Archeological Dig at the Mt Zion AME Church
Saturday, December 12th, 2020
On Saturday December 12th 2020, seven professional archaeologists and 32 volunteers made history at the Mount Zion AME Church. This was the very first archaeological investigation at the site, and was a joint project of SSAAM and Archaeological Society of New Jersey (ASNJ).
Archaeology is one of the tools we can use in our search for the stories, history and culture of African-Americans in the Sourland Region. The last few decades have seen the development of a distinct sub-discipline of the archaeology of African-Americans and of the great African enslavement “diaspora” of the 16th through the 19th centuries. The lives of people of African descent, both slave and free, are often “invisible” in the historical (that is the written) record. Using archaeology to study the places where they lived, the things they used, and the things they valued, we can learn more about them in a different way. SSAAM is now part of that wider research.
One of the questions that people often ask about archaeology is “How do you know where to dig?” It’s a great conversation starter. Here at SSAAM we are developing plans for the next phase of the restoration of the 1899. These plans include the construction of a wheelchair-friendly ramp at the back of the church, and a small extension to accommodate new heating and cooling systems.
Of course, things like these need foundations, and foundations require digging into the ground. So SSAAM teamed up with the Archaeological Society of New Jersey to do pre-emptive archaeology to recover what might lie beneath the ground before construction starts next year.
We used the method called “shovel-testing”. This involves digging circular holes about one-foot in diameter down to about 2.5 feet into the soil. This is done very carefully, placing all the excavated material in mesh screens in order to recover any artifacts. Two of our volunteers used small metal detectors to scan the dirt piles to see if anything had been missed, and this technique recovered several additional small metal items. Artifacts from each of the different layers or strata of soil are kept separate, because knowing where they came from, their “context”, is a crucial part of the analytical process. The depth of 2.5 feet is determined by two things: one is that fact that, generally speaking, if we are going to find artifacts they will be from the top two feet or so. The second, practical, reason is that it gets very difficult to dig a hole more than 2.5 deep with just a shovel!
We completed 12 of these tests in the area of the new ramp and extension: enough to give us a good idea of what lies beneath the grass here. We found that there were generally four or five distinct soil horizons in all the tests. These are all basically natural strata and from to bottom, and are termed A1, A2, B1, B2 and C. They get progressively yellower and more clayey the deeper you dig. Most of the artifacts came from the top two strata.
So what did we find? We recovered about 250 artifacts dating from the late 1800’s and 1900’s. These have not yet been cleaned and identified, but include such things as window glass, nails and bricks, plain white ceramics, coal and even an iron padlock. What we did not find was any indication of activity on the site before the construction of the church in 1899, or any American-Indian artifacts. Both of these things were a possibility, so we were on the lookout for evidence of that kind.
What happens now? The artifacts will be cleaned up, identified and cataloged, and will become part of the SSAAM collection. When construction starts, we will be on hand to recover any other artifacts which may be encountered. The technical details of the work will be presented in a written illustrated report, copies of which will be sent to local historical organizations, libraries, municipalities and to New Jersey Historic Preservation agencies.
Many thanks to all our volunteers, and to the professional archaeologists, particularly Michael Gall and Michelle Davenport of the ASNJ, who donated their time and skills to help us learn more about our past! Also a special thanks to Laurie Cleveland, executive director of our sister organization, the Sourland Conservancy, who did an outstanding job of promoting this event.
Ian Burrow, Ph.D.
Board Member SSAAM
Registered Professional Archaeologist
All photos courtesy of Archaeological Society of New Jersey, except as noted.
SSAAM Executive Director Caroline Katmman (L) and Exceutive Director of the Sourland Conservancy Laurie Cleveland (R).
Photo by Bruce Daniels , SSAAM