Archaeologists ask new questions

Saturday August 4, 2012


I held the stake as steadily as I could as grad students Honora Sullivan-Chin and Elena Sesma took readings through the GTS229 Total Station, a sophisticated surveying device mounted on a tripod. We were at the Burghardt homestead in Great Barring ton where a heritage and archae ology summer field school based at the University of Massachu setts at Amherst has en camped. The day I was there, anthropology professors Robert Paynter and Whitney Battle-Baptiste introduced their students to the setting while teaching assistants mapped out a grid for the following weeks’ digs.

Three holes will be dug, according to TA Chris Dou yard, to provide more specific in formation to go with the results of previous summer field schools in 1983, 1984 and 2003.

The property, a National Historic Landmark site, is owned by UMass. It was the boyhood homesite of civil rights activist and town native W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois lived here as a child in the late 1860s and came to own the property from 1928 to 1954, though the condition of the house by the time friends at the NAACP gave it to him on his 60th birthday was too poor to allow him to stay there.

Archaeological findings at the site largely relate to Du Bois’s grandparents, Othello and Sally Burghardt, and other family members. The small parcel -- about a fifth of an acre -- was in the same family since at least 1820.


This year’s venture is less intensely an archaeological dig as it is a critical heritage study, according to Battle-Baptiste. Par ticipants are be ing schooled in how "to think through not just archaeology and how to in terpret materials but ways in which one can create conversations and dialogues inside academia and also in the community."

In this pilot program, she said, "We hope to train students in a wide range of skills including community engagement, both local (neighbors, historical society members, other interested residents) but also associational (people interested in civil rights or the Du Bois legacy) communities."

Participants are learning about what it takes to be, say, a cultural resource manager, a marketable credential. Battle-Baptiste also has another purpose in mind. As she outlined in her book "Black Feminist Arch aeology" (Left Coast Press, 2011), she would like to see a greater attempt to examine the role of women in history, to interpret artifacts in new ways.

"I’d like see us broaden the ways we learn about archaeology, to look at things through new windows, to ask new sets of questions," she said in a recent conversation.

She agrees those questions may not always find answers -- but such is the challenge of archaeology anyway. "To make a feminine interpretation we need more resources, we need to spend more time in the archives and searching local resources. We need to get the human stories. Once we know the details, we know where to go with the questions we can’t answer."

Why is it important to ask new questions? As she wrote in her book, "To move beyond limits, to see the value of African world views in our understanding of the African Disapora allows us to let go of tragic misconceptions and false judgments that are based on Eurocentric notions of history. Our emphasis on family structures, community responsibilities, gender norms and expectations, and cultural forms of practice and maintenance are all topics that can benefit from an approach like those used in black feminist archaeology."

The students gathered at the Homesite on Route 23 were the first to walk a new section of woods trail. Wood chips have been placed. Overhang ing tree limbs have been trimmed. And signage will soon be installed to give greater visitor interpretation to the property’s story of black history.

On the day of the group’s first visit, July 20, when I held the stake, Paynter and the TAs plotted out a grid and prepared to take resistivity readings. The latter involves placing a coil on the ground, inserting connected rods into the soil, sending out an electric charge and taking readings. The stronger the resistance that shows up on their reader, the greater likelihood there’s something beneath the surface. It may be a stone. It may be a nail. It may be a button.

The difficulty that day was the dry season. Homesite soil, just below the surface, is gravel and doesn’t hold much water. Water is useful for the resistivity tests. And soon, they had good readings.


For the first time, Paynter said, they took resistivity readings within the footprint of the nearly 60 years-gone old family house. The results -- I got to see the 3-D graph the same day Payter did -- may spur some rethinking about one aspect of the site. I’ll tell you more as information emerges.

Meanwhile, Paynter said re sults of the earlier field schools are described in re ports, slowly being uploaded to this website: More chapters will be posted soon.

Field school students and staff offer a public component to their summer studies. They invite visitors to see what they are doing; the last days will be Monday to Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. each day.

Stop in and see what they’re finding in the dirt. Use the parking lot on Route 23 be tween Great Barrington and South Egremont. Follow the trail into the woods; don’t go to the house, which is private.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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