More “Digging for History”

I am happy to announce that the Arkansas Archeological Society will be returning to the historic town of Washington, Arkansas for the 2012  Summer Training Program.  I personally had a great time last year, and hope that many of you who participated in the 2011 dig had half as much fun as I had excavating the remains of this incredible historic town.

We and our gracious hosts (Historic Washington State Park and the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation, Inc.) would also like to invite all of you who did not make it to the 2011 dig to come and participate this year as we continue to “dig for history.”  Washington is both picturesque and packed full of the past.  In the words of Mary Kwas (whose book title, Digging for History at Old Washington, we’ve cribbed here for my own uses)

“A visit to Historic Washington…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.” (Kwas 2009:1-2).

Moreover, Kwas points out that the vacant lots in Washington “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” (Kwas 2009:2).  In fact, the Arkansas Archeological Survey and the Society have been conducting archeological excavations in Washington since 1980 (Brandon and Markus 2011:4; Stewart-Abernathy 1981)—including five Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Programs (1981-1984 and 2011).  Dr. Stewart-Abernathy, who lead most of the excavation efforts in Washington over the last thirty years, has often referred to the town as the best preserved historic site in the Old Southwest (remember that Washington was a border town until Texas was brought into the Union in 1845).

2012 crew shot

First session crew shot of the 2011 Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program in Historic Washington. Taken in front of the Abraham Block House.

Washington, Arkansas

Those of you who attended the 2011 dig got a good feel for Washington and its place in history—we were given several guided tours of the historic buildings, danced period dances with Washington’s regular dance workshop and were even treated to ragtime jazz music one evening on the lawn of the 1874 Courthouse.

For those of you who have not been to Washington yet, you are in for a treat.  The town was founded in 1824 along what was known as the Old Southwest Trail (once a major trading route running from St. Louis to the Red River Valley in eastern Texas).  Since then, Washington has been witness to much of the historical changes that have affected the nation through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the early and mid-nineteenth century Washington was major regional center of commerce and government that served the local “cotton frontier” as well as providing an important stop and resupply point for migrants heading into Texas and points west (Kwas 2009:3; Stewart-Abernathy 1981, 1990:8).  During the Civil War, after the fall of Little Rock in 1863, Washington served as the capital of Confederate Arkansas (Stewart-Abernathy 1981).  It escaped destruction during the war, and the post-war recovery was suggested by the construction of a new brick courthouse in 1874.  However, postbellum Washington was soon eclipsed by a new railroad town—Hope, Arkansas—which had been constructed just a few miles to the south on the Cairo and Fulton Railway (Stewart-Abernathy 1990:9) in 1872.  Through the remainder of the turn-of-the-century era, Washington struggled to keep its place as the commercial and governmental center of the region, but it continued to lose population, businesses and eventually the county seat to Hope (Stewart-Abernathy 1990:9).

However, this economic hardship was a boon in disguise for historic preservation—as many of the original antebellum buildings in Washington survive to this day.  Restoration and tourism have indeed been important aspects of the town in the twentieth century—from the Daughters of the Confederacy saving the 1836 Courthouse in 1929, to all of the work conducted by the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation from 1958 through to today, early preservationists laid the foundation for what we will see in Washington during the 2012 Summer Training Program.  Today the town also is home to what is now known as Historic Washington State Park (founded 1973).  Jointly, the park, the city government and the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation are dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of the town and Arkansas to thousands of visitors every year.  This summer we will be happy to be a couple hundred of those thousands of visitors.

What Happened at the 2011 Training Program?

As I have pointed out in earlier articles (Brandon 2011: 3; Brandon and Markus 2011:4-5), the majority of the past archeological work in Washington has been associated with the homes of prominent individuals (e.g., Simon Sanders, Abraham Block, and Grandison Royston) or public spaces (e.g., the 1836 Courthouse).  Additionally, although these past excavations have sought to uncover lost landscapes (such as detached kitchens, slave quarters, and other ancillary structures), they have all taken place next to standing structures.  Our work last summer was different in various ways. The 2011 summer dig focused on Block 6—the now empty lot that was once the home of the earliest merchant district in the town (1830s through the 1880s).  Our remote sensing survey and excavations have shed much light on what this block might have looked like in the nineteenth century.  In total, we identified at least four new buildings (maybe more) none of which can be found on existing historical maps or photographs (how is that for demonstrating the usefulness of historical archeology).

Excavating a bottle

Arkansas Archeological Society member Tony Caver contemplates a whole bottle in Feature A-5 before mapping and excavating it.

In Area A we uncovered the east wall of a large post-in-ground structure that we now believe to be a possible merchant warehouse used between the 1830s and 1870s.  Nearby, we also uncovered a cistern that I originally suspected to serve the warehouse—but we found that it dates to the 1850s (but was filled in the 1920s) and most likely served an entirely different structure in the northwest corner of Block 6.  In Area B (the north central portion of Block 6) the Basic Excavation seminar uncovered a large feature which is probably a cellar for a small structure that appears (along with what seems to be an as-yet-unexcavated outbuilding) on several of our geophysical technologies.  Finally, along the eastern margin of Block 6 (Area C), we uncovered relatively intact limestone and brick foundations of 1830s storefronts facing Franklin Street—along the Old Southwest Trail.  For a more detailed description of the preliminary interpretations of what we found in 2011 in Areas A, B, and C, be sure a check out my article in the November/December issue of Field Notes (Brandon 2011).

Plans for the 2012 Training Program

This summer we plan on both continuing excavations in some of the same areas that we worked on during the 2011 dig, and opening new excavations in new areas.  We do not plan on reopening excavations in Area A in 2012.  This area is where the vast majority of excavations were located during the 2011 summer dig (21 2×2 meter excavation units to be exact).  I feel that the 2011 work has given us enough data to hypothesize a date range and function for the structure (and even evidence of the fire that brought about its demise).  So we will be shifting our efforts this year to Area C and the new Area D.

First, the Basic Excavation seminar will continue to work on units in Area B—completing the units begun in 2011 and opening more units (perhaps locating the outbuilding hinted at in our geophysical data).  This year the Basic Excavation Seminars will be led by Drs. Mary Beth Trubitt and Elizabeth Horton…Under such great leadership, I have high hopes that much will be accomplished in Area B this year.

2012 AAS Dig Excavation Areas

Excavation Areas on Block 6 mentioned in this article with the resistivity data from the geophysical survey of the block as a backdrop.

At Area C, we will be uncovering as much of the storefront brick scatter as possible.  However, instead of excavating each unit to subsoil on its own (as we did in 2011), we will be uncovering the entire shape of the brick scatter in as many units as we can.  After uncovering the dimensions of the feature, we will then “punch through” the scatter in all of the units recovering the material lodged within the brick rubble separately.  Following that, we can investigate the possibility that these store fronts may have had below-grade cellars (a notion suggested in the last profile of the last unit that we completed in 2011).

The other large task for the 2012 field season will be to begin work in what will call “Area D”—Block 6, lot 4, or the northwest quadrant of Block 6.  This is the vicinity of the mysterious structure that may be associated with Feature A-1—the 1850s cistern.  It is possible that this is either a domestic dwelling or storefront belonging to Augustus Crouch.  We simply need to gather basic information about this structure.  Does it, in fact, date to the 1850s?  Is it domestic as initial units suggest?  How long was it occupied?  All of these questions and more await our excavations.

Finally, if we can manage the time and logistics, we will tackle the excavation of half of the remainder of Feature A-1 (the 1850s cistern).  During the 2011 summer dig we excavated the south half of the cistern to a depth of 140 cm below the surface—as far as we were able to go safely without shoring up the excavation trench.  As the end of the field season we carefully backfilled the feature in hopes of returning to open up a wider trench that can be properly stepped or supported by scaffolding.  There could be as much a 7-9 more feet of fill in the cistern, so we have much more to discover.

Last year at the 2011 AAS Summer Training Program we had great archeology, sandy soils, few mosquitoes, and great facilities.  We hope to continue that tradition this year when we return to the historic town of Washington for another round of summer fun.  I hope to see you all in June!


References Cited

Brandon, Jamie C.  2011  Preliminary Results of the 2011 AAS Summer Training Program at Historic Washington, Arkansas.  Field Notes 363:3-9.

Brandon, Jamie C., and David Markus 2011  Digging for History:  The Arkansas Archeological Society Training Program Returns to the Town of Washington in Southwest Arkansas.  Field Notes 359:3-7.

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

Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C. 1981  Historical Archeology at Old Washington: 1981.  Field Notes 179:4-51990   The Archeology of Antebellum Washington, Arkansas.  Unpublished grant proposal submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

**this post was submitted as an article to Field Notes: the Newsletter of the Arkansas Archeological Society 02/28/2012**

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Categories: archeology, history, post


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