Monday, December 16, 2013

Boerner Family Cemetery Project: Research Design and Excavations

This is a continuation of my series on the Boerner Family Cemetery Project (BFCP). For previous posts, see here and here.

I had two main goals for the Boerner Family Cemetery Project (BFCP):

  1. To find the grave shafts without disturbing the graves themselves
  2. To provide a meaningful learning experience for the students in Intro to Archaeology

Finding the grave shafts without disturbing the graves is relatively easy. Beneath the dark topsoil (very dark and rich in this area which had not been farmed in over a hundred years), there is a substrate of yellowish clay. Once the topsoil is stripped away, we can see where the clay beneath has been dug through. Theoretically, at least, the outlines of the grave shafts will be obvious once they've been exposed.

Arial view of the site before (below) and
after (above) the destruction. The graves
were in the grove of trees shown. The
half-acre site can be seen as a lighter
rectangle in the picture above. The
large white circle is the pit where the
gravestones and remains of trees were
buried after removal from the site.
 (Photographs courtesy of Scott Boerner)
It would have been easiest to mechanically strip the topsoil using a backhoe, but there is a higher chance of damaging human bones with mechanical stripping, especially since the original destruction of the site may have disturbed some of the graves (the giant cottonwood tree that was in the middle of the cemetery was pushed over, and that must have caused disturbance underground.) Also, it would have been difficult to get heavy machinery out to the site, since the fields surrounding the cemetery are not owned by the Boerner family, and the man who does own them asked that we not drive across his land. Finally, my students wouldn't have learned nearly as much from watching a backhoe operator as they did by digging themselves.

Julius Boerner had originally laid aside half an acre of land for the cemetery. We do not have a map or overview photograph of the site from before its destruction, but family members could tell us that the graves were mostly in the southeastern quarter of the site. We have arial photographs showing the layout of the grove of trees which, again, tended toward the southeastern quarter.

We had a lot of graves to locate, and only limited time to spend in the field (in the end, we only have two weekends for this phase of the project), so we concentrated our efforts in the southeast. We placed three narrow trenches about 1.5 meters apart, running north-south across the cemetery. Since most Christian graves of that period were laid out east-west, these north-south running trenches had the best chance of intersecting the grave shafts.

The students mastered the use of shovels while digging the trenches nearly a meter (3 feet) below the current surface. The trenches bottomed out when they hit the clay. In the southern half of our trenches, the clay was consistent, a clean, unbroken surface of yellow. But to the north, it became mottled, broken up, mixed with the dark earth. Had we found the graves?

The patch of dark earth covered a wide area and had no clean or straight edges. My students found their feet shifting beneath them as they encountered small pockets of empty air beneath the soil. The final clue came from the many large roots that our shovels encountered. We hadn't found the graves, we'd found the area where the trees had grown through the clay to reach the water below.

So grave shafts weren't the only things to break through the clay. The trees had as well, especially the large cottonwood that had once stood at the heart of the cemetery. Tree roots and grave shafts look very different, but with only a narrow slice of the ground visible at the bottom of the trenches, it was hard to tell the sharper, more rectangular outlines of a grave shaft from the more shapeless outlines of a tree's root system. We had to connect the trenches, opening up a wider area so we could see the difference.

The last day of the excavation (everything happens on the last day of an excavation!), we opened up the area between the trenches, in the northern-most section of the area where we worked. This created a larger area where, visible against the mottled clay, we could see two grave shafts (neither of which was fully exposed by the excavations). Both appear to be large enough for for adult burials. However, further exposure may make this clearer.

Although we screened all materials from the area in the northern part of the trenches, no artifacts or human bones were found. I admit this was a surprise because the mottling of the top of the clay layer suggests significant disturbance due to tree roots and, presumably, the uprooting of those trees. I had expected to find remains, especially of small bones. This was not the case, however, and that's a good sign that the graves have not been disturbed.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Was Jesus White?

The intertubes exploded today after Megyn Kelly on Fox News described both Santa Claus and Jesus as White, saying that their race was just a historical fact, so Santa Claus shouldn't be shown as Black. 

I'm no expert on mythical, commercialized holiday figures (although I have it on good authority that the Easter Bunny is a particularly fine specimen of Oryctolagus cunniculus), but I do know something about Jesus and race, so I wanted to put an anthropological perspective on this whole question.

The question "Was Jesus White?" would have been meaningless to His followers.
First of all, if you'll forgive a spiritual aside, the question would be meaningless because Jesus was God. Although He took on human form and mortality for our sake, His apostles and the founders of the Church made it very clear that Jesus was not defined by His physical shape, nor were His followers. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians (3:28) "There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female -- for you are all one in Christ Jesus". 

St. Paul's list is instructive. He gives us three important categorical differences: male vs. female, slave vs. free, and Jew vs. Greek. Note he didn't say: White vs. Black. (Slavery, at the time of Jesus, was not race-based, so the reference to slave vs. free had nothing to do with skin color.) St. Paul didn't ignore skin color because he had never seen variation in human appearance. The Roman Empire spanned the entire Mediterranean and much of Europe. It was in close contact with powerful empires in East Africa and west Asia. St. Paul would have been familiar with people of many different hues, facial structures, and hair types. But people of his time did not categorize people on that basis. Cultural and religious differences were how they put people into boxes (Jew vs. Greek), regardless of skin color. 

What we think of as racial categories are just one arbitrary way of taking the reality of human physical differences and adding convenient labels. We do this all the time, not just to humans. For example, time is a reality. But when we divide a day into a specific number of hours, and the hours into minutes, we're creating arbitrary labels for our own convenience. Those categories are not inevitable or inherent: we could have chosen a different number of hours in each day, or minutes in each hour.

Like time, physical differences between people are real. But how we divide those differences, like hours, is arbitrary. In the modern US, we use a combination of skin color and facial features to divide people into categories that we call Black, White, Asian, etc. But other societies use different physical and cultural traits to divide people into totally different racial groups. In other words, what racial groups you believe exist - and what racial category you would put a person in - depends on your society's definition of race. In the Middle East of Jesus's day, the categories of Black and White weren't recognized or used. (They weren't even used in the early years of European colonization of the United States, in fact. Our modern ideas about race didn't develop until slavery became a race-based institution in the 1700s.)

So if you could ask St. Paul "What race was Jesus?", his answer would probably be "Jew". But if you responded, "No, no, I mean, was Jesus White?", he probably would just scratch his head and look confused.

OK, OK, so people at that time didn't say "White" and "Black", but if Jesus was alive in the U.S. today, would he be considered a White man?
Maybe. We don't actually know what Jesus looked like, and there were people from all over Europe, North and East Africa, and western Asia in the Middle East at the time. However, our best bet is that Jesus was physically similar to the Semitic peoples of the Middle East today (Hebrews and Arabs). In other words, it is very unlikely that he looked like the blue-eyed, honey-haired Jesus of my children's illustrated Bible. Instead, he was likely somewhat olive- or swarthy-skinned, with brown or black hair, and brown, black, or greenish eyes. If you use old racial categories, and divide the whole world into three groups (Caucasoid, African, and Mongoloid), then the Semitic peoples are Caucasoid. That is, they look like the people of Europe, much of the Mediterranean, and western Asia. To the extent that Caucasoid = White, that would make Jesus White.

But Caucasoid doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as White, especially for Semitic peoples in the U.S. In the early 1900's, immigrants from what was then the Ottoman Empire were classified by the U.S. Census and immigration officials as "Syrians". The U.S. Government had to decide whether people from this area were White (and therefore eligible for citizenship under the immigration laws of the time) or Asian (and therefore not eligible for citizenship). Although the Middle East is, after all, in the western part of the continent of Asia, it's not a surprise that these southwest Asian immigrants petitioned to be classified as "White", and thereby be allowed to stay in the country. (For the whole story, check out this interesting article by the Arab-American Institute).

So, for specific historical and political reasons, Semitic peoples in the U.S. are considered, for Census purposes, to be White. However, that category denies some pretty important differences in the life experiences of many people from Semitic backgrounds. In fact, there is an on-going campaign to convince people of Arab, Persian, and other Middle-Eastern backgrounds to write in their ethnicity in the Census questionnaire, instead of checking White. Many people with backgrounds similar to that of Jesus feel that they are not White, since that category, in the US, is associated with people whose cultural and physical features are not stigmatized or the target of systematic bias. The fact that the phrase "flying while Arab" has entered our vocabulary suggests that people of visible Middle-Eastern background do not have the same privileges as people from Northern European backgrounds. In other words, if Jesus were alive and in the U.S. today, He could check the "White" box on the census, but He might do well to avoid TSA checkpoints.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Boerner Family Cemetery Project: The Background

Excavations at the Boerner Family Cemetery
I blogged previously about including a fieldwork experience - the Boerner Family Cemetery Project (BFCP) - in my Intro to Archaeology class. While a field project in an intro class is rare (and unprecedented for me), from a research perspective, at least, the BFCP was straightforward.

The land on which the cemetery sits was a timber claim staked by Julius Boerner in 1873. He arrived in Grant County, Minnesota with his extended family, including his wife, children, brothers, and parents. Life was hard for these new settlers. The U.S. government had recently completed the Euro-American conquest of the area (the Dakota Wars had ended only 10 years earlier); access to emergency food and medical care was minimal. Soon, Julius had to consecrate a portion of his land to house the dead. The first burial was that of Norman Boerner, his two-year old son, in 1877. The last burial was of Harvey McCollor, his infant grandson, in 1902. Other known burials at the site include Julius's parents, Fredrick and Christine Boerner, at least one sister-in-law, and numerous children (all grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Fredrick and Christine).

The cemetery before the destruction.
The graves were located in the grove of trees in the
center of the picture (photograph by Scott Boerner)
A number of local families buried loved ones in this ground in the late 1800s, but in the 1910's, many of these graves were moved to nearby Lakeside Cemetery. The Boerners alone remained. We do not know exactly how many people are buried at the site. There are at least ten people resting there, but more graves may have been unmarked or forgotten. For many years, the grove of trees surrounding the graves was a peaceful and contemplative spot, frequented by members of local families, many of them descendants of the Boerners. Even today, it is a lovely area, with a view off to the west of rolling fields and neat farmhouses.

The site after the destruction of the cemetery.
(photograph by Scott Boerner)
About a year ago, the site was bulldozed, and all surface indications of the cemetery disappeared. Not only were the tombstones removed, but the grove of trees around the graves, including a large cottonwood, were also destroyed. The area was, at first glance, nothing but an open field.

The following Spring, I was contacted by a member of the Boerner family. The family would like to restore the site, but this requires relocating the graves in order to replace the headstones (all of the headstones have been recovered by the sheriff's office). The family hoped I could help, and I am glad to do so.

I try to teach my students that archaeology is important, not just for what we learn about people long gone, but for what we learn about ourselves. The study of the past, ultimately, is the study of our own identity and development. The tragic loss of the Boerner Family Cemetery is an example of the power of the past to touch us in the present. But it gave me and my students an opportunity to use our skills to help a local family and the community, to restore a part of their lives that had been lost.

In my next post, I'll discuss the research design for the project.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Including Fieldwork in an Intro to Archaeology Class (Yes, it's possible! But it's not easy.)

This Fall, I was honored with a very special opportunity: a historic pioneer cemetery near town was, sadly, destroyed, and I was approached by one of the descendants of those buried there to see if I could help relocate the graves and, ultimately, restore the site. (Just to be clear, the project did not involve excavating any graves, merely locating the grave shafts without disturbing the burials.) If you're interested, there's more on the site and the project here and here.

For various professional and personal reasons I was excited and inspired by this opportunity. But there was one problem: I really wanted to include this excavation as a service-learning project in my Intro to Archaeology class. One of the main themes of the class is that the past is important to the present; we don't study Archaeology because of some esoteric interest in long-dead people, but because we learn something about ourselves and the human condition. This project, focusing on a topic of interest to the local community, illustrated that point beautifully. The site is important to the community because it is part of our history and identity, and the outpouring of support for the project made that very clear to the students. Similarly, the controversies surrounding the situation (there is an on-going legal case related to the destruction of the cemetery), illustrate the importance of the social and political context in the study of the past, another major theme of the class.

And, of course, actual excavation experience is an invaluable way of introducing students to basic archaeological methods.

That just left the practicalities: I didn't have equipment, I didn't have a permit, and I had never included a fieldwork component into a regular lecture course, much less an introductory class, before. With a lot of help and some luck, I was able to to pull it off. I learned a lot by implementing this project, so here are some tips for anyone who may be interested in something similar:

1. Get a good (academic) team on your side. I could never have done this without the enthusiastic support and help of many people: Leslie Meek and Terri Hawkinson in the Division of Social Sciences at UMM provided critical monetary and logistic support, particularly getting the equipment we needed ASAP. (A special shout-out to Stoney Knoll Archaeological Supplies, who rushed our order of screens to get them to us before our field project started. The screens are of superb quality, too!); Argie Manolis and Barb Hesse in the Office of Community Engagement at UMM handled the transportation problem and provided support for our academic and service goals, including advice on how to integrate student reflections on the project into the class; Scott Anfinson, State Archaeologist, helped a neophyte to quickly handle the permitting process (and provided great field advice); and, last but definitely not least, my husband not only took care of the kids while I spent all weekend in the field, but also helped me decide on equipment, decipher the incomprehensible total station instructions, and generally pull it all together.

2. Get a good (community) team on your side. I can't say enough about the support, information, encouragement, and professionalism of the community members and leaders who were involved in the project, from Scott Boerner, who represented the Boerner family and provided invaluable information about the history of the site; to Grant County Sheriff Dwight Walvatne, and County Attorney Justin Anderson, who arranged access to the site and lead me around the legal barriers to the excavation project. I'm profoundly grateful.

3. Give students options. The class includes a lab component, which normally meets for two hours on Friday. Students were given the option to exchange one eight-hour day in the field for four lab sessions. There were a number of field days (on both Saturdays and Sundays), and three field days could be used in exchange for all of the lab sessions for the semester. In other words, students had the flexibility to choose which days they wanted to be in the field (so the whole class wasn't there on the same day), and what mix of lab days and field days they wanted to use to fulfill their academic obligations.

4. Don't give students too many options. The problem with #3 was that some students attended every lab and never did fieldwork. Others never attended lab. In a logistic sense, this worked well. It allowed students a lot of flexibility to accommodate their different interests and busy schedules. From an academic perspective, however, this was a nightmare. I couldn't require students to know any of the material from the labs (because they were not required to attend any particular lab session), and I couldn't require students to know anything about the excavation project (since they weren't required to do fieldwork). I couldn't include any of the material on the exams. I couldn't include certain activities in the regular class period. I definitely need to re-think this approach in the future.

5. Hammer home the academic worth of the project. All of the students who participated in fieldwork wrote a paper in which they discussed what they had learned from the project and how it fit with the goals and themes of the class. This paper was useful as a way for students to see how the project fit the class (no, we weren't just out there randomly digging trenches, it really did help us reach our academic goals), but also it let me see what the students had taken away from the project. The papers gave me some ideas for how to better integrate the fieldwork into the classroom, by frequently asking students to tie what we are learning about methods or theory in the classroom to their fieldwork experience.

6. Never, never, never try to get this kind of project off the ground during the semester that you're totally re-prepping two courses, serving on seven different committees (including a search committee), and have three children under the age of eight at home, unless you want to drive yourself into the ground with exhaustion. OK, I think this one needs no further explanation. :-)

There were certainly some rocky moments during this semester (actually, the whole thing threatened to capsize on more than one occasion, for reasons outside our control). But this was a highly valuable experience, for me and my students. From an academic, research, and service perspective, I the project was extremely enriching, and the feedback from students was overwhelmingly positive. I'll share some of their feedback (with their permission) in a later post, along with some of what we found. I'm honored to have been a part of this project, and I'm looking forward to continuing it next year.