Digging and sifting, Missouri teachers learn to unearth the past

06/23/2014 3:14 PM

06/24/2014 2:06 PM

The word archaeology conjures up visions of Indiana Jones and King Tut, of tomb raiders and digs in the dusty deserts of the Middle East.

But under soggy, Midwestern skies last week, a dozen or so educators embarked on a treasure hunt at the Atkins-Johnson Farm & Museum in Gladstone, and by the end of the day they had struck metaphoric gold.

Bits of pottery from the mid-1800s were found quickly, without even disturbing the topsoil. Later exploratory digs turned up a metal thimble from the 19th century and a stone pathway leading from the farmhouse, presumably to the site of a former outhouse or cistern.

The fieldwork was the finale of a weeklong summer workshop sponsored by Project Archaeology, a joint program of Montana State University and the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Project Archaeology has helped to organize workshops for area educators each summer since 2009 at the Fort Osage National Historic Landmark in Sibley.

Last year, the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence joined in. This year, the participants visited those two sites, as well as the Truman Home and the historic square in Independence, in addition to undertaking the first-ever archaeological survey of the Atkins-Johnson Farm & Museum grounds.

The farmstead was occupied from 1834 until 2004, when the city purchased the 22 acres that remained from a tract of land that was once much larger. Gladstone spent the next nine years turning the land into a park and the house into museum dedicated to the area’s history. There is a display case inside the home filled with objects found during the restoration — a paper doll, a powder horn, eating utensils — and Museum Manager Erica White said any interesting objects turned up during the two-day archaeological survey might be added to the exhibit.

White said the exploratory digging undertaken last month was just the first step in a potentially larger archaeological process.

“They will be taking core samples — making maybe a two-foot(-wide) hole – and sifting through the dirt and recording what they find,” White said. “It helps to create an overall map of the property. It can identify hot spots that would be potential spots for further digging.”

White herself took part in the Project Archaeology workshop last summer. In addition to digging near the farmhouse, she said, this year’s archaeologists planned to search near a spring on the property for potentially prehistoric artifacts.

Among the leaders of last month’s workshop and dig were John Peterson, curator and archaeologist of historic sites for Jackson County Parks and Recreation, who is based at Fort Osage, and Gail Lundeen, the Missouri coordinator for Project Archaeology and retired teacher. Lundeen is also president of the Missouri Archaeological Society.

“People think there is no archaeology in Missouri,” Lundeen said, “but there is! People lived here 9,000 years ago, so we always find arrowheads and stone tools … There is archaeology everywhere — especially Civil War, with battles we had around here like at Westport and the Little Blue (River) — and the Pony Express and the Santa Fe Trail.

“There’s history everywhere. Some of it is not as exciting as King Tut, but we are adding to the information base of what lives were like the past couple of hundred years.”

The workshop was designed primarily for teachers in the upper elementary grades to help them incorporate archaeological techniques (observation, inference, evidence and classification) into their science and social studies classes.

Mary Mullin, who teaches third grade at the Pembroke Hill School, heard about the workshop from Lundeen while attending last year’s Fall Festival at the Shawnee Indian Mission.

“I knew I would learn something,” Mullin said. “I like living history.”

Her goal in the fieldwork was “just to find something,” Mullin said. “I don’t care what it is.”

Others showed up simply to help out with the digging.

Pam Stepp is school services coordinator for Science Pioneers, whose flagship project is the annual Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair. She’s a former teacher and school principal.

“It relates to my job — plus I enjoy it,” she said. “I enjoy seeing what we can dig up.”

Jim D. Feagins taught science in the Grandview School District for 30 years, and he now works as an archaeologist. This year, for instance, he has been surveying land in Platte County that is slated to be dug up for a water line.

Thus far, Feagins said, “I have located 15 sites — 10 historic and five prehistoric. And I will monitor the work once they dig the water line.”

He said both state and federal laws mandate that archaeological surveys be done before any major project that involves digging is undertaken.

Mark Adams is education director at the Truman Library, where workshop classes were held at midweek. He said archaeological survey work was done at the Truman family farm in Grandview a few years back.

“People generally think about an ancient site,” Adams said, “but a lot of 19th and 20th century archaeology is going on … It’s not all about teepees and dinosaur bones and pyramids. You can learn a lot at a farm — about what people ate with, what type of technology they had, about the layout of the rooms … You can talk to students about the changes over time that led to the spacious houses we have today and give insight into how people lived in the past.”

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