Friday, June 15, 2012


Hello to all our loyal readers from Ashley Dumas. I hope that you have enjoyed learning about Fort Tombecbe and about the process of archaeology from the perspective of the field school students. One of my favorite former professors once said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. The purposes of having the students write about their daily experiences were to encourage critical thought about why archaeology is carried out the way it is; to foster awareness of what each other was working on; and to facilitate discussion about what their findings might be telling us about life at Fort Tombecbe in the eighteenth century. These goals were fulfilled, and as I re-read the entire blog tonight, I was impressed with how the posts became increasingly more reflective, informative, and instructive.

Although we worked only with mason's trowels and brushes, and sometimes just our gloved hands, to sweep away the dirt, we uncovered a tremendous amount of information in these past four, short weeks. I suspect that some of our readers may have been wishing for more photographs of cool artifacts. It's true, we did find some "good stuff," such as the Choctaw shell bead, French faience, and the bone comb (all pictured in previous posts), but the best, the most valuable things that we found were stained patches of soil and clusters of chalk rubble. Building on work from a smaller field school in 2010, we have conclusively demonstrated that there are plenty of intact structural remains from the French period of occupation (1736-1763) at Fort Tombecbe. By intact, I mean that these remains are undisturbed by plow, erosion, construction, or treasure-hunting, the usual suspects in the purposeful, well-meaning, or inadvertent destruction of archaeological sites. What a rare situation! By carefully removing soil a few centimeters at a time, we were able to detect the trenches dug by the French in which they set upright posts for a palisade wall. At the bottom of the dark soil filling the space where one of these posts once stood, a single iron nail lay on its side. It must have been dropped in the hole when the post was being replaced due to rot, and this was certainly an accident, as nails likely had to be shipped up river from Mobile.

And through careful, observant excavation, we were able to recognize that a faint linear, grey stain cut through the chalk bedrock. Running approximately where we postulated la boulangerie, or bake house, to have been located, the stain was occasionally interrupted by clusters of broken chalk.  The work of field school students Lauren, Andrea, and Alex revealed that the linear stain was a builder's trench for the east wall of the bake house, and the clusters of chalk had once supported posts in some capacity. The south wall also was located. Not all of the chalk was found as rubble, however. Within and around the fill of the east wall were found several pieces of chalk that had been cut into brick-sized pieces. Their sides still clearly show saw and chisel marks from the eighteenth-century worker who was tasked with forming the local bedrock into a usable construction material. This may be one of the only French bakeries ever excavated in North America.
An overview of the excavations at the bake house. The stains in the upper portion were made by posts and trenches, probably associated with a rebuilding of the structure.

Regardless of how carefully we dig or how much we think we already know, archaeology has a way of creating mysteries as well as solving them. We knew that in 2010 we had found the corner of the southwest bastion of the fort. A few months ago, I looked over my notes and photographs from that year, and I was reminded that there was a curious narrow stain extending from the corner of the bastion. It was made up of brown soil, not the rich dark grey of the palisade, and it was bordered on either side by lines of hardened yellowed chalk. I have since learned that similar little trenches were found extending from the corners of Fort Toulouse (1717-1763), a sister fort in Wetumpka, Alabama. Their purpose is uncertain, but hoping to shed some light on this phenomenon of French colonial forts, we decided to excavate a portion of our trench. Brian and Ron dug, and dug, and dug. They nearly reached the bottom of this ever-narrowing trench at a meter (about 3 feet) below the surface of the ground. We were not able to infer the purpose of this feature, but for now, we have adopted Brian and Ron's nickname for the puzzle--the French drain. They may not be far off...

These are just some highlights of the 2012 field season. Efforts will now turn toward processing the hundreds of bags of material that we recovered from the water screen. Everything must be washed, dried, and the artifacts sorted out with painstaking patience. The old saying in archaeology is that every day spent in the field requires at least four days in the lab. If true, then we might see a light at the end of the tunnel sometime in mid-October. The information yet to be gleaned from the artifacts will undoubtedly fill in many gaps in the story of the fort. In the meantime, I will write up the results of our field work and make it available to everyone.

Before signing off, as the students say, I want to express my gratitude to all of the people that made the excavation a success. John, Rosa, and Monica Hall preserved my sanity by tending to my little boy when I was not available, and they made sure that water screens, pumps, fruit, tents, and myriad other items that keep a crew happy were in place. Brian Mast, the Educational Coordinator for the Black Belt Museum, was a reliable, able assistant and an indispensable sounding board for everyday decisions. Ron Stafford, the just-tell-me-what-to-do, top-notch volunteer, had no trouble stepping in to do the rote, but tough, work. LisaMarie Malischke put spark in our Community Day presentations; Greg Waselkov put some good ideas in our heads; and Kim Roy reminded us that a straight profile wall and a smiling face are always possible. Our other volunteers and supporters-Joey Browder, Jay Lindsey, Dick Brunelle, Jerome Adams, and George Watkins-highlighted that we were doing something worthwhile. Our supporters at UWA, especially in the Division of Educational Outreach and the College of Liberal Arts, gave this project the buoyancy it needed to become a reality and a headline. Financial support was provided by UWA's College of Liberal Arts and the Division of Educational Outreach, UWA President Richard Holland, John Stephens Services of Eutaw, and a grant from the Alabama Historical Commission.

Finally, to my students, reflecting on the hard work that each of you contributed to this project: you tackled all tasks, showed character when faced with obstacles, and were sincerely committed to learning the skills necessary to uncover the past. And you're just a great bunch of people! Nadine, Susanne, Jordan, Alex, Brett, Kayla, Lauren, and Andrea--merci beaucoup, toujours!

Until next year!
-Ashley Dumas

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