Archaeology in the Time of COVID: How the past followed me into my garden

By Jon Endonino
Archaeologist, Eastern Kentucky University

Archaeology in 2020, at least for me was, and remains, a hot mess on a scale not to be surpassed by a smoldering landfill. Everything has been thrown into disarray because of COVID-19. I am not alone in this sentiment, and I know it. Across my university students, staff, and faculty had their lives profoundly disrupted and things won’t likely be going back to anything resembling normal any time soon. Effectively our university, Eastern Kentucky University, shut down in mid-March in what came to feel like a disorientingly long Spring Break that later morphed into Summer Vacation.

I teach an archaeological field school every other year and summer 2020 I was planning to return to Daniel Boone National Forest to begin work in a new rock shelter, despite COVID, and planned as though it was going to happen. Until it didn’t. Out of an abundance of caution, and waiting until the last possible moment, I canceled the field school rather than risk students’ well-being. So quite unexpectedly I was confronted by a summer without archaeology. The first such summer I have had in…my adult life. It was a strange feeling – normally I’m planning and conducting field work during summers. But not summer 2020. Now what?!

Summer merged seamlessly with the end of the spring semester and I went about life as per normal but with considerably more time on my hands. That, along with self-quarantine, meant I was spending an inordinate amount of time at home minus trips to the grocery store. As things began to warm up in spring I turned my attention to the flowerbeds in my front yard. As summer progressed I began focusing on the backyard – I built raised planter boxes from lumber salvaged from my home restoration and filled them with earth excavated from under my kitchen and bathroom. You see, under my house over a century of dark, organically enriched midden deposits from the early 20th century built up and eventually allowed water and termites to eat away the sill, joists, floors, and walls. So during renovation, those dark, rich, fertile archaeological deposits had to go. But I recognized it was perfect for gardening so I asked my contractor to stash in in piles along my back fence. I knew I would use it, but when and how were unknown. As it turns out, that was a smart idea.

Gardening inadvertently got me doing archaeology. It brought me into direct contact with the historic past. My house lot holds the residues from early 20th century residential, urban life in Richmond Kentucky. My first engagement was in April when I was planting lavender, coreopsis, and dianthus in my front garden. While making a place in the ground for these plants I found a piece of blue transfer print ceramic, some bottle glass, and a marble. All I set to the side to inspect later. I found the ceramic puzzling since I didn’t recognize the decorative motif, so I sent a picture to my good friend Tracy (a historic archaeologist). She recognized it immediately – “Phoenix ware.”

Phoenix Ware from my front garden most likely associated with the Ballard Family

That encounter with that one artifact set me on the path to digging deeper into the history of my house and the people who lived there. I tracked down the U.S. Census data from 1910, 1920, and 1930. I learned who lived in my house and how the property changed over time – becoming split into apartments by the 1930s with additions to the ground and second floors to accommodate at least two families. I became aware that my home, and all the houses on my street have been, and remain to this day, thoroughly working class and blue collar. Sanborn fire insurance maps clearly show that few houses have been demolished and replaced since they were built in the first two decades of the 20th century. Honestly, my neighborhood warrants designation as a historic district. Painters, plasterers, carpenters, brick masons, truck drivers, nurses, telephone operators, farm hands, and general laborers lived in my home or in my neighbors’ homes. Things lost and discarded are what brought me into contact with these folks decades to a century since they last lived here. As it turns out, the Phoenix ceramic was likely owned and used by the family that built my house circa 1906 – the Ballards. A simple chance encounter with a tiny fragment of tableware resulted in a deeper dive into the people who lived in this house. Because of that I kept archaeology in mind as I turned my attention to gardening in the backyard.

As summer vacation was drawing to a close I started planning a fall garden and I built two raised planter boxes and a compost bin from scrap wood salvaged during renovations in the house. Once I had those placed where I wanted them and leveled I filled them with the earth from under my kitchen. So there I was – in long pants and long sleeve shirt – shoveling those salvaged and curated archaeological deposits into a shaker screen inside a planter box. I spent several hours doing this, carefully inspecting each screen full of displaced archaeological deposits for artifacts from the former owners and tenants. Did I need to do that? No. But at the end of it all I had well sifted, aerated soils for my garden that will hopefully be producing tasty fall vegetables in a couple of months.

After all that extra work sifting soil I was not disappointed with what I found. Indeed, a couple of surprises turned up. Not surprising was how common cinders and coal fragments were. After all, there were five coal burning fireplaces in my house at one time. Construction debris was assertively represented by numerous fragments of brick, mortar, window glass, and cut nails of a variety of sizes. A few of the nails were large spikes I believe were from the old stables and carriage house that once stood where my garage now sits. Container glass was frequent and included patent medicine and Mason jar fragments, most were plain and non-descript. Ceramics were disappointingly few but the ones that I did find were all whiteware. Most of the whiteware were plates, plain and undecorated with one exception that had a thin gilded band around the rim. Apparently the inhabitants of the property were fans of ham steaks. Since day one living here I’ve been finding these frequently in the backyard. The census documents identify several children living in the house in the 20th century but to date I’ve only found one children’s toy – a clay marble – during my gardening. Quite unexpectedly I discovered that there’s a prehistoric Native American occupation on my property. Several pieces of debitage (stone chips from tool-making) turned up, tangible proof that people lived here well before my house was built, Richmond was settled, or the Western Hemisphere was colonized.

Assorted artifacts recovered from the garden while screening the midden under the kitchen floor

Although CODID-19 thwarted the plans I had for archaeology in 2020 it redirected my attention in an unexpected direction – my backyard. While I was quite aware that my backyard is an archaeological site and I’ve come into contact with the residues of previous owners and tenants, until self-quarantining and working from home I had not made the deep dive into the recent archaeological past that I live within and atop. And now that gardening has foregrounded that past, I’ve found myself contemplating its academic potential for a community archaeology project on Working Class Archaeology. Future improvements in my backyard offer some unique learning opportunities for my students in the coming semesters (Historical Archaeology in Spring 2021, Archaeology and the Law). Building a walkway and preparing new planter beds by the garage will impact intact deposits associated with the midden yard midden and the privy (outhouse) near the garage. I could not in good conscience move forward with those home improvement projects without properly documenting through excavation and analysis those parts of my yard. I feel a sense of obligation as the current owner of this old house to preserve the tangible evidence of the people who once lived here and piece together as I can what their lives were like as I move forward building a life in the same place. COVID-19, by keeping me close to home, helped to inspire this new appreciation for my home, my neighborhood, and the lives of the people who once lived and worked here.

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