FORT TOMBECBE // IMMERSION ARCHAEOLOGY

This spring the University of West Alabama offered an undergraduate course titled Archaeology Field School at Fort Tombecbe under the guidance of Professor Ashley Dumas, designer and anthropologist. Class started at breakfast and ended after supper with a lecture. Wednesday evening’s class involved a lab so the collected artifacts could be processed properly. The objectives of the course were stated in the announcement for the course as follows: “Participants will learn the basics of archaeological excavation and artifact processing at the colonial Fort Tombecbe site(1736-1797) on the Tombigbee River in west Alabama.”
The site had been investigated in the 1980s but not much else had been done since then. Two years ago Dr. Dumas conducted a similar class as described above and this year’s “dig” was a continuation.
The French were the original builders on the site, followed by England and finally, Spain, before the territory became part of the United States of America. Each country built structures generally using the same site with modifications and additions/subtractions. The humidity, soil material and climate in general caused the structures to decay fairly rapidly. Each succeeding group had to rebuild structures using some of the materials left by the others.
Under the shallow topsoil is a huge chalk layer left from when an ocean covered what is now called the Black Belt area. Chalk is the remains of tiny creatures that lived there 80 million years ago and presented a challenge to builders. Europeans constructed ovens for bread-making, using mud and bricks of clay. However, chalk, though rigid at first, crumbles when heated. Clay had to be brought in for ovens and fireplaces. When mixed with the chalk the resulting material was still weak.
In one of the “units” (a marked off area under investigation) that participants BJ and Jean were exploring, broken pieces of orange colored bricks (clay material) indicated what may have been a fireplace of the barracks area for the soldiers. They also uncovered pieces of lead which may have been where the soldiers made shot for their guns.
Dr. Dumas had copies of very old drawings of the fort site used by the different military groups and information from previous archaeological investigations. This allowed an “educated” guess of the location of structures. Differences in the colors and textures of the chalk layer indicated walls, trenches, and other clues became data to locate their positions. Near the bottom of one indication of a post was a circular spot where an iron nail had been driven into the post and into the chalk to give more support.
On the day of this investigation participants had been working for three weeks and had become quite familiar with the site and artifacts found. The next day was to be an “Open House” with the community invited to see the “dig.”
All of the students and volunteers working there seemed to be sincerely interested in this archaeological investigation and were asked if they would like to be involved in another in the future. For most it was the first “hands-on” field study they had ever done.
A “dig” is hard work and in the late spring in Alabama, very warm. However, when artifacts are discovered buried for three hundred years it can be quite rewarding. In participant Lee’s unit he found a small piece of cloth that had survived due to some type of micro-environmental condition! Dr. Dumas identified it as possibly linen. In other units, pieces of Choctaw pottery with decorative markings were found. Also, European type ceramic pieces of dishes with decorations and glaze were recovered. Iron nails and lead shot bits, and a red bead were also found. Bones of different kinds of animals such as deer were clues to the diet of the occupants of the forts.
What one hears may soon be forgotten. That which one sees may be remembered longer. Understanding comes from being involved in the learning. Dr. Ashley Dumas’ design of The Archaeology Field School at Fort Tombecbe covered all bases. It is not likely that any participant will ever forget this experience while Exploring Alabama!

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