncover each layer in their dig site, they make graph paper drawings of what they find.

The dirt they unearth is then sifted through a screen so that they don’t miss even the smallest artifacts.

Many of the students digging in the dirt this summer have chosen archeology as their profession, but for some, Young said, the experience simply gives them a new perspective.

&uot;It gives them a different appreciation of the past, of the African-American past,&uot; Young said.

&uot;I think it’s wonderful,&uot; said Darren Latham, a senior anthropology major at USM. &uot;You learn about it in the classroom, but it’s good to get the hands-on experience. You see the whole process.&uot;

Sacred ground

&uot;I think I found one!&uot; Stephen Rochester called out.

Using a thin steel probe, Rochester and other students are searching a grove behind Mount Locust for the graves of slaves who died there more than a century ago.

This summer’s archeology project at the plantation involves more than uncovering how slaves lived.

Students are also the mapping what is presumed to be a slave cemetery behind the house.

Pat Garrow, vice president and principal archaeologist at TRC in Atlanta, is an expert at locating graves. National Park Service rangers had already discovered the slave cemetery, and students are now determining where the graves are.

Garrow is teaching the students how to tell whether they’ve located a grave site.

Students begin by pushing the probe into the soil. If it encounters resistance, they know they have not found a grave. But if the probe slides all the way into the soil, they have likely found the space that remains from a hollowed-out grave. In two days last week, the group had located and marked about 30 graves.

Garrow can easily tell whether grave sites are African-American or European-American.

European-American grave sites were most often dug by friends and family and tend to be wider, especially if two people dug the grave, he said. But African-Americans often hired a grave digger who might work alone, making the graves more narrow.

And European-American graves are often laid in more uniform rows, Garrow said. But for African-Americans, Garrow said, &uot;it was more important to be buried close to family, not necessarily in neat, defined rows.&uot;

The students and their teachers hope to find out who might be buried there with an oral history of slaves’ descendants.

Kimball is interviewing local residents who might be descendants of slaves at Mount Locust in order to determine who might be buried there. She has interviewed two people so far and is hoping to find anyone who might know about who worked the fields there.

Anyone interested in contacting Kimball can call ranger Arthur Jackson at the National Park Service at 445-4211.

Garrow said he and the students are not disturbing the graves as they map where slaves were buried.

&uot;We do not encounter human remains,&uot; Garrow said. &uot;The only thing we leave behind are the probe holes. And those will be gone by the next rain.&uot;

Similarly, the students digging for artifacts and slave quarters’ remains will eventually backfill their units before they leave.

&uot;We don’t excavate everything because as we excavate we’re destroying,&uot; said Young, who added that archaeologists are constantly developing better ways to unearth information and artifacts. &uot;Part of why we dig is we have a quest for the past.&uot;