Digging for History: The Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program Returns to the Town of Washington in Southwest Arkansas

***I have been EXTREMELY BUSY getting ready to play host for the 2011 Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program at Historic Washington State Park this June 11-25…below is a background piece that I’ve submitted for the upcoming dig***

by Jamie C. Brandon & David M. Markus (submitted to Field Notes: the Newsletter of the Arkansas Archeological Society)


“A visit to Historic Washington State Park provides a fascinating glimpse into Arkansas’s past.  Visitors can walk along the same unpaved streets that were laid out in the early nineteenth century, see houses that were built over 150 years ago, and enjoy the shade of large-grown catalpas, magnolias and other ornamental trees planted by the town’s residents so long ago…The lots hide clues buried in the soil that can tell us more about the lives of nineteenth-century people than what can be seen in the houses or found in history books.” –Mary Kwas, Digging for History at Old Washington (2009), pp. 1-2.


1984 AAS Dig T

The T-shirt design from the 1984 Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program, the last time the summer dig was held in Washington, Arkansas.

The antebellum town of Washington, Arkansas (3HE236) was the site of four Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Programs in the 1980s—1981 through 1984 to be specific.  The last time the training program was held in Washington (Figure 1), David Jeane was an avocational archeologist poised to be the first person to complete the entire Certification Program and outgoing president of the Arkansas Archeological Society (Davis 1984:11).  Twenty-seven years later we are ready to return with David Jeane as the Chair of the Dig Committee and on the eve of his retirement as a professional archeologist.

We and our gracious hosts, Historic Washington State Park and the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation, Inc., invite you to join us from June 11 through 25, 2011, to “dig for history” in the town of Washington (to steal the title of Mary Kwas’ recent book on the subject).

A Brief History of Washington, Arkansas

Washington was founded in 1824 on the “far edge of the American frontier” and thrived as a county seat and important commercial center for a region of plantations and farms during the first half of the nineteenth century (Stewart-Abernathy 1981, 1990:7-8).  In the early years of Washington’s development two factors were critical to the town’s growth.  The first was the fact that it was the county seat and “a center of commerce and government” that served the region (Kwas 2009:6).  The second was that the town was located near the southern end of the old Southwest Trail and served as an important stop and resupply point for people moving to Texas in the 1830s and 1840s (Kwas 2009:3; Stewart-Abernathy 1981, 1990:8).  Washington lay on the Fort Towson Road, and hundreds of Native Americans from eastern tribes passed by on their way west to Oklahoma reservations (Kwas 2009:7).  During the Civil War, after the fall of Little Rock in 1863, the town served as the capitol of Confederate Arkansas for two years (Stewart-Abernathy 1981).  It escaped destruction during the war, and “the post-war recovery is suggested by the construction of a new brick courthouse in 1874.  “By the nation’s centennial in 1876, Washington influence was evidently declining though it maintained the role of backwater county seat in an agricultural region” (Stewart–Abernathy 1990:9).  In the 1870s new railroad construction bypassed the town by several miles to the south and a new town—Hope, Arkansas—was founded at the rail.  Throughout the remainder of the turn-of-the-century Washington struggled to keep its place as the commercial and governmental center of the region, but it continued to lose population, businesses and eventually (in 1939) the county seat to Hope (Stewart-Abernathy 1990:9).

Restoration and tourism have been important aspects of the town’s role in the Daughters of the Confederacy restored the 1836 Court House in 1929 (Kwas 2009:70; Stewart-Abernathy 1981).  The Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation was organized in 1958 and quickly began to carry out several important preservation and reconstruction projects in the town that laid the foundation for what we see today.  Now the town is home to what is now known as Historic Washington State Park—dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of the town and Arkansas to thousands of visitors every year.  The creation of the park in 1973 and the preparation of a long-term plan to holistically organize the preservation and interpretation of the town was what triggered the first archeological investigations in Washington in the 1980s (Guthrie and Witsell 1985; Kwas 2009:13; Stewart-Abernathy 1981).


The Training Programs in the 1980s

Archeology has had a major impact on the trajectory of Historic Washington State Park. In total, archeological fieldwork has been conducted on some 15 blocks and land plats throughout the Park and surrounding area.  From these projects archeologists have recovered more than a half-million artifacts related to life on the southwest frontier in the 1800s.  The archeology undertaken in the past 30 years by the Arkansas Archeological Survey and the Arkansas Archeological Society has resulted in both preservation and “restoration of its historic buildings, in locating outbuildings, in examining lots upon which buildings will be relocated, and ultimately in broadening the interpretation of nineteenth-century life in Washington” (Kwas 2009:17-18).  The work done has been a mix of volunteer projects (such as the Arkansas Archeological Society Training Programs from 1981-1984), funded cultural and environmental resource management projects (such as the archeological Investigation at the Royston House from 2007-2009), and rescue and salvage projects of historic homes (such as the work done on the Block House porch piers in 1984). The end result of these various excavations has been valuable information into the lives of the elites of Washington, and insights into the lives of marginalized populations of the African and Jewish Diaspora on the southwest frontier in the nineteenth century.  As indicated by Randall Guendling, “the excavation and historical research conducted to date has provided interpretive value, despite the unfinished nature of many of the projects” (Guendling et al. 1999:1).

Beginning in 1980, Dr. Leslie C. “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy lead initial testing within the park that was then followed by a series of Arkansas Archeological Society Training Programs that focused on the kitchens servicing the Block and Sanders properties.

The 1981 Training Program was held from June 26 through July 12 at the Sanders House (Block 32) in Historic Washington State Park.  In total over 18 excavation units were opened and over 50,000 artifacts were recovered. Four brick features were uncovered in the northern portion of the kitchen, including: a brick line, a brick paving, a rectangular paved area partially under the brick paving, and second a brick line parallel to the street grid (Guendling et al. 2001; Stewart-Abernathy 1981, 1982).  To quote Hester Davis, “the archeology was fine, the camp was perfect, there were very few ticks, chiggers or mosquitoes…” (Davis 1981:9).

Following the success of the first Training Program at the Sanders House, The Arkansas Archeological Society and Survey returned to HWSP in the summers of 1982 and 1983 (Davis 1983; Stewart-Abernathy 1982).  Rather than return to the Sanders property, the focus of the programs was the home of Jewish merchant Abraham Block on Block 19.  Dr. Stewart-Abernathy identified three research priorities; first to seek architectural evidence of the Abraham Block detached kitchen by cross-trenching the kitchen area and establish block excavations to acquire evidence of the size, layout, and appearance of the structure.  Second, delineate the spatial position of the kitchen in relation to other structures on the property and identify any changes in use and orientation through time.  Finally compare the Abraham Block kitchen complex to the Sanders kitchen complex, including both building location and lifeways (Stewart-Abernathy 1982).

At the conclusion of the 1982 Training Program, a large trash pit (Feature 14) in the interior of the kitchen location was identified as a dark, organic and artifact rich stain in two excavation units (Stewart-Abernathy 1985:9-11).  This pit is the source of many of the incredible artifacts so well photographed by Leslie Walker for Mary Kwas’ recent book Digging for History in Old Washington (2009). In the following season of 1983 Feature 14 was fully excavated and 16 additional excavation units were dug.  This additional work resulted in several new features being identified. Preliminary counts were made for the collection recovered in 1983 as well (Stewart-Abernathy 1982).  Overall, the 1983 Training Program was declared “the best ever” (Davis 1983:9).

Dr. Stewart-Abernathy (1985: 9-11) summarized the initial findings of the 1982 and 1983 Training Programs by indicating that 25,000 artifacts dating from the early nineteenth century (1820s – 1850s) were found. As a result of these artifacts and the associated features, the kitchen is thought to have been constructed in the in the 1830s and demolished in the by the middle of the twentieth-century. Feature 14 is thought to have been a root cellar under the rear kitchen room and was likely abandoned by the mid nineteenth-century

The last time the summer training program was at Washington, the emphasis shifted from mitigation of yard spaces at the Abraham Block and Sanders properties to mapping and surface collection of three, now vacant, lots in the park (Early 1984).  These included Block 6 and 58, which were both vacant, and Block 18, which had had no structures on it since the 1940s.  Block 6 was once the location of the business district for the town and was the location of the fires that signaled its demise.  It also included the general store of Abraham Block, and later his sons.  Block 58 once held the Mirick-Collins Farmstead and later a Methodist church.  Block 18 was the original location of Grandison Royston’s home and law offices and currently has a magnolia tree, certified as Arkansas’ largest, planted in 1839 by Royston and a log cabin owned by Royston from elsewhere in Hempstead County. For each of the three blocks to be studied, a series of three activities were planned, as follows: field work (to include mapping, controlled surface collection, auger testing, shovel testing and metal detector survey); oral history; and documentary research.  The purpose of these three steps was to determine the available information on the occupation of these blocks, to map the properties for later use, and to create a collection of artifacts for use by the park staff in display and interpretation


Plans for the 2011 Training Program

The majority of the past work at Washington has been associated with domestic yards (Sanders and Block) or public space (the 1836 Courthouse) next to standing structures.  Little work has focused on vacant lots or the commercial spaces that made Washington the important regional service center it was in the early nineteenth century—the heart of that early commercial district was Block 6 (Figure 2).

Block 6 HWSP

Block 6, Washington, Arkansas. The site of the 2011 Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program.

While the master plan of the park points to the development of interpretation of the commercial sections of Washington (Guthrie and Witsell 1985:95) there has heretofore been no efforts to develop those lots which best represent the business of Washington.  The business district (Block 6) and the Washington Hotel (Block 14) have been the subjects of limited survey over the past thirty years but neither lot has been developed and remain prime candidates for archeological investigation (Stewart-Abernathy 1987; Arkansas Archeological Survey site file data for Block 6).  Beyond their value as interpretive tools for park staff these blocks best represent the most glaringly understudied section of life in Washington, that of community activity and business.

Much of the commercial district—including Block 6—was destroyed by the large fires that swept through Washington in 1875 and 1883 (Kwas 2009:18; Mederis 1984:59).  Some of the stores were rebuilt following the 1875 fire, but they were smaller and of cheaper construction.  Moreover, throughout the late nineteenth century many storekeepers began to move to the growing town of Hope (Mederis 1984:59).  By the time of the publication of the only Sanborn Fire Insurance map for the town of Washington (1926) only two structures remain on Block 6—both are coded as domestic dwellings but at least one appears to have been a storefront during its earlier life (Figure 3).

Block 6 1926 Sanborn

The 1926 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing Block 6 in downtown Washington. The lack of post 1883 buildings on the block should limit the amount of twenieth century material thatwe will encounter during the dig.

As mentioned above, during the final year that the Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program was held at Historic Washington State Park the emphasis shifted from mitigation of yard space at the Block and Sanders properties to mapping and surface collection of three, now vacant, lots in the park.  These included Block 6—once the location of the business district for the town of Washington, and included the location of the Block family general store.  At Block 6 two wells were discovered; 34 auger tests dug; a general surface collection conducted; and controlled surface collections conducted on 53 delineated circles.  The results from the 1984 survey indicate that Block 6 makes it an ideal candidate for a Training Program dig, and coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of the Training Program at Sanders House in 1981, we plan excavating on the block (with the assistance of Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation who owns the property) for the 2011 Training Program.

Dr. Brandon has been working steadily at Historic Washington State Park since he took over as AAS-SAU Research Station Archeologist in 2006.  Since that time he has lead excavations at the Royston House and a return to the home of Abraham Block using a combination of funded excavations, volunteer Arkansas Archeological Society “Spring Break” digs and a University of Arkansas archeological field school. These digs have produced interesting artifacts, interpretive results and—very importantly—worked out the logistics and felt out the infrastructure of digging in Washington.

This spring Dr. Brandon will enlist the help of Dr. Jami Lockhart and Duncan McKinnon to conduct a geophysical survey of Block 6.  Following the remote sensing, during Arkansas Archeology Month (March 21-26,2011 to be precise), Dr. Brandon will lead another “Spring Break” dig—this one to test the results of the Block 6 survey and to set the excavation areas for the Summer Training Program.

Judging by the sandy, easily screenable, soil, the relative lack of mosquitoes and the great artifacts and features uncovered by previous Training Programs in Washington we predict that a good time will be had by all.  We hope to see you all in June!

References Cited

Cande, Kathleen H. and Jamie C. Brandon

1999      An Old Washington for a New Millennium: Archeological Collections Management and Research Design for Old Washington Historic State Park, Hempstead County, Arkansas 1980-1999.  ANCRC Grant 99-001.  Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.  Submitted to the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, Little Rock.

Davis, Hester

1981      A Great Time at Old Washington, Field Notes (181:9-10).

1983      The Best Ever!, Field Notes (193:9-12)

1984      An Important Milestone for David Jeane, Field Notes (196:11).

Early, Ann

1984      Society Dig and Certification Program Report: 1984, Field Notes (201:2).

Guendling, Randall L., Mary L. Kwas and Jamie C. Brandon

1999      Archeological Investigations at Old Washington Historic State Park, Arkansas: The 1836 Courthouse Block (3HE236-0) and the Block-Catts House Block (3HE236-19).  Final Report, Project 99-02.  Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.  Submitted to Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, Little Rock.

Guthrie, Anne and Charles Witsell

1985      Master Plan: Old Washington Historic State Park, Washington, Arkansas.  Report prepared by Witsell, Evans and Roscoe, PA for Arkansas State Parks, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Kwas, Mary L.

2009      Digging for History at Old Washington. University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville.

Medearis, Mary

1984      Washington, Arkansas: History on the Southwest Trail.  ASAP Imaging of Southwest Arkansas: Hope, Arkansas.

Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C.,

1981      Historical Archeology at Old Washington: 1981, Field Notes (179:4-5).

1982      1982 Society Historical Excavations: Block-Catts Kitchen Ell (3HE236-19), Field Notes (185:7).

1986      Urban Farmsteads: Household Responsibilities in the City.  Historical Archaeology 20(2):5-15.

1990      The Archeology of Antebellum Washington, Arkansas.  Unpublished grant proposal submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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4 Comments on “Digging for History: The Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program Returns to the Town of Washington in Southwest Arkansas”

  1. pat
    May 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    The South and the West may well stand alone as areas yet untouched for archaeological treasures given the nature of American history, and the potential cultural significance yet to be found.

    Spring break archaeological digs during college years could turn up untold treasures that could aid numerous opportunity driven archaeology grants that could be used to better define what history is buried in America, both pre and post Civil War era. Build it and they will come?


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