'Digging Deeper Archaeologists Turn from Ancient Times to Great-Grandma's Era, Asking 'What Was Daily Life Really Like?

Article excerpt

Byline: Pam DeFiglio


Emily Homa jabbed her trowel into the dirt and hit something solid.

Homa, a DePaul University archaeology student, carefully dug it out from the soil of a Chicago yard, thinking it was just a plastic scrap. As other students on the archaeological excavation last month watched her, she reached for the indistinct-looking piece and flipped it over.

"We were completely shocked," says Homa, of West Chicago. "We realized it was the front half of a camera."

Welcome to the new, younger world of archaeology.

Yes, these diggers of history still unearth mummies in Egypt and pottery shards near ancient Greek temples. Increasingly, though, they're aiming their trowels at objects from the last 150 years.

And they're doing it in the Chicago area.

This summer, archaeologists dug out Naperville town founder Joseph Naper's home site, unearthed items from the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago and coaxed objects from the yard of the Phyllis Wheatley Home, a Chicago building that operated as a social services base for young black women coming from the South in the early 1900s.

Skeptics may wonder why archaeologists bother to dig up such recent stuff when people of this era left land deeds, census records, newspapers, letters and other documents that tell us about the history of those years.

Paper, however, tells only part of the story.

"We know a lot about what was happening in DuPage County from historical accounts. But we don't know a lot about the everyday Joe living on the ground, how their life was," says Don Booth, an archaeologist with SCI Engineering Inc. who's working on the Naper site.

"Archaeology can tell you that."

Anna Agbe-Davies, assistant professor of anthropology at DePaul University, agrees.

"If you find the things that people make, use and throw away, that tells a fuller story about their daily lives," says Agbe- Davies, who led the DePaul dig at the Wheatley Home.

"I think that humanizes the past and gives us more of a sense of the people who went before us."

Dishes can dish

For most of August, volunteers scoured the earth at Joseph Naper's home site.

They unearthed a root cellar, almost 2 feet deep and about 5 feet square, under the floor of the log cabin Naper built in the 1830s. He probably used it to store potatoes and root vegetables.

They also discovered rubble on the exact spot where documents say Naper built his second house, a frame structure, in the 1840s.

And they found a 4-foot- square privy, which served as both a toilet and garbage dump.

The privy yielded a French military button from the 1830s, a New York state militia button from the same decade, Indian trade beads, gun flint and lead balls for rifles, hand-carved dominoes and three pennies - dated 1827, 1829 and 1835.

Booth picked up the oldest penny and handed it to Bryan Ogg, a research associate at Naper Settlement.

"I said, 'Joe Naper kept this in his pocket,'" Booth recounted. "And he was kind of wowed. He caught the impact of it."

Booth will spend the next few months cleaning and researching the finds. Then he'll dish the dirt, so to speak, on what they all mean.

On last year's dig at the Naper site, archaeologists collected other stuff, such as broken pottery and a whiskey flask fragment.

While such items may look useless, archaeologists have ways of making them talk. …