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Students Dig in During Maymester at Ames Plantation

Publication Date: 5/28/2014

By Katie Cannon ′15

The Ames Plantation Field School archaeology maymester at Rhodes has nearly 10 years of work under its belt, and the 2014 season has continued the school’s legacy of prolific discoveries. The 3-week program is an exercise in interdisciplinary scholarship and hands-on learning, an experience in which students who may have never so much as potted a plant on their own find themselves getting literally down and dirty in the name of scientific and historical research.

 Located about an hour east from Memphis, the Ames Plantation is the 18,600-acre site of both a 19th century manor house and plantation and Native American mounds dating back thousands of years. This season, Professor Milton Moreland, who helped start the program, and Professor Kimberly Kasper, who has taken the lead this year, are particularly interested in excavating the slave cabins and manor house of Fanny Dickins, who defied antebellum gender roles by owning and running her own plantation.

According to Moreland and Kasper, the exacavtions at the Dickins sites yield mostly second-hand, hand-me-down artifacts, things passed down from the manor house to the slave cabins. By digging up seemingly ordinary items, like dishes, nails, and belt buckles, students are able to figure out the way people of the time actually lived, not just the history book version. They can draw their own conclusions from what they find, rewriting narratives of what it meant to be human—whether slave or master—in antebellum Tennessee. 

While the maymester is a perfect opportunity for the aspiring archaeologist, for others, the field school presents an exciting alternative to the traditional biology or chemistry lab. Camille Smith ’16, one student participating in this year’s dig, says that the experience ended up being much more rewarding than simply fulfilling a Foundations requirement: “I had thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just come and get my science credit,’ but it turned out to be really cool.”

For people like Camille, an English and psychology double major, the archaeology program satisfies their creative impulses as it opens them up to new, unexplored scholarly territory. At the field school, they’re not only listening to lectures about history and science, but making history themselves, everyday unearthing fragments of past, and with them, new revelations about prehistoric and 19th century life. “I’m a creative writing major, so I’m interested in stories,” says Camille. “And here, we’re  discovering the stories of how people lived.”

And it’s not only a matter of discovering history—with the curriculum set up by Professors Milton and Kasper, students are living the history themselves. The students build their own fires and kilns, and make their own pots using the clay from the river bed. “We’re utilizing the contemporary world and replicating some of the cultural practices that may have been performed in the past,” says Professor Kasper.

The curriculum consists of “science-based labs tied into the history of western Tennessee,” says Moreland. “It’s a lot more than just excavation.” As students study environmental factors—analyzing pollen samples and seeds, using tree ring data to date sites—they are able to “make connections to what we see happening in today’s climate,” says Kasper.

That’s part of what makes the dig so appealing for Rhodes students. “You have to know all about history, chemistry, biology. It encompasses so many different facets and areas of knowledge,” says Camille. Then, you connect it to modern problems and practices.  It’s a quintessential example of the liberal arts education Rhodes offers. “You can really see all of your education coming together,” says Moreland.

Findings from years past have been presented at the Ames Plantation annual Heritage Festival and been the subject of a course at the Meeman Center for Lifelong Learning. Beyond academic motivations, however, the Ames Plantation Field School is simply an enjoyable adventure in nature.  Says Moreland, “It’s very rewarding and interesting to live out on a farm together and experience life outside the city.” 

Photos courtesy of Natalie Ciocca and Jamie Evans. To see more of their pictures from the dig, visit the field school′s photo gallery.