The majority of the population is familiar with artifacts, museums, and how antiquity varies from many different cultures. Browsing through archaeological exhibits and flipping through catalogues filled with glamorous images of re-discovered items are entertaining and neat ways to learn about the past, however, in some cases it’s the stories left untold that are the ones most worth listening to. Just picking up an artifact from the ground isn’t enough to tell a complete story; in fact, it is far from it. Yes, the systematic uncovering of artifacts is a big part of what archaeology is about. But the broader principles of historical archaeology allow for a fuller story can be told. For example, information is collected from every layer of soil; even data about the composition of soil is critical. The importance, and complexity, of archaeology goes beyond finding “cool” things, building a collection, and the thrill of the find. Archaeology allows us to give a voice to those who were a part of history and the past. Archaeology is a way to explore materials left behind, as well as a wonderful opportunity to get the public involved in learning about history; from the international to the local. From artifacts large and small, each holds a significant, yet priceless importance to shaping a site in its historical context. Bricks, coal, and shards of glass, for example: all of these objects seem ordinary and insignificant, but when looking into the past they can mean a great deal.
I have been lucky enough to be part of an ongoing archaeological project in this region that illustrates the importance of small details and undocumented or unspoken stories. The Clermont Academy, also known as the Parker Academy, was one of the first, if not the first school in the US to accept all races and genders—it was located just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, in New Richmond, Ohio (and a number of students from Kentucky attended it). The school began in1839 and continued to operate during one of the darkest times in American history – The Civil War; and it remained open until c. 1890. Blacks, men and women, old and young, traveled near and far to reach the Clermont Academy in order to attend school and to live. Now, over 120 years later, only the woman’s dormitory still remains, the rest of the campus including the men’s dormitory, and the school itself are primarily represented by buried evidence scattered across the lower area of the site (https://parkeracademy.wordpress.com/about/).
I have come to know and to love the portion of the site that contains the foundation of the schoolhouse and the men’s dorm. Since 2015, I have worked with a team of students and faculty from NKU and we have focused excavations on uncovering the lives of the students who attended, lived, and survived at the Academy. We are exploring and documenting the remains of daily life and as such, we students are the first students to learn at the Clermont Academy in over 120 years. The artifacts we have uncovered as well as the actual location of the site are telling. The schoolhouse stood in a low ground floodplain surrounded by many trees and a creek. The site is somewhat hidden and therefore relatively secure, which was important because it was a place for black students to escape from slavery and gain an education. However, although the academy was located in Ohio (a “free state”), it was not safe from prosecutors and slave owners from Kentucky and elsewhere who sought to reclaim their “property”. We also know that the academy was able to withstand raids from both the archival evidence and from the remains of bullets and lead shot that we have excavated. The Clermont Academy provides an example for why it is important to study history and archaeology. Essentially, archaeologists help recover, preserve and interpret the past. Moreover, teaching about archeology keeps our findings and the lives of people from the past in the present. This makes archaeology and the histories we interpret relevant, and alive in the public consciousness. It is an extraordinary feeling knowing that anywhere humans have been may be an archaeological site and a place we can learn about history.
Text by Sage Boyers; Photos by Sharyn Jones