Digging into history: Community invited to work at archaeological site

By Michael Reschke

Liz Watts Malouchos called students and community volunteers over to a hole in the yard of Indiana University's first president Friday morning. She pointed to a line in the soil where orange clay met dark brown fill dirt. It was a sign the group might be on the verge of uncovering the remains of a subterranean garden from the 19th century. It also served as proof of Watts Malouchos' earlier declaration.

"I told you most of what I do is stare at stains in the soil," she told the group Friday.

Watts Malouchos is an instructor of record for IU's introduction to field methods class. This summer the class is working to uncover winter gardens at the home of Andrew Wylie, who was inaugurated as the first president of Indiana College in 1829. Volunteers are invited to participate during "Friday Field Days." It's an opportunity for the public to learn about archaeology and what it really looks like, something Watts Malouchos said isn't as glamorous as it's sometimes portrayed in popular culture.

For this dig, students used shovels to scrape thin layers of dirt out of shallow pits in front of the historic brick house along East Second Street. Instead of pushing their shovels straight down, the shovel skimming technique allows excavation while minimizing the potential to break anything that might be buried in the dirt, said Heather Altepeter, a senior at IU majoring in anthropology.

The dirt Altepeter and her classmates skimmed from the pits was placed in buckets and then dumped on screens in another part of the yard. Bloomington resident Catherine Overbey helped sift through dirt on the screens, searching for small objects that might have been overlooked during the initial excavation. Overbey said she went to school for archaeology and appreciated the opportunity to participate in a dig so close to home.

"They're few and far between," she said. "It's hard to get money for a dig and find a place to dig."

The IU Office of the Bicentennial has provided about $55,000 for the dig and a symposium that will bring archaeologists from different IU campuses together in spring 2019. The dig and symposium are part of the Revealing IU's Earliest Cultural Landscapes bicentennial project. IU's Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology and the Wylie House Museum partnered for the project to help preserve IU history ahead of the university's 200th anniversary in 2020. The dig also provides field experience for IU students, and will help verify museum records.

Carey Beam, director of the Wylie House Museum, said more than 1,000 pieces of correspondence between Wylie family members have been archived. The subterranean garden that served as a greenhouse is mentioned in several letters. But there's some conflicting information about whether there was just one, or two, garden pits.

Theophilus A. Wiley III drew a detailed map of his grandparents' property from memory in the 1950s. It included two garden pits in front of the house. Ground-penetrating radar identified what archaeologists refer to as a disturbance, Beam said, indicating at least one pit is likely to be found on the property.

Read the story in the Herald Times