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Archeological Field School Focuses on Leetown, Former Hamlet at Pea Ridge

Archeological Field School Focuses on Leetown, Former Hamlet at Pea Ridge

The Arkansas Archeological Field School offers students an opportunity to practice the skills and methods of real archeological field work. Researchers teach archeological mapping, excavation techniques, and artifact identification and processing, which prepares the artifacts for future use, be it in a museum or classroom.

Jamie Brandon, center left, talks to Pea Ridge Military Park Superintendent Kevin Eads, center, and Carl Drexler, center right, station archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, while students screen for artifacts.

The Department of Anthropology, of which archeology is a program, has conducted field schools off and on since the 1960s, said Jamie Brandon, associate research professor and station archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Much of the decision to hold a field school depends on timing and whether a project is available.

As in 2001, 2005 and 2010, Brandon leads this year’s dig, a month-long program focusing on Leetown, a former hamlet at the western edge of Pea Ridge National Military Park in Benton County. Like the area around the more renown Elkhorn Tavern two miles to the east, Leetown played a significant role during the two-day Battle of Pea Ridge. One of the battle’s major engagements occurred near the hamlet, and historians think that several, if not all, of its structures – estimated to be between six and 12 – served as field hospitals. (Decorated and infamous Confederate General Ben McCulloch was shot and killed by a Union sharpshooter at the Leetown battleground.) Unlike the reconstructed Elkhorn Tavern, however, Leetown is invisible, buried underground.

But not for long. The Archeological Survey has begun a four-year collaboration with Pea Ridge National Military Park and the Midwest Archeological Center of the National Park Service to rediscover Leetown. Researchers hope to uncover the remains of structures, important artifacts, an adjacent cemetery and a road that was likely used by soldiers, in addition to the hamlet’s residents. Their work will help park officials expand services and provide greater interpretation.

Archeologist Jared Pebworth works with students Breezie Faulkner, Breanna Wilbanks and Jamie Middleton.

“Our interest and active participation in this dig is critical, because right now there’s so much about this area of the park that’s of unknown value to the public,” says Kevin Eads, Pea Ridge park superintendent. “So obviously we’re excited about the project. The archeologists’ work will help the Park Service develop more accurate maps and interpretation, and this will allow us to set the stage for life before and after the battle.”

This year’s archeological field school is part of the long-term Leetown project. The following vignette is just a morsel of the students’ and archeologists’ experience. 

Like an attentive parent, Jamie Brandon stands outside two square holes dug by students and staff archeologists in the middle of a 10-acre field at the western edge of Pea Ridge National Military Park. Brandon, an associate research professor in the Department of Anthropology and a station archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, is observing the work and talking to his students about some of the artifacts they’ve found.

Kneeling in the hole, the students use trowels to shave off layers of packed soil, converting the loam into loose piles of “midden,” the term archeologists use to describe organic matter filled with artifacts. Station archeologist Jerry Hilliard is down there with them. He scrapes his tool along the surface of a large rock. After 38 years at the Survey, Hilliard says he’s “getting ready to retire.”

“It’s a great joy working with these students,” says Hilliard, “seeing them learn about how we do archeology. And this site is exciting because we just don’t know that much about it.”

All morning, Hilliard and the students have hauled midden out of the excavated, 2- by 2-meter-squared holes and sifted it through screens custom-made by Jared Pebworth, also a long-time Survey archeologist. Pebworth is here too, in his Big Smith overalls and khaki, short-billed infantry cap. He is teaching students how to take measurements and identify soil layers.

Breanna Wilbanks prepares to take apart a tree root.

The holes are impressive. They are tidy, precisely cut with flat, level floors and sharp, 45-degree angles at each corner. So far, the Hilliard and students have dug them less than a foot below the surface, a depth they know goes back only to the 1930s or 1940s. Still, the holes have provided many treasures, including deer and pig bones, pieces of plates and other ceramics, cooking tools, medicine bottles and toys. These artifacts – as well as the most prominent discovery, a rock foundation pier held together by century-old mortar made of clay and lime – appear to confirm what Brandon thinks they are excavating – the remains of a detached kitchen, a structure that may have served the original log cabin of John W. Lee, the farmer who settled this area 20 years before the Civil War.

As Brandon chats with the students, Breanna Wilbanks, an archeology graduate student, bounds out of the other hole and approaches her teacher. Wilbanks is excited. She is carrying a small, milky-white glass bottle. When she reaches Brandon, she presents the artifact, holding it up to his face, while she bounces on the balls of her feet. She is almost dancing.

“Okay,” says Brandon, “what can you tell me about it?”

Wilbanks thought he would never ask. “It’s late 19th century…” she says, and then she rattles off a series of technical, archeological terms to describe the piece. Brandon confirms her identification and says it was probably a bottle of medicine. As if Wilbanks’s identification weren’t everything, he adds a few more descriptive elements and then says, “You’re right, it is 19th century.”

The students know this is important. Soon after Wilbanks’s identification and dating of the artifact, someone asks the big question: “So do we keep going?”

Have they found gathered enough data to justify digging deeper? Brandon defers to Pebworth. “That’s up to Jared,” he says.

“Yep, let’s keep digging,” says Pebworth. The words barely leave his mouth before Wilbanks grabs a machete and removes two tree roots.

About The Author

A former newspaper reporter, Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246, or dmcgowa@uark.edu.

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