When I was in the sixth grade, there was nothing I wanted more than to go on an archaeological dig. In 1964, that wasn’t likely to happen for a kid in elementary school growing up in Louisville. So all I could do was check out every library book I could find and soak up the romance I found in magazine articles. Articles with titles like “Amid stones, and bones, and suntanned men….I was a girl archaeologist”. (I still have that article). Even during high school in career counseling sessions, I was told by the good nuns at the private school I attended that ”You can’t do that. Women don’t do that!” I would have to wait until 1971 when, in college at the Univerity of Louisville, I got to step foot on my first archaeological site and begin living the dream.
It’s not like that anymore. Yay!!!! Today, there are opportunities all across Kentucky for kids of all ages- regardless of gender, race, and nationality – to become involved in learning about our collective pasts, and to actively participate in field and lab work. Public archaeology is not only an acceptable means these days to expose non-professionals to the excitement of discovery, it is a two-way street in which professionals, lay people, and students (even sixth graders) contribute as a team, each bringing their own talents, insights, capabilities and their two dirty hands to reveal buried truths about the ways people once lived and interacted with each other.
Figure 1. Nathan and Taylor discover the base of a redware jug.
I’m talking about people like Valentine Conrad, born in 1776, who came to Jefferson County in 1801, established residence, and helped lay out and grow the small community of Jeffersontown twelve miles outside of Louisville. In addition to being a surveyor and farmer, Conrad was a skilled potter who built his kilns in the yard beside his home on Main Street and starting burning redware pots of all kinds for local and regional consumption.
Every year, during the month of September, the public is invited to assist in the exploration of Conrad’s kiln site and excavate amid the piles of wasters and varied pieces of kiln furniture. Thousands of sherds have been uncovered since 2008 when the project began during the annual Gaslight street festival. Students and volunteers have dedicated hours to washing and packaging these sherds. And most of all, we have really enjoyed piecing these items together, trying to figure out what they were and how they were used.
Figure 2. Nick and Owen are finding many broken pots in the sifting screen.
Figure 3. Kiln furniture and broken pots from Conrad’s pottery.
Today, thanks to school field trips, the annual public archaeology day, and the help of interested volunteers who drop in throughout the year, we now know the types and shapes of Conrad’s wares. We know his designs, the colors he used, the forms he favored. We know how his kiln worked, and how he used small hand-made clay objects to stack the pots in his kiln so they would fire without breaking. Because we find dated items, we know he was especially busy at his kiln in 1809 and 1810. Thanks to the work of the public, we can display these items in museums and share, through lectures, the fabulous art of this sophisticated craftsman who started his journey from North Carolina in 1799 to start a new life in the Kentucky wilderness.
Similar stories can be told all around Kentucky. Check out the activities available to you in September during Kentucky Archaeology Month! Come explore with us, get your hands dirty, have your questions ready, share your ideas with us, and don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t. Come live the dream. Whether you are 6 or 60 years old, there is a place for everyone around our sifting screens and lab tables!
Figure 4. Reconstructed 1810 redware deep plate excavated in 2016.
By: Anne Bader
Corn Island Archaeology, LLC