Georgia State University student Van Forbes likes to get a little dirty when it comes to studying history.
Forbes is an archaeology student at Georgia State — so he gets to play in the dirt a fair bit — and he recently made his first trip to the Fort Daniel site in Buford to participate in archaeological research at Hog Mountain. He helped carefully scrap up dirt into shovels, pour the dirt into buckets and then pour those buckets into screeners which were used to shake and sift through the dirt.
The treasure that he was looking for wasn’t anything big. Maybe a small shard of pottery, a bit of a chamber pot or possibly even a Native American tool if he was lucky.
Any discovery would have been a sign of centuries-old human activity at the War of 1812-era fort site, however, and that would have made Forbes happy.
“It’s really neat, just to be able to dig into the dirt and pull up something that someone may have last touched 200 years ago,” Forbes said.
The work being done at the Fort Daniel site, as well as archaeological sites across Georgia, is in the spotlight right now because May is Georgia Archaeology Month. The annual observance is organized by The Society For Georgia Archaeology as way to educate the public on what goes on at archaeological sites around the state.
It also highlights what can be found at those sites and how archaeologists identify items they have found at dig sites.
“A lot of people think we dig up dinosaur bones, but we don’t,” Gwinnett Archaeological Research Society President Delana Gilmore said. “(The Society For Georgia Archaeology) started this to be a community outreach, to inform people about different types of archaeology and that has evolved to, each May, the governor will put out a proclamation that May is Georgia Archaeology Month, and we focus on a certain era or certain type of archaeology.”
An underwater theme for this year
The theme for this year’s Georgia Archaeology Month is “Heritage Under the Waters: The Archaeology of Georgia’s Reservoirs.”
“Before they created the reservoirs, there were a lot of cities (in the eventual lake beds) that are under water now,” Gilmore said.
This year’s underwater theme highlights the fact that there is another local attraction which Gwinnett residents may not realize is an archaeological site: Lake Lanier.
Lake Lanier was formed when Buford Dam was built in the 1950s and several parts of the community that had been in what is now a lake bed were submerged when the Chattahoochee River was dammed.
Some parts of buildings that were submerged, such as the grandstands for an old racetrack, briefly saw the light of day in the late 2000s when a drought caused a dramatic drop in lake levels. Prior to that, doing archaeological research on the bottom of the lake faced the unique challenges of being underwater.
“(Archaeologists) were able to do some digging from that (drought period),” Gilmore said.
Why the attraction to archaeology?
To students of archaeology, history, anthropology or other related fields, there is a draw to having a chance to participate in a dig and search for history that is irresistible.
“Finding an artifact — you know it has its own story to tell,” said Jonathan Brown, who is studying U.S. history at Georgia Gwinnett College.
It can be tedious work. There’s the careful scraping away of layers of dirt with trowels and other small tools. There’s snipping away at tree roots which get in the way one at a time. Dirt must be put into a bucket until there is enough to pour into a screener, which then must be shaken to get all of the small particles of dirt to fall through the screen.
Then there is the picking through the roots and rocks left in the screener to see if any artifacts are tucked away among the rough stuff. And if there are any artifacts, each must be bagged, and information about where it were found on the site, what it is and when it was found must be noted.
But for the people who are into history, all of that work is worth it.
“For me personally, it’s the knowledge and being able to put the past into context,” Forbes said. “We have 5,000 years of recorded history but there’s a whole lot of human activity that predated that that we can’t just go look at historical records to find out.”
For archaeologists and archaeology students, as well as people in related fields, the artifacts found at a dig site are clues to what happened there in the past. In many cases, they can help paint a picture of everyday life in past culture.
“I like archaeology because it seems less speculative,” Georgia Gwinnett College student Katherine Carlsrud said. “You find something and you know they had this here so this had to have a use if they had it here and what can we get from that to figure out what happened here.”
Georgia Gwinnett management information systems student Wendy Gilenson said she is looking at someday pursuing a master’s degree in archaeology and anthropology at Georgia State. She recently participated in a dig at the Fort Daniel site during its College Day in April and it was her first time visiting the Gwinnett County-owned property.
“I’ve always been interested in (archaeology) and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Gilenson said. “Honestly, I’m getting my other degrees, but this is something I’d like to do in my retirement. I think it would just be neat to volunteer at places and use my archaeology degree when I retire.”
Highlighting local archaeology at Fort Daniel
While this year’s Georgia Archaeology Month theme highlights the history that can be found at the bottom of the state’s popular reservoirs, the Fort Daniel site in Buford is perhaps Gwinnett County’s most high-profile archaeological site.
Digs have been taking place at the site on Hog Mountain since 2007. Opportunities such as Georgia Archaeology Month, Fort Daniel Foundation President Jim D’Angelo said, serve as chances to show residents the importance of archaeology.
“One aspect of this is the chance to educate the public as to the history and how archaeology is employed in the study of history,” he said.
The most recent dig at Fort Daniel was during the site’s first-ever College Day on April 13, when students from local colleges could come to the site and participate in archaeological digs.
Students from Georgia State University, Georgia Gwinnett College and the University of North Georgia participated in the event.
“Archaeology can be used to tell a story,” Gilmore said. “I mean (on College Day), we found pieces of chamber pots, and (archaeologists can explain) to children and adults ... their history and how much has changed even in a few years in Gwinnett with the explosion of buildings and everything.
“It’s good to know where we started. In Gwinnett, we started right here in this area on Hog Mountain.”
The War of 1812 fort predated Gwinnett County by a few years and the archaeological work that has been conducted there has yielded a treasure trove of artifacts including 200-year-old silverware, shirt buttons, pieces of glassware and shards of pottery.
Prehistoric tools have been found as well at the site.
“That’s good for showing the public that even though we might have exhausted what we thought we had, there’s still stuff to find,” Gilmore said.
Members of the Fort Daniel Foundation and the Gwinnett Archaeological Research Society, along with archaeology students — mainly from Georgia State University — have also uncovered the sites of the fort’s two block houses. In addition to the block houses, they have found the trench line where Fort Daniel’s exterior walls once stood.
Although there have been archaeological digs taking place at the Fort Daniel site for years, there is no exact count on how many artifacts have been recovered. A more approximate number is expected to be available once a Fort Daniel Foundation intern, Karen Lomba, finishes work to catalog all of the artifacts.
D’Angelo estimated the number of historic and prehistoric items found at the site is likely in the thousands.
“We want to enter them into a database so we can manage the data and learn from the data, and you can only put them in a computer database if you — and this is true of anything, if it’s medical records or whatever it is — if they’re organized and have the same rubricks, the same definitions and codes,” D’Angelo said.
An open house to highlight local archaeology
The Fort Daniel Foundation and the Gwinnett Archaeological Research Society will team up to showcase the work they’ve done at the Fort Daniel site during their annual Open House event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 11.
The free event is open to the public and will include tours of the Fort Daniel Museum, living history demonstrations, War of 1812 re-enactors, a look at Fort Daniel’s archaeology lab and active archaeological digs. It will be held at the Fort Daniel site, which is located at 2505 Braselton Highway.
“We have a new archaeology lab display that people can see how we take our artifacts, process them and all of that,” Gilmore said.
“As usual, there will be digging, but also we’re going to have a couple new aspects to show people the difference between (early 19th Century) historic artifacts that we get here mostly and the little part that is prehistoric to show that, yes, this is a (War of 1812) historic site, but Native American people were here in 3,000 B.C.”