Sunday, August 28, 2011

Archaeologist, volunteers dig up old Saginaw home

In the Cathedral District, a bag of Cheetos can make history make sense.

For Jeff Sommer, curator of archaeology at the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History, when Cheetos happen to pop up at his dig sites, they sometimes tell him stories other artifacts can't.

This week, two bags of the snack — with buy-by dates from 1993 — were discovered in the same pile with 19th century brick, glass and nails at an archaeological effort that Sommer hopes paints a better portrait of the average Saginaw family, circa 1893.

The junk food likely wasn't a part of the diet of the McMasters — the family that lived in a home at the site before Saginaw's Great Fire of 1893 burned the house to the ground — but both bags' presence, along with evidence of a nearby ground hog tunnel, clue him in that this dig hasn't remained entirely untouched over the decades.

"That makes me feel better," Sommer said. "That explains why there's other stuff mixed in (with the older artifacts.) That makes sense."

In archaeology, details are important, he'll tell you.

Sommer and a group of Central Michigan University interns and other volunteers for two weeks have been shoveling out such details from the old McMaster residence, now buried feet-deep in the soil of an otherwise-normal Cathedral District neighborhood.

Sommer chose to dig around the location because Neighborhood Renewal Services owns the land and granted him and his team permission to explore.

According to city directories from 1893-94, the McMasters were a family of six: Anna, Allen D., Allen D. Jr., James F., Lizzie and Solomon. Allen D. Jr. was a letter carrier, and James F. was a janitor.

Other items recovered at their former residence so far: Burned glass, burned wood, burned nails, burned brick. Evidence of the fire that swallowed more than 257 Saginaw buildings — a blaze that stretched from Ojibway Island northeast to this neighborhood — is at Sommer's feet.

All he has to do is dig.

"We're hoping this is going to tell us about the everyday lives of the ordinary family back then," he said, "rather than the extraordinary events we know about."

The most interesting item, Sommer said, was a clay marble child's toy that may have belonged to some modern Saginaw resident's distant ancestor.

He's hoping for more evidence. And he's inviting the public to join the discovery.

Throughout this month and September, Sommer plans to tend to the dig every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and has invited residents to stop by and watch.

So far, he and his crew have shoveled about 6 feet into the dirt, in a 10-foot-by-15-foot rectangle of earth.

The archaeologists are more precise in their digging than, say, an undertaker.

Segmenting 1-meter-by-1-meter sections, Sommer and his group carefully brush, dig and polish away soil from their findings before moving on to the next space.

When they're finished, Sommer hopes to collect the most significant findings and begin work on a new Castle Museum exhibit that tells the McMasters' story.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

No comments: