Small Excavations, Big Finds: Wrapping Up Field School 2017

(from left: Valencia Moore, Natalie Mooney, Skyler Browder, Ashley Dumas, Cory Sly, Clementine)

By Ashley Dumas
Going into this field school, we knew that our goals would be limited. It has been the first one since 2010 where we dug during the regular school calendar, which means that we can only put in so many hours per week so as not to interfere with the students' other classes. If you've been reading all of the blog posts from this season, then you know we've had a myriad of panel hole #'s swimming in our heads. Generally, archaeological digs will be planned for a specific area of a site where archaeologists suspect there to have been particular activities or buildings in the past. A grid will be laid out over the site and all of the soil and artifacts removed carefully by grid squares. In the case of field school 2017, however, the locations and sizes of our excavation squares were dictated by the best placement for our new interpretive panels. (In the photo above, you can see us proudly flanking the new panel about the Tombigbee River and its importance to the fort.) We used the 1737, 1763, and 1794 maps of the site to predict what we might find in each hole. We were also able to consult the report on the 1980 excavations for some insight into what might await discovery underground. But much of our work this semester has led to completely new and unexpected information, especially regarding the construction of the fort. The map below shows each of the 19 holes that we excavated to prepare for the installation of the panels. Each hole was about 35 cm x 35 cm-- just big enough to be able to see what we were doing and maneuver our tools in the hole, and not too big to be impractical for setting in the legs of each panel. 
In panel holes 1 through 4, we did not expect to find a lot, because they are situated just outside of where Fort Tombecbe's palisade wall ran and are beyond Fort Confederation's earthworks. In other words, they are outside the walls of both forts and unlikely to have the remains of many past activities.  Indeed, there was not much topsoil here and only a few artifacts. Panel hole 5 is at the intersection of the base of the earthworks and the moat, basically in a low spot. Not surprisingly, we dug through nearly a meter (more than 3 feet) of loose, silty soil that had washed into the moat over the years and found nothing. 

As detailed in previous blog posts, panel holes 6, 7, and 8 provided the first indication that there is much more to discover about the development of Fort Tombecbe. None of these holes produced many artifacts, but there were a few handfuls of animal bone, a few wrought and early cut nails, recovered from the upper layers. Below this zone of debris, in each hole, was a layer of sticky orange clay mixed with cobbles of chalk. Clay does not occur naturally on these chalk bluffs, so we know that it was dug elsewhere, perhaps in the lowlands across the river or from a nearby stream, and brought to this spot. It was mixed with chalk cobbles and deposited in a layer about 12 inches thick, right on top of chalk bedrock. This pattern of a layer of cultural material on top of a chalk and clay layer (often identified as Layer C in previous posts) was repeated in panel holes 11, 12, 15, 16, 18 and 19. At  this time, our hypothesis is still that there were gullies forming in the chalk, causing erosion and mobility issues. We have as much confirmed by the English historical record (see blog post from Week   ). Either the French, late in their occupation, or the English began addressing this problem by filling in the gullies and leveling the land with clay and chalk. The trash pit that was found in panel hole 16 has cut nails and a bottle fragment that suggest a late 18th century day, making it likely of Spanish origin. The pit was dug down into the clay, so the clay probably predates the Spanish occupation. 

The erosion control apparently was not necessary across the entire site, as panel holes 13, 14, and 17 had thin layers of soil and artifacts deposited directly on top of chalk bedrock. Panel hole 9 was solid orange clay, which we can't explain at this point, but someone was awfully motivated to have brought that much clay up to the bluff. 

In addition to uncovering this fascinating insight into the efforts put into maintaining the fort, we also recovered a fair number of artifacts. Initial efforts to sort the materials recovered from the Spanish pit, for instance, are revealing large amounts of trade beads, lead shot, bone, brass hooks (for clothing), nails, animal bones, and broken bottles, which will give us a wonderful little insight into life during the late 18th century. Keep reading the blog to see updates from our laboratory analysis. 

This spring has been important for public interpretation at Fort Tombecbe. Having the interpretive signs finally completed and installed does not make the site any more important than it already is, but I think it helps to legitimize its importance for the public who visit by appointment or just happen to wander in. The completion of the pavilion, loosely styled after some of the smaller buildings that once stood at Fort Tombecbe, makes the site much more visitor-friendly and useful for community groups and UWA students. We hope that the overwhelmingly successful Community Day in April is a sign of a more engaged and aware community, one who appreciates and values the importance of the fort in the history of Sumter County and the state. 

Please keep up with the blog over the summer. We'll be posting pictures of our lab work and the things that we find while washing and sorting all of that material that comes in from the dig. As always, thank you for your interest! 

Week 12 of Field School 2017

Tuesday, April 18

Today marked the end of digging for the two panel holes (#’s 18 and 19) for the “Tombigbee River” panel. Natalie removed exactly 12 inches of clay before she found the chalk bedrock. That exactly one foot of clay in this area seems to strengthen our hypothesis that it was brought up to the cliff as part of a well thought-out plan to stop erosion and raise the level of the ground surface. We drew profile walls for each of these two panel holes to record the different levels and time periods that we dug through, as well showing the modern post hole found in my panel hole (see previous blog post). After finishing these holes, we moved back to the panel holes that we had been excavating for the “Life in a Frontier Fort” panel but which were shut down because of all the rain. This panel is in the area that was between the Spanish oven and the officer’s quarters. In panel hole #14, we found another fragment of an iron strap in the southwest corner. It has tiny rivets in it, but we’re not sure what it is. It seems too thick to have been the iron strap around a barrel, so maybe it’s part of a tool.

Meanwhile, Valencia and Cory have begun excavating panel holes #15 and 16 for the “Native American” panel that will be installed. These holes are only about 15 feet from where Natalie and I are working now, but they are in an area that would have been just a few feet from the wall of where the Spanish and French officer’s quarters were located. It will be interesting to see what sorts of artifacts are found here. So far, Valencia and Cory are finding a lot of gravel in Layer A, and it most likely came from the roadway that was put through here when there used to be a campground nearby. 

Thursday, April 20

Today we continued the panel holes for the “Life in a Frontier Fort” panel. After some cleaning up of Layer B, we hit what we believe to be bedrock only about 25 to 30 cm beneath the ground’s surface. In other holes we have seen thick layers of chalk and clay interchanging to more than 50 cm deep. It just doesn’t show up here, so there must not have been a need to fill in the land in this area. Most of what we removed from these two holes seems to be loose debris and some chalk rubble. At the holes for the “Native Americans” panel, hole #’s 15 and 16, we began excavating Layer B, but no artifacts were found. No deeper than 10-12 cm below the surface, we hit big pieces of chalk. In the right side panel we were still in Layer A, so not much was found.

Friday, April 21

Today we had a volunteer and clean-up day out at the fort. We would like to thank everyone that came out to help clean up the fort, including Mrs. Rosa Hall, Steven Meredith, James Lamb, Tim Truelove, Jessica Smyth, Daniel Rhodes, and Connor Kendrick and Tyler Sessions of Delta Chi. The last two were recruited by UWA alum and fort supporter Jay Lindsey. 

Rosa led several volunteers in scrubbing and painting the iron fence that is around the granite monument. The fence has a plaque that reminds visitors that students from the History Department of the Alabama Normal College (now UWA) donated the fence. The monument itself was erected by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in 1915. Its antiquated text is a reminder of how important history and archaeology are for correcting our perspectives on the past. The text reads, in part: “Where civilization and savagery met and the wilderness beheld the glory of France.”

While this was going on, we were able to get the right side of panel hole number 13 cleaned up for a photo. We also started hitting bedrock on the left side of the “Life” panel, but were not able to finish it before we left for the day. In the “Native Americans” panel holes, we continued on #16. We started to dig it out with a shovel to try and finish the hole because by this time we had not seen anything significant. After some digging, we noticed a change in clay color on the East side of the hole. Additionally, we noticed that we were pulling up big pieces of glass, a button, a clasp, and other artifacts, so we went back to using trowels and going at it slowly. We have encountered some sort of feature, perhaps a trash pit, which is full of artifacts. The pieces of olive green wine bottle are shaped like those dating to the latter half of the 18th century, so we suspect that this pit is full of Spanish-period artifacts. We won’t know for sure until all the dirt is screened, washed at the lab and carefully sorted. Unfortunately, the pit extends beyond the borders of this panel hole, so future students will have to finish excavating it. Look carefully in the photo below, and you'll see three layers of a brass button that came apart as it was excavated. 

          For the “Native Americans” panel, hole #13, we used an iron pick ax to break through the chalk, which turns out to have been more rubble and clay intentionally placed as fill. It was deposited directly on top of the chalk bedrock.

 Saturday, April 22

Today was Community Day. We would like to thank everybody that came out, along with the helpers that came out to make the day a success. Officially, we had 87 people come out and visit!

          At 10:30 am everyone gathered around under the flags of the fort, where Dr. Dumas gave a brief talk on the history of the fort. Then, we walked to each panel, unveiling them one by one and giving a brief summery of what was on each. (The “Life at a Frontier Fort” and “Native Americans” panels are not installed yet since we haven’t quite finished the holes. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the walk and was really interested in the panels. Again, we cannot thank everyone enough for coming out today. After we finished the unveiling, we went about the day as normal with digging and allowed the visitors to help if they liked.

Below, Dr. Dumas unveils the panel about the Tombigbee River, and a close-up of the panel installation nearing completion. 

We were able to finish panel hole 14 today even though, while Natalie was digging, she would have some of the community come up and ask her questions. She did an amazing job in talking with the kids and the rest of the community, and letting them help dig and find artifacts. We screened dirt from panel hole 15. Valencia screened and had many visitors come over to watch, as well as screen the dirt. They seemed to be very interested in this. Cory continued digging into panel hole 16, focusing on removing all of the soil and artifacts from Feature 39, the trash pit. We also opened up four new holes along the line of where the French palisade used to run. Cedar posts are placed every 4 meters to outline where the palisade used to be and to help visitors see how the existing Spanish earthworks covered over the footprint of the earlier French fort. There are four remaining cedar posts to install, but we first have to carefully excavated where they will go, making sure that they don’t destroy any remaining parts of the palisade, such as wood, the builder’s trench, or any associated artifacts. After opening up the holes, I demonstrated for volunteers how we went about digging with trowels.

From the bottom of all of our hearts, we would like to say “Thank you!” to everyone who helped us make this day a success. 

Week 11 of Field School

April 11 and 13

by Valencia Moore

Greetings Readers,

          Like all other weeks at field school this has been an awesome one. Myself, Skyler, Cory, Natalie, and Dr. Dumas are all filled with energy and have the same two goals in mind. The first of those two goals is to finish excavating each panel hole to install signs throughout the fort for Community Day. The signs that will be installed will provide visitors with a brief description of the area where they stand. The second goal is to use our time wisely and have all layers of dirt screened and sorted through by April 22. 

          I spent April 11 screening dirt excavated from panel hole #12, which is one of the holes for the “Archaeology and Preservation” panel. Based on the large numbers of bones, ceramics, and nails in the dirt, we think that this hole is located in a French period midden. A midden is a layer of debris that builds up as a result of human activity. In most cases, midden can simply be described as garbage. All of those artifacts were found in Layer A or Layer B. A few pieces of bone were found in Layer C. In panel hole #11, less than three feet from where I’m working, Cory dug into the third layer (Layer C) and got a clearer view of a large piece of chalk approximately 15 cm wide. It seems to be more of the chalk rubble that we have found elsewhere on the site (see previous blog posts) and that we suspect was being used to fill in erosional gullies. Cory attempted to screen the soil from panel hole #11 but it was too wet, so he left it laying out to dry with the hopes of screening it the following day. Cory and I both managed to finish panel holes 11 & 12.

Due to there being a lot of rainfall on Monday, Natalie and Skyler had to postpone their excavations. They began working on panel holes 18 & 19, which are being excavated for the panel about the Tombigbee River. They began setting up their unit squares and started new paper work for those units and got fast to work. In panel hole 19, Skyler found a roughly circular area about 10 cm that was full of charcoal and dark soil. 

He dug and dug, finding no artifacts. Finally, deep beneath the surface, he found a screw shank nail that had been clenched. Screw shank nails were developed in the mid-19th century and were made of iron. The nail we found in the deep hole, clearly a post hole, is steel, so it is a 20th century nail. We think that this post hole and screw shank nail are associated with a barbed wire fence that once ran across this part of the cliff. The fact that it is clenched near its head could mean that it was used to hold wire on a fence post. In any case, it is not a colonial post and nail. 

In nearby panel hole 18, Natalie found a thick layer of clay like the orange clay that we have seen elsewhere and interpreted as fill. Dr. Dumas is having her dig it out to see how deep it goes.  

          I hope you enjoyed this updated blog post. See you next time!

Week 10 of Field School

by Natalie Mooney


Hello Readers,

Fort Tombecbe has had an exciting week this week as many artifacts have been discovered during the week. Work has continued on Panel holes 12, 13, 14 and each panel hole has revealed a plentitude of artifacts. On Thursday, we also had the illustrious Tim Truelove and Professor Lamb visit the site in order to proceed with the placing of the panels.


In Valencia’s unit, Panel Hole 12, where she has excavated to Layer C, she has discovered what we believe to be a French midden as there are many different artifacts including ceramics, nails, and the prevalent type of artifact in her unit--bone. It is interesting to note that there may be a midden in this location as the unit itself is located in between the Commandant’s Quarters, the Troop Kitchen, and the Barracks. (A midden is any accumulation of artifacts resulting from human activities in a particular location.) The photo below shows a sample of the artifacts from this midden.


Panel Holes 18 and 19 were placed next to the cliff overlooking the Tombigbee River. We had originally speculated that there would not be a lot to dig in that location as it was so far out on the bluff. We were proven wrong quite quickly as Dr. Dumas uncovered the orange clay that is present throughout many of our units throughout the fort and was part of an eighteenth-century filling and levelling activity. Strangely enough this panel hole goes much deeper than Panel Hole 10, where we had also found the clay.  This signifies once again the tremendous efforts that went into creating the fort’s level area.


Skyler and I were assigned to begin excavating Panel Holes 13 and 14. This panel is titled “Life at the Fort” and describes the living conditions of the garrison at Fort Tombecbe. These panel holes are located in the general vicinity of the Commandant’s Quarters and the Commandant’s Kitchen.  As we began to excavate the first layer we were extremely aware of the very dense and compacted dirt. This layer held few artifacts, but was hard to dig through. In the next layer, we discovered a layer of chalk rubble covering the entire unit. This rubble was similar to what we were seeing throughout the fort, but it was much higher up. This layer was filled with tons of artifacts. In my particular unit, Panel Hole 14, I found charcoal, ceramic, mortar, and lots of nails. There was one nail that was standing straight up, which indicates that there was disturbance to the midden in this area. This is known because when buildings decay or rot artifacts are left laying on their sides, which is how most artifacts are found. When an artifact like this is found, then that means a person or animal came and intervened in some way to alter the resting position of the artifact. The mortar signifies that a building was located in our general vicinity, which makes sense when looking at the maps of Fort Confederation. I have to admit, I made a mistake this week. It is a valuable learning point, however, so learn from my mistakes. In the absolute center of my unit I was hacking away at the chalk trying to get through this layer efficiently, when Dr. Dumas noticed a piece of what we thought was natural that had a significant burn mark. I saved it to the side and then Professor Lamb walked over to view what we were doing and he discovered that it was a very large pipe bowl, hence the burn marks. This is one of the reasons why archaeology is supposed to be done slowly and carefully. Had I excavated as I am supposed to, the pipe bowl would still be in one piece. I cannot stress enough how important that this lesson should be to all incoming field school students. If you are not sure what something is pedestal the object and excavate it carefully. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you are conscious as to what you are doing mistakes will be minimized.

The photos below show the careful excavation of the clay pipe pieces by me, with James Lamb and Tim Truelove looking on, and a closer photo of some of the pipe pieces, showing sooting on the interior.  

In Panel Hole 13, Skyler was getting through the chalk without finding nearly as many artifacts as I was. As he began to get deeper, and Thursday began to come to a close, more artifacts began appearing. One of the more interesting finds was a small, metal panel (about one inch wide by two inches long) that had rivets within it. I would expect on our return after Spring Break that he will discover many more artifacts.


As I mentioned earlier, the week of March 27-31 is the University of West Alabama’s Spring Break so there will be no excavations done that week. So thank you for your continued interest in the affairs of the 2017 Fort Tombecbe Field School.

Week 9 of Field School 2017

by Skyler Browder

14 March 2017

We continued Panel hole 11 “Archaeology and Preservation” on the left side. While digging, we found a small cut glass ring setting; it was a bluish-green jewelry setting. As well, in the change of soil (Layer B) of the hole, there was a small piece of pottery found, as well as a lot of charcoal. One of the 1980 dig units was just North of where these artifacts were found. In the report for that dig, there is no mention that anything of significance was found, but we believe that we are digging either where or right outside of the Spanish Officer’s Mess would have been. We believe that we are around the mess because on the maps we have, there is a building there that is said to be the mess. In the next hole to the right of where that one was dug (Panel hole 12), we found a lot of bone shards, most likely deer or some other kind of common animal around the area. We believe that it is mostly deer bone because the deer have always been dense in population, and the local Indians would most likely traded deer skins and meat to the Europeans in the fort. We also finished drawing the profile walls for panel hole 8. We draw the profile walls, so we can properly show how the layers looks, and better understand what was being seen in a bigger picture, as we dug the hole. The drawing will show each of the layers that we excavated.