Reader shares archeological dig experience

Special to the Democrat MissourianMay 9, 2014 

Being a regular reader of the Cass County Democrat Missourian, I came across an announcement stating that the Cass County Missouri Historical Society was hosting an archeological dig at a historical site on 401 E. Pearl St. in Harrisonville on April 26. The article stated that the public was invited to participate in the dig.

Since I have a background in archeology I was very interested in this opportunity to exercise my antiquated skills in the profession. I have a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, with a heavy concentration in archeology. After graduating from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, I was employed in the profession for more than four years. I had participated in many archeological digs and reconnaissance surveys, mostly concentrated in Illinois and Missouri in the St. Louis metro area. What also fueled my excitement was the fact that the dig was practically in my backyard, living only a few blocks away.

According to CCHS Executive Director Don Peters, this lot, also known as the Cason property, was donated to CCHS after the society’s purchase of the adjacent lot. The society was in the process of grading these two lots and to landscape by planting grass to make it an attractive addition to the community. During this original grading of the property, many items were discovered. Some of the items included, square nails, old bottles, china, ceramic marbles, metallic items, and much more.

I arrived at the dig early to discover Don Peters and his wife, Lonnie, laying out a grid pattern over the dig area. An area of approximately 3,400 square feet was sectioned off for the dig, with 3 foot by 3 foot squares. I was then overcome with a feeling of deja vu, taking me back to my years when I participated in the Cahokia Mounds dig just east of St. Louis. As I helped Don and Lonnie lay out the grid, I kept looking upward to the sky. A rain storm or shower was supposed to pass by just briefly, according to the local weather forecasters. After most of the grid was laid, the site director decided to take a pause to gather the tools needed for the expected participants. In the mean time I went back the house and you guessed it. Here came the rain. So much for a brief shower. An hour later it was still raining, so I anticipated a postponement of the dig.

The rain subsided substantially so I drove back to the site to see a flurry of activity I never would have expected. There were about 13 participants, adorned in jeans, hats, boots and rain gear. As I gathered my old archeology shovel, note pad and a new trowel, I made it a lucky 14. We were all from different professions and areas of Cass County, some with ties as myself, distant from west central Missouri. I recognized a few of the now amateur archeologists, but many faces I did not know. I recognized Dale and Skylar Gibson, an IT guru, and a sixth grade student at Harrisonville Middle School. I also knew David, Joshua, and Suzanne Barnett, from Harrisonville. I met some new faces including: Diane Magness, a CCHS employee; Homer Foote 3rd, a retired crane operator from Belton, and Hunter Foote, a seventh grade student from Pleasant Hill. Also, braving the wet weather were Mike Magness, who was operating a mini-excavator and Shane Hendricks, a teacher at Cass-Midway. What really surprised me was Kristin Smith who also had a degree in Anthropology, but from Indiana. I guess we’ll have to call her Indiana Smith.

It is hard to describe the feelings I had as I was carrying my shovel to the site. It had been too many years since it had seen the service it was intended for. I had sharpened the shovel by hand just the evening before. Those not familiar with a shovel for this type of work will find it peculiar. The pointed tip is removed and ground to a concave shape.

I picked out the 3 by 3 foot square that I was going to dig in. I picked one that was on the outer edge of the site perimeter so I would not have to walk thru other laid out squares with muddy shoes. It was now muddy enough that artifacts or debris would stick to the mud on one’s shoes. As I started to dig I noticed a lot of modern debris in the top few of inches. I also noticed a second grass line just a couple of inches below the top, suggesting that the top couple of inches were no more than a few years old. Just a couple of squares inward from me was the excavation of the old foundation.

As I picked out the artifacts that I had uncovered (mostly drain tile, glass shards, and on old remnant of a beer can), I delivered them to a board or miniature duplicate site grid which Don and Lonnie had made. After items were placed on the board, the items were placed in plastic bags marked with the grid number they came from. This is very similar to how items are catalogued at more professional archeological digs.

The 15-minute rain finally came to an end after a couple of hours and soon the jackets and rain gear were shed. After digging down a few inches the soil was more manageable. Then, the sharpening of my shovel started to pay off. Back came that old feel of digging the soil in slices. Anything other than dirt was felt or heard while digging and I knew where an artifact may be. After a few hours, I found what I believed to be a ceramic stem of a pipe, perhaps a TD (Kaolin Clay type). Although it was not white in color, the history of a fire in 1973 could have discolored it. I also found a red Missouri Tax Token from the late 1940s. Other finds from others included parts of bottles, square nails, glass shards including green, clear, and milk glass, china, crockery and drain tile.

Another part of the dig consisted of the excavation of a large cistern or public well using a mini-excavator. The well measures 10 feet deep by 10 feet in diameter. Thus far a cooler full of old bottles, amber, green, clear, and cobalt blue have been recovered. This would suggest that the bottles would have been thrown in the cistern / well, after the well was no longer being used for its original intention.

I believe that this site will reveal more artifacts that will in turn generate a better understanding regarding the development of the Cass County Seat. According to Don Peters, the historical society is intending to sponsor more digs at the site and will be opened to the public. I would suggest that anyone who wants to participate, contact the Cass County Missouri Historical Society for more information. The Society also has a web page with updates on events.

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