On the surface, an old cornfield in North Hall County is just another place to grow feed for livestock. But 2 feet under ground, it’s a 1,500-year-old time capsule.
Jack Wynn, anthropology professor at the University of North Georgia, has been working to analyze the Duckett Site with students and volunteers from the Blue Ridge Archeology Guild for the past four years.
A former student first noticed small broken pieces of pottery near groundhog holes in the middle of his grandfather’s cornfield five years ago. The student approached Wynn and asked if he’d found a legitimate archeological site. Wynn said it seemed he had but more tests would be able to confirm. Tests were then started four years ago and continue to this day.
Maggie Trammel, a senior at UNG majoring in history and minoring in anthropology, first participated in the dig two summers ago.
"It’s one of the more interesting things I think I’ve ever done," Trammel said. "Finding these things that haven’t been seen in a thousand years, hundreds of years. You’re the first person to touch it after all that time. You’re responsible for recording everything that you find and tell the story of the people who used to live."
The archeological process of discovery is destructive by its nature. Artifacts must be removed to be studied, meaning no one will rediscover the site. Minute details could be missed or misinterpreted if not for the documentation process.
Because the site was used by farmers for the past 200 or more years, the team is finding some evidence of activity during the more recent past. A large plow scar and evidence of a very hot-burning fire lie about a foot underground in the second pit.
"It’s slow-going work," Trammel said. "We’re dealing with a prehistoric site but we’re still finding historic things. Although we’re not looking for that we still have to take time to document it. We have to be very careful with it because once we’ve moved it, nobody else can come back and redo it. So for future generations who are interested in history, we’ve got to take the time to document."
But the team isn’t solely focused on preserving the information for future generations.
For Blue Ridge Archeology Guild President Tony Shore, who volunteers his time to help with the dig, finding the artifacts left behind by the ancient people provides an opportunity to tell their long-lost story.
Shore said every small piece of pottery or fire-cracked rock they find tells the story of these ancient people’s lives. He said it’s important to remember while these people lived more than 1,000 years ago, their experiences weren’t all that different from those experiences by people today.
"They were just like us," Shore said looking over the site. "They had grandmothers, fathers, mothers, kids you know. They all had hopes and dreams and just tried to make it each day. Times of plenty would have been a good life and times of scarcity would have been probably pretty brutal."
Since the beginning of the dig, Wynn and several students have conducted 110 shovel tests in the field, spaced about 60 feet apart. Each test uncovered small pieces of pottery and defined the parameters of the site. One test, near the site of two pits dug by the team revealed 46 pieces of broken pottery.
Most of the artifacts come from a zone about 1 foot thick and 2 feet underground where they were protected from farming.
Wynn said the site is unusual because it seems to have only been home to one single group sometime between A.D. 200 and A.D. 700, a time period known as the Middle Woodland Period. He expects to get a much clearer idea of when the site was inhabited, possibly even a specific date within a single person’s lifetime, after the results of radiocarbon dating analysis come back from the University of Georgia.
"What we have here is kind of a time capsule," Wynn said. "In that the people (who) were here, were here for a short time and went away. Then nobody ever came back and lived in this particular spot later.
"Most of the time when you’re doing a major archeological study, you have three, four, five other cultures stack up on each other. But we don’t have that here. We have these guys 1,500 years ago plus or minus, but nobody ever came back."
The evidence suggesting only one group lived on the site is the pottery and its simple decorations, Wynn said.
As the sun beat down on the site, Wynn stooped near the ground and carefully opened a plastic bag, pouring out a few small pottery sherds, bits of broken prehistoric pottery. All of the sherds, identifiable as pottery by the decorative lines covering the outer side, were collected from shovel tests or in the pit. Wynn selected one of the larger sherds and turned it over in his hand. His finger traced a faint impression on one side of the sherd.
The pieces are either plain or decorated with simple lines, a technique called Cartersville Simple Stamping. Wynn said the lack of variety in decoration make the site somewhat unusual. Just as people today tend to have more than one style of cookwear, people of the time period often had two or three decorative variations as well.
So far, the simple stamping method is all that has been found.
Wynn smiled widely as he held out a small cone-shaped sherd. He explained the unusual piece came from the bottom of a piece of pottery.
"One of the odd things about the time period we’re dealing with here is the pottery the people made had feet on it," Wynn said. "Most Native American pottery is round on the bottom but these things have feet."
One of the largest artifacts found so far, the bottom of a clay pot, has its small "feet" still intact.
Wynn handled the larger piece carefully and pointed to the area that would have been the bottom of the bowl. He said he will send the piece to a colleague in Missouri who can analyze what may have been stored in the bowl. The terra-cotta like material the pots are made of could still hold spores and other remnants in the small pores and cracks of the clay.
As students measured and recorded the topography of a second pit, Wynn climbed down into the first pit and pointed out subtle shifts in soil color, all indicative of past activity. He pointed out two circular areas thought to be post holes from a house. Houses during this time were often round. If the team finds more post holes in a round pattern, they can determine how large the house was and how many people lived in it.
A small hole lined in black charcoal was once a trash pit inside the home. Several artifacts and hulls from walnuts, hickory nuts and acorns were found in the burnt remains, along with more pottery.
Wynn expects to find the home’s fire hearth in future digs and hopes it will reveal more about the people’s diets and living conditions.
So far, the team hasn’t found any stone weapons or tools which people during this time period often used. Quartz, a common stone in the area, would have been ideal for weapons.
"We know the people who lived here could find (quartz) and use it," Wynn said. "But they just didn’t, unless there was some sort of a local rule about not bringing weapons into the living area."
Wynn said one student suggested the possibility of the ancient inhabitants using sharp river cane, rather than stone, as knives and spears. A row of the native plants grow at the far end of the field, as it has for thousands of years.
The team does not expect to find any bones, neither human or animal, because the soil is too acidic for bone to be preserved.
After 2 weeks of digging and taking painstakingly detailed notes, the findings will be analyzed during the fall and spring semesters. More students and volunteers are expected to participate in another dig next summer.