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Society for Historical Archaeology Conference

Earlier this month the Society for Historical Archaeology gathered in Baltimore, Maryland for their annual meeting.  Conference attendees from all over the United States, the U.K., Australia, and more came to share their work and learn about the projects being carried out by their peers.  The team from the Dry was excited about the conference, not only because we could have a long awaited reunion, but also because we could have the opportunity to talk with other archaeologists about what we’ve been up to!

We were fortunate enough to present a paper on the Dry as part of a very interesting session called “The Heritage of Liminality: Memory and Materiality of the Peripheral.”  All eight papers given during the session addressed the idea of marginality, life on the edges (physically or socially).  After Michelle presented, we had the chance to talk with some of the other folks who gave papers and hear some of their thoughts.  People within the archaeological community seem very excited about the site as a place where some of the most interesting parts of American history were playing out!  Next week we’ll be presenting at the Colorado Preservation, Inc. “Saving Places” conference – more updates on that soon!

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On Dugouts

During our time at The Dry we talked a lot about dugouts: we heard stories about how the first settlers built their homes in the ground, we collected artifacts from the site of a former dugout, and we used ground penetrating radar to see what that dugout looked like below the surface.  But most of us had ever actually SEEN a real-life dugout before.  In trying to imagine such a structure, we recalled images from “Little House on the Prairie,” but that was pretty much all we had to go on…

So imagine how thrilled we were when we found out that there was still a standing dugout near Nicodemus, Kansas!  During our visit we made sure to pay a visit to the little roadside structure.  Angela informed us that this is where people from Nicodemus would stay after making a trip into the nearby town of Stockton.  Local Jim Crow laws prevented black people from staying overnight in the town, so if residents from Nicodemus needed supplies from Stockton, they had to stay in the dugout on their way back home.  The structure seemed to have held up well through the years, so we wanted to take a look at how it was able to stay standing.  Upon closer examination we discovered that the walls were not just carved in to the soil, but they were reinforced with stone.  Although the room was small, it seemed sturdily built – explaining the permanence of the structure over time.  We imagined how difficult it would be to stay in such a small space overnight, then we thought about what it would be like to LIVE in a dugout.  The chance to see a dugout in person certainly helped shape our understanding of the settler experience…

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Nicodemus, Kansas

Two weeks ago our team visited Nicodemus, Kansas, the site of an all-black settlement of homesteaders.  Nicodemus was interesting to us not only because of its fame as a pioneer black town, but also because many of the homesteaders at The Dry came to Colorado from Nicodemus.  This included Lulu Sadler Craig and her family, as well as members of the Jones family and the Garland family.

When we arrived in Kansas we were given a warm reception from Angela Bates, of the Nicodemus Historical Society and Phyllis Howard, a park ranger from the Nicodemus National Historic Site.  Angela gave us a tour of the town and countryside, including the cemetery where many residents are buried.  She showed us photos of the people of Nicodemus, and provided more insight in to Lulu Craig’s family.  As it turns out, Lulu herself was a historian, and chronicled the history of Nicodemus.

The trip gave us perspective on the broader experience of African American settlers in the West, and it was especially exciting to follow the stories of some of the individuals who settled on The Dry!

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Happy Birthday Lulu Craig

Happy Birthday, Grandma

August 12, 1868

Happy Birthday, Grandma

Seems like just a short while ago

Miss your gentle voice

And carefully pondered comments

Your compassionate touch

I remember your soft laughter

A cross between a chuckle and a giggle

And “let’s blow a minute”

That means sit and take a rest

Your petite stature but grand character

You are a “Woman’s Woman, a lady among ladies”

A vision of refinement

Whose goal always

“A chap can just do his best, that is all he can do”

Happy Birthday, Grandma

Darlene Craig Derbigny, granddaughter

August 12, 2011

from the collection of Mrs. Alice McDonald


One More Homestead…

On our last day in the field for the summer 2011 season, we went to check out one more homestead.  When Dores and Michelle visited The Dry last year they could not locate the site, but with some guidance from the landowner we were successful!  The site looks extremely promising – in a brief survey we were able to locate the foundation of the house as well as another structure.  We also found a huge range of artifacts spread out across the landscape.   Interestingly, there were far more metal cans present at this site, while most of the other homes we looked at had fewer store-bought cans and more canning materials.  We hope to find out more about the people who lived here and why that may have been the case.

One of the highlights of our trip to the site was a visit from a couple of curious horses and a mule.  They were very intrigued by our presence, and insisted on “helping” us with our survey.  One horse in particular seemed eager to help Dores with her backpack.  Hopefully future visits to the site will also include more visits from our friends!


Open House

Thanks to everyone who came out yesterday!  It was an incredibly successful day – not only in terms of numbers (over three dozen people came!) but also in terms of learning.  Folks helped us identify artifacts, told us about other people who lived near The Dry, and shared stories of life in the Dust Bowl.  All in all, it was a great day!

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A Glimpse At What’s Beneath…

Over the past two days graduate student Jennifer Moon has begun using ground penetrating radar at Viola Mitchell’s homestead.  This exciting technology allows archaeologists to take a look at what is happening beneath the surface of the earth with a radar signal that identifies holes, structures, artifact clusters, and more.  With this equipment, we are able to get a better sense of what is happening at the site, and make more informed decisions about where we will excavate.

On Monday Jennifer’s advisor from the University of Denver, Larry Conyers, paid a visit to The Dry.  He helped the team set up the ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipment and assisted with the day’s activities.  Today Jennifer began directing the use of GPR on the site.  The task typically involves two people working together – one to pull the antenna along the surface of the ground, and one to read the monitor, saving files of data as they go.  To collect information the two must walk carefully along the straight lines of a grid laid out on site.  During this process the monitor will show what the antenna picks up, but most of the information becomes visible when the files are viewed on a computer later.

After Jennifer collected data on Monday, she was able to process her findings and determine what areas merited further study.  Today Dores used that information to begin excavating a small area, while Jennifer used more precise radar to investigate a part of the site which had produced interesting results.  The use of this technology has been a great asset to the project, and we look forward to seeing what else Jennifer is able to locate using ground penetrating radar!

An image of one part of the Viola Mitchell homestead, with notes from Dr. Larry Conyers


Day of Archaeology Events

This past Friday (the 29th) was the international “Day of Archaeology,” an event which involved folks around the world blogging about a day in the life of an archaeologist.  Be sure to check out the posting from the team at The Dry here!  In honor of the occasion, we also held a couple of public programs at the end of last week.

On Thursday we ran a program as a part of the Youth Arts and Enrichment program at the BAIE Center in Rocky Ford.  Local kids came out to learn about what it is that archaeologists do, and why our team is working in this area.  As a part of the program, kids completed three different activities that taught them about the archaeological process: 1)they surveyed a candy landscape, looking for patterns in the way that the candy was laid out, 2)they “excavated” boxes to learn about what you find at an archaeological site and how to record it, and 3)they interpreted garbage, figuring out what rooms the trash came from.  We had a great time working with the kids, and were very impressed with their archaeological skills!

Friday we gave a talk about our work at The Dry, again at the BAIE Center in Rocky Ford.  Michelle and Dores shared information about the site and the origins of the project.  Jennifer and Jess talked about their work as students, including Jennifer’s planned use of ground penetrating radar at one of the sites and Jess’s community outreach efforts.  In addition, we were very fortunate to have three descendants of homesteaders present that evening to share their memories of The Dry.  Mrs. Alice McDonald, Mrs. Darlene Derbigny and Mr. Robert Craig spoke about what The Dry meant to them and their families.  After the formal presentation ended, many community members lingered to discuss the project further with the descendants and the archaeologists.

With the help of many individuals, the two “Day of Archaeology” events were a great success!  Special thanks to Julie Worley at the BAIE Center for all of her assistance with these programs.  If you would like to find out more about the project, join us on site this Thursday, August 4th to see what we’ve been up to.

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The Lone Tree

As mentioned in the previous post, Noah “Dode” Smith’s land is filled with what we call “features” – clues that show us the ways that he changed the land.  While most of the features are clear evidence of human settlement (such as pits and clusters of building materials) one feature might seem unremarkable in another context.  That is because Feature #14 is a tree.

In the dry conditions of the prairie, trees can not grow without some human assistance.  Many of the homesteads in The Dry had trees that the settlers would nurture by providing them with any sort of excess water available.  After our team worked for hours out in the sun, we could very easily see why the wonderfully cool shade of the tree was such a valuable resource.

Although most of the other trees owned by homesteaders have since died, Noah Smith’s tree is still flourishing.  Even from far distances it is still visible, and serves as a reminder of the man who once lived there.

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Noah “Dode” Smith’s Homestead (and our friend Kevin)

Today we moved from the Mitchell homestead to the land owned by Noah “Dode” Smith.  On his property we have already found fourteen features – evidence of the ways that the land was changed during the time that Noah lived there.  One of the most immediately recognizable features is the area where the house itself used to stand.  There is a huge pile of debris including concrete blocks, bricks, and roofing materials.

As we discovered, the building materials provide an excellent shelter for all sorts of prairie creatures looking to escape the summer sun.  Early this morning our team met one such creature, taking a snooze by an old piece of lumber.  We decided to name our rattlesnake friend “Kevin,” since he seemed to have a pleasant disposition.  As much as we enjoyed meeting Kevin, we don’t especially want to stumble across him (or any of his friends) in many other circumstances…