Going to high school in rural Alabama has its pros, but being given the opportunity to dig square pits in the ground rarely comes up as a top among them. Contrary to that idea, Handley High School Community Studies students cherish the opportunity they get to experience a once-in-a-lifetime adventure as they take part in the annual archaeological dig right in Randolph County.
Every year the dig introduces students to a whole different world, challenging their imagination, ability to thrive in group projects and physical strength.
This year the HHS Community Studies instructors, Merredith Sears, Chris Glass, Cadie Tipton and HHS plant biotech instructor Jennifer Kirby took their classes out into the great outdoors, not knowing that their discoveries would date back to the Paeolithic era.
Tuskegee University archivist and instructor Dana Chandler helped to guide the group as they started test pits based on the locations of pits dug in previous years at this particular location. This Middle Woodland Era Native American dig site produced various forms of pottery, points, arrowheads, a celt, a hoe, various rock features and more making this year quite successful for the dig crew.
On the first day of the dig, students were given the chance to explore on their own to walk around and see what artifacts they could find just by being observant and alert to unique objects. Finding interesting objects such as pretty rocks and mistaking them for points and pottery was common for the first few days, but soon students began to see the differences and were able to decipher basic rocks from unique points and pottery.
Community Studies student Keyona Staples explained that when the dig began, she felt as if everything she found was something important. “I’m always asking,” she says. “(but I get told) ‘It’s a rock’ – that’s all I got told my first day.”
Other students were more successful at finding points however and keeping track of just how many they found was quite a task.
“I lost count,” said student Alex Anthony when asked to put a number on his numerous discoveries.
On the fourth day of the dig, Alexis Cox was sifting dirt from one of the pits through a screen when she came upon an object. “At first I didn’t know what it was,” Cox explained. “I just thought it was kind of like all the other points we had been finding.”
From the wall of a pit, Cox had discovered a Clovis point dating back to 10,000 B.C. This Paeolithic tool is believed to have been traded in from farther up in the state due to its Fort Payne chert material makeup.
“When I found out what it was, I couldn’t believe that was what we just found,” Cox said. “Everybody was so shocked about it.”
The unique find sparked a new excitement on the second to last day of the dig.
“Every day we find the same kind of stuff, and all of a sudden, we find that, so it’s pretty cool!” Cox said.
HHS history teacher Cadie Tipton explained the significance of the Clovis point. “The point itself is an incredible find,” she explained. “but adding to its value is (the fact) that there are no known Paleolithic sites in Randolph County. Clovis points have been found throughout North America, but this is the first of its kind to be discovered locally.” Tipton explained that it was not hard to find out what kind of point it was. “The point was easily identified based on its signature fluted sides,” she said.
Because of the nature of the point, it is believed that the area where the dig took place was possibly a trading center. Other unique artifacts, such as Weeden Island culture pottery traced to South Alabama, and other locations, such as North Georgia and South Carolina, point to the fact that items had to have been traded in.
Students bagged and tagged each artifact that was collected during the dig following a specific process. Tanner Huey explained the process from receiving the artifact to bagging and tagging it.
After receiving an artifact, Huey expounded, “We verify it, see if it’s a point or a piece of pottery, and then after that they give us a name and where they found it.”
Huey explained the pit-naming system that the students used while on the dig and how the pit names were used to tag the bags that artifacts were placed in.
“I wash (the artifact) off with a toothbrush and dish soap, and then China would write down the name (of who found it) and the place they found it and the date and bag it,” Huey said.
Another important discovery was clay found in another pit, which suggests what the group believes was the foundation of a Native American house or wigwam.
Apart from archaeology, Kirby’s plant biotech class created a topographic map, conducted research on snail population in the nearby creek and tested the soil.
Students were able to practice true archeological methods while on the dig as they followed procedures for digging, surveying, observing and more throughout the week.
“Our discoveries are changing things we already knew about this place, about this land, these people, and so this very well could end up in an archaechological journal one day, and we have to make sure we’ve done everything as they (archerologists) would do it,” Tipton said.