[dropcap]A[/dropcap]manda Balough spent part of her summer up to her knees in dirt, broken pottery and pieces of brick as she looked for remnants of a fort that was once key to America’s war for control of the frontier in west-central Ohio.
“It felt as though I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle but could only find a few of the pieces,” said Balough, an anthropology graduate student and a member of a Ball State group digging near the site of Fort Recovery. The military outpost, built in 1793 and used until 1812, is in the historic 1,300-person community of the same name that’s between Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Dayton, Ohio.
“In this case, the pieces to the puzzle were strewn over a larger area and covered by layers of dirt and clay,” she said. “It was made more difficult because a home from the early 1800s was built over this part of the fort, and the community’s retail district site was built nearly on top of that.”
Balough and nine undergraduate students spent nearly six weeks this summer under a broiling sun in small trenches, uncovering bits and pieces of artifacts. Their work is part of an immersive learning experience that began in 2011 and is evolving beyond a mission targeting U.S. Army-Indian battles of the late 1700s to include civilian life during and after that timeframe.
“We would dig down a few centimeters (about an inch) and find a few items,” she said. “Then we would dig down a few more centimeters and find other things. This went on day after day in the hot sun. It was a very methodical process.”
Connor McCoy, a 20-year old Ball State junior studying anthropology and history, unearthed pieces of a pistol from about the time of the fort’s construction and spent several weeks in the department’s lab cleaning his findings.
“I really love working outside, and this project allowed us to get down in the dirt, digging through years to find artifacts,” he said. “We are learning a great deal about what went on hundreds of years ago.”
Over the years, the project has uncovered various types of machinery, pottery and building materials used by settlers.
McCoy also found pieces of a glass bottle that led to sleuthing. Able to see only a few letters on the glass, he determined that the bottle was created at the Terre Haute Brewing Co.’s facility in 1909.
“We picked up our phones, used Google to do some research and found a photo of the glass bottle in a few minutes,” he said. “Modern technology like a smartphone is very helpful with this type of archaeology sometimes.”
Digging into history
During the last five years, Ball State faculty, students and Applied Anthropology Laboratories archaeologists have conducted various archaeological research and preservation activities on the entire 787-acre battlefield, which is the site of the Battle of the Wabash (1791) and the Battle of Fort Recovery (1794).
The U.S. government re-created the fort near the original site during the Great Depression as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. That facility was rebuilt in 1956 to replace the decaying re-creation.
“We knew the approximate location of the fort, but our goal was to find evidence where the walls stood,” said Mark Groover, an anthropology professor overseeing the field school. “We know that some re-creations are not exactly accurate, especially when it was built 150 years after the facility was torn down. Our job is to find evidence by finding the remnants of the wood from that era.”
In 2011, Ball State began its research project, and students discovered a probable 17-foot portion of the original palisade wall and parts of a musket dating to the late 1700s.
The Ball State team at Fort Recovery, called a field school, refocused efforts this summer, using a recently discovered 1793 map of the area that indicated the dimensions and layout of the fort and its general location. Ground-penetrating radar survey was also conducted before the field school to look for subsurface evidence of fort remains.
“This is a dynamic urban site that has been occupied for more than 200 years, giving the students a better understanding of how history impacts their work,” Groover said. “The area has changed a great deal in the 200 years. Homes were built, streets laid out, and then when the WPA came along during the Great Depression to build a re-creation of the fort, workers added a great deal of dirt to level out the area.
“So, our students got a pretty good idea this summer of how urban archaeology is compacted by the decades and centuries — layer by layer,” he said. “As we unearth pottery and other items, we also can get a pretty good understanding of how people lived.”
Understanding the past
The findings of the last several years are also helping to revise current understanding of the fort and the engagements that occurred at the site, said Christine Thompson, a Ball State archaeologist in the Applied Anthropology Laboratories who has applied for a grant to write a book focusing on the fort, the Battle of the Wabash and the Battle of Fort Recovery.
“Over the years, our research has led to improving the archaeological processes we use to better understand the battlefield,” she said. “Using our archaeology data results and GIS (geographic information system) data modeling, we have been able to shed more light on how big the battlefield really was as well as how both the Battle of the Wabash and the Battle of Fort Recovery unfolded.”
Ball State students also created 15 interpretive signs for the battlefield as part of an American Battlefield Protection Program grant. This project will help the public engage in the rich history and the detailed archaeological research that has revealed this new depth and breadth of the story of the Northwest Territory, Thompson said.
“We hope our research informs and educates those interested in the battles and assists the community in preserving and protecting the battlefield,” she said. “Without a doubt, our students are learning about significant events in our nation’s history. These battles shaped our nation’s young history in this part of the country.”
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