Digging for the Truth

By Daney Daniel Kepple


Photo: Artifact from Ames Plantation
When the students began to find objects like this tiny doll, marbles and an arrowhead collection—they knew they had found the deposit of a child′s playthings.

With colleges, location may not be everything, as it is with real estate, but it can be a definite asset to the academic program. Rhodes, situated in midtown Memphis, draws students to a city that offers an abundant array of internships and service opportunities, a vibrant arts scene and a host of recreational outlets. It also offers a diverse culture that has emerged from a richly-textured past, some of which is coming to light at a large piece of real estate in neighboring Hardeman County, TN—a centuries-old archaeological treasure trove where students, guided by a group of faculty, are literally "digging for the truth."

It’s hard to determine the exact beginning of the story, but it gained impetus in 2003 with the arrival of target=_blank>Ryan Byrne and Milton Moreland, two religious studies professors with almost 30 years of archaeological field experience between them. According to Anthropology/Sociology Department chair Susan Kus, who is an archaeologist herself, “There had always been interest in an archaeology minor among Rhodes faculty and students. When these two knowledgeable and energetic young practitioners appeared, our critical mass as archaeologists and a Hill Grant allowed us to make our dream a reality.”

In a sense, it was the Memphis location that fueled the archaeological dream. Kus explains that this part of the country anchors the major area north of the Rio Grande River for studying Native American tribes that created complex societies with social hierarchies, craft specialization and monumental earth structures that still dot the landscape today.

Byrne and Moreland had gained their expertise in a very different part of the world. Byrne’s dig is at Tel Dan in northern Israel, and he can tell some harrowing stories of his experiences during the recent hostilities between that country and neighboring Lebanon. His site holds the oldest archway in the world, built “before the Romans discovered the arch. And one of our more famous inscriptions is the oldest document to mention the historical King David,” he says.

Moreland’s site seems young by comparison. “I work at Sepphoris,” he explains (an area pioneered by Richard A. Batey, professor emeritus of religious studies). “That area is popular with people doing New Testament studies. It’s in sight of Nazareth and its urban character is reshaping ideas about Galilee in the time of Jesus.”

What attracted the two scholars of the biblical world to a site in the Mid-South? A big part of the answer is pedagogical.

“In three weeks at field school we can accomplish more than we could in an entire semester in the classroom,” Moreland says. “It’s a 24/7 experience for the students. They are working, reading, listening to lectures, participating in discussions, then they go to the field and test their theories.”

Byrne agrees. “Suppose we’re trying to get them to become aware of the symbolism of the consumer culture—things like gifts and credit. You can spend a year in a course discussing historical culture in the abstract, but when the students are on their knees digging up whole lives they begin to ask themselves, ‘Who were these people?’ Then they find a child’s doll or a collection of arrowheads from 150 years ago. Suddenly they begin to think about labor and love and the memories of the person who was washed away by time.

“They look at these laconic pieces of evidence and ask whether they want to be remembered by their material things. The process has ramifications for what they study, how they will live their lives. These are priceless revelations that don’t come to most of us until it’s too late, if at all.”

Moreland adds, “Many students thrive in settings outside the classroom. The experience changes their perceptions of their academic capabilities.”

Convinced that an archaeology program would be good for Rhodes, Byrne, Kus and Moreland applied for and received a Rhodes Hill Grant to conduct a feasibility study and investigate possible sites. They recruited Rhodes adjunct professor Guy Weaver, a cultural resource management specialist, to be their consultant. Weaver directed them to a 20,000-acre tract of land, virgin in archaeological terms, that contains four large Indian mounds, 26 slave cemeteries and dozens of homestead plantations.

“We just couldn’t believe it,” Byrne says. “It’s a setting that seemed too good to be true.”

The prehistoric mounds and the time between the Civil War and the turn of the century offer rich research territory for many Rhodes students. What is known is that in the early 1900s Hobart Ames, owner of the company that manufactured the shovels used to dig the Panama Canal, assembled the land as a hunting preserve. Ames Plantation, now run by a foundation, is the permanent home of the annual National Field Trial bird dog championships. After many exploratory meetings with Jamie Evans, the cultural resource manager, and Dr. Rick Carlisle, superintendent, the Board of Trustees of Ames Plantation decided that a Rhodes field school would be an ideal tenant.

While Kus was on sabbatical pursuing her longstanding research in Madagascar, Byrne and Moreland went to work garnering resources and planning a program. They received a second Hill Grant and additional funding from the Associated Colleges of the South to purchase equipment and, as part of the 2006 Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, Moreland mentored four students who did extensive groundwork in preparation for opening the field school.

The old county courthouse offered access to more than 1,000 19th-century documents such as deeds that helped establish property lines. There is a map of the area drawn by Union army soldiers seeking resources for Sherman’s march to the sea. Aerial maps from the 1940s also helped. Students plowed through it all, working on defined research projects.

During the 2006-07 academic year the Provost’s Office and a significant grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation funded the employment of students to prepare for a three-week program in May of this year. Under the supervision of Byrne and Moreland, students Ethan McClelland ’09, Elizabeth Welch ’10 and Dusty Long ’09 did ground-penetrating radar sweeps of sites preliminarily identified as having potential for exploration. That helped locate structures. They took GPS readings to verify hypotheses developed from studying the Civil War and 1940s maps. They walked along an abandoned roadbed for two miles and found two undocumented sites.

Meanwhile, Byrne and Moreland were developing their questions to be answered through the research.

“This is one of the richest archaeological areas in existence in terms of both the prehistoric and historic periods and it is virtually unnoticed and unresearched,” Byrne says. “Still, most sites have interesting data to be mined. The viability of a project comes from the questions the archeologists bring to bear.”

Both have long been interested in questions about enslaved people, a vast topic that is studied around the globe with emphases on various cultures and historical periods. Ames offered an ideal setting to delve into slavery in the American South, and the two researchers discovered early in their exploration that they were likely to upset some paradigms of modern wisdom.

“It is clear from the stories we have already uncovered that slavery was not a monolithic institution,” Moreland said. “There were very small plantations at Ames where the owners’ living quarters were not vastly better than that of the slaves. And even on most of the larger plantations the manor house was nothing like Tara.”

Early in their reading they became intrigued by the Holcombe family who farmed 900 acres and taught some of their slaves to read alongside their children. (It was illegal to teach slaves to read.) Beverly Holcombe, the father, was enamored of the racetracks at nearby Holly Springs, MS, so it appears that a good deal of the management was handled by his wife, Eugenia. By 1850 they had lost the land and moved to Texas, taking with them their butler Ned.

Ned was unhappy in Texas, having left behind his wife and children who belonged to another Tennessee farmer. After two years, Holcombe gave Ned $800 and a buggy to go back to Tennessee and purchase his wife. There had been a cholera epidemic that had decimated slave populations in West Tennessee and Ned’s wife’s owner refused to sell. He did, however, allow Ned to take two of his children. He returned to Texas, gave back the $800 and settled down with another wife and had several more children.

They were also fascinated by Lucy, the second daughter of that generation of Holcombes. She married Francis W. Pickens who, prior to the Civil War, was U.S. Ambassador to Russia. While they were living in St. Petersburg, Lucy became a great favorite of Czar Alexander II and Czarina Maria. But the Pickenses and their child returned to this country when it became clear that North and South would go to war. Pickens became the governor of South Carolina who signed the secession proclamation. He was later a Confederate general and a regiment was named for his wife.

Lucy Holcombe Pickens, nicknamed the “Queen of the Confederacy,” became a leading socialite of the Southern aristocracy as well as the iconic face emblazoned on Confederate currency. Byrne and Moreland believe that the structure they are excavating is the very house in which Lucy was born, making it the proverbial “cradle of the Confederacy.”

Lucy was a passionate patriot of the South, yet her correspondence does not reveal her as an evil woman. Her father did not seem to be an evil man, yet he did not appear to think twice about wrenching a man from his family and hauling him to an unknown territory.

What does it all mean?

Those are the kinds of questions members of the Rhodes contingent hope to answer as they excavate the site of the Holcombe “manor house,” a two-room cabin divided by a dogtrot. What were the relationships between owners and the enslaved? Of slaves with each other, with free blacks, with poor whites? Did rules and conditions vary from plantation to plantation? Were there patterns related to the size of the acreage? Did some slaves have more autonomy than others? More freedom? What does it mean that some slaves apparently owned firearms and hunted for their food? That some had garden plots and grew food for their own consumption and to sell to others? Is it meaningful that some slaves owned property and were allowed to travel freely? What does it mean to be free?

“We are trying to ask the questions that add honor and dignity to the people being studied,” Byrne says. “I’m humbled by the enormity of the data and the gravity of the questions we may be able to answer.

“Provocative questions produce interesting, sometimes uncomfortable answers,” he adds. “I don’t expect clear-cut answers, but I’m pretty sure we will expose the lack of rigor of some of the questions and answers canonized in the past.”

“This will complicate the definitions of slavery,” Moreland believes. “We believe this work will help bring to life what the conditions were for some enslaved people in West Tennessee in the antebellum period. We need to understand the people so we can understand the magnitude of the atrocity and oppression they faced. We want to learn how they lived and how they survived. We may end up with more questions than we answer, but that’s the nature of the liberal arts.”

That uncomfortable conclusion fits neatly into their goals for students.

“Pedagogically, it’s a means to an end,” Byrne says. “Many students are not inclined to question the verity of historical generalizations. When they produce data, however, they become critical consumers of information. We want them to extrapolate that critical attitude toward all information.”

For more on Ames Plantation visit amesproject.wordpress.com.

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