It’s one thing to dig into a Civil War battlefield and find fragments from military campaigns that took place 150 years ago.
It’s another thing entirely to dig into a Civil War battlefield and find something that’s about 10,000 years old. But that’s what Kingsley Kilgore did.
A senior in anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she found what’s being called a “projectile point” because it’s not clear whether it was the tip of a spear or an arrow or something else.
Whatever the point, general consensus is that it’s from the Paleo-Indian period, which ran 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.
“Actually touching something that hasn’t been touched in 11,000 or 12,000 years is pretty cool,” Kilgore said. “Definitely sent a picture to Mom.”
Along with nine other students, Kilgore has spent the past several Fridays digging holes about 20 inches deep just inside a wooded area at Chickamauga National Military Park. All part of an anthropology class taught by Assistant Professor Morgan Smith, they work from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., searching for relics from Civil War soldiers who fought on the land as well as others who lived there before.
For Smith, an expert in Paleo-Indian archaeology in the Americas, this is the first time he’s been able to bring students to a site to dig. It’s a win-win on a couple of levels, he explained.
Park officials want to clear-cut part of the woods to get back to the original line where Union forces had dug in during the Civil War, a distance of about 10 feet. But under U.S. National Park Service rules, you can’t just come in, whip out a chainsaw and start dropping trees.
“Any time people want do any kind of ground-disturbing thing on federal land, they have to do an archeological survey and a biological survey of the area,” said Smith, who spent nine years working in the park service. “I was just kind of thinking, ‘Oh, well, hey, that’d be great. We’ve got all these students that need some work.’”
Over the course of several weeks, hole-digging students have found, among other items, Minié balls—the bullets of the Civil War—pieces of flags, shards of 150-year-old glass, chunks of charcoal that indicate campfires and nails from wooden boxes soldiers burned for warmth.
At the dig site, Austin Averill, an exercise science major with a minor in anthropology, holds out what looks like a slender, elongated piece of orangish rock, but he identifies it as a nail. The giveaway traits are difficult to detect from a non-anthropologic point of view, so he points to different areas to indicate what he sees.
“The orange is a different color of orange than normal. Then you’ve got your point right here, and here’s the nail head, but it’s been broken off. And that black is actually a nice indicator of old iron.”
By digging and undercovering and identifying, students get the chance to conduct the same type of work they’ll be doing if they choose a career in anthropology or archaeology, Smith said. At the same time, the National Park Service gets its archaeological surveying done for free.
“It really a unique opportunity to come out here and do it in the flesh,” he said. “It’s a lot more exciting.”
That’s the case for Savannah Neely, a senior with a double major in anthropology and English. Having to take many of her classes through Zoom meetings at home, she’s developed a case of cabin fever, she said.
“Being in a class like this is a breath of fresh air because we actually get to go outside and do something,” said Neely, who calls the work “ a fun treasure hunt.”
“And I can’t get dirty in a classroom,” she said.