Out of the Office: Digging in the Dirt


Author: Tess Gunty '15

Piles of dirt, deep trenches and uprooted parking lots are common sights on the Notre Dame campus, thanks to frequent construction. But a closer look at the chunks of excavated lawn between Old College and the Log Chapel reveals something surprising: This is not construction. This is an archaeological dig.

On this unseasonably cool morning in July, the earth is damp and dark, the grass dewy, the lakes a blur of grays. Between Old College and the Log Chapel, the sloping land resembles a haphazard grave site. A handful of high school students mills about, digging, chatting and examining objects. Mark Schurr, a friendly faced man wearing exactly the kind of hat you expect archaeologists to wear, takes measurements. After two weeks, the dig is nearing its close. It’s clear the novelty has worn off for some of the students; they linger on the seams of the lawn and discuss what movie to see Friday night.

Schurr, associate professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, is leading a group of summer scholars in an excavation at the Old College site. This is Schurr’s second survey of the area. Inspired by a limited test dig led by Professor Emeritus James O. Bellis in 1985, Schurr conducted a detailed project in 1991.

“The first time we went there, I was surprised there was so much archaeology under the lawn,” says Schurr. “There’s over three feet of archaeological deposits. Of trash.” A slovenly 19th century habit has an unexpected advantage. “The 1800s were really messy,” says Schurr. “They would throw their garbage next door.” Bad for neighbors — great for archaeologists.

The 1991 field study unearthed more than 5,000 nails (most likely manufactured before 1880), fragments of bottles, lamp chimneys, the rim of a chamber pot (dated prior to 1850) and an 1882 Indian head penny. Glass, pearl and bone buttons, along with brass clothing clips, smoking pipes and a small crucifix turned up. The dig also yielded hundreds of bones, remnants of meats eaten on site between 1860 and 1880. The oldest object found was a small spear tip that dated to about 3,000 years old. “At that point, people were hunting and gathering and moving often through the landscape,” says Schurr. “So [the spear tip] showed that people camped on the shore of the lake 3,000 years ago.”

The Old College site includes the Log Chapel, the Old College building and the land between. Father Stephen Badin, the first priest ordained in the United States, had built a log chapel on the site around 1830, which was one of the only existing structures when Father Edward Sorin arrived to found the University twelve years later. Constructed in 1843, the Old College building is the only structure that remains from Notre Dame’s formative first decade of existence. The chapel that stands today is a reproduction of the original, which was destroyed in an 1856 fire.

When the Log Chapel was rebuilt some 50 years after the fire, a crypt for Badin was added beneath it, which students disappointedly note is “off limits” to them. Even so, the crypt’s existence might be responsible for the wealth of their findings this summer: In order to make room for it, Schurr believes a great deal of artifact-rich dirt was spread over the hillside. “That protected the archaeology underneath it,” he says.

The numerous uses of Old College throughout the 19th century could also explain why the site yields such a remarkable amount of historical data. Old College now houses undergraduate Holy Cross seminarians, but over the years it has served as a community house, a convent, band headquarters, a house of studies, a retreat house, a student dormitory and even — at one point — a bakery.

Now, 24 years after his first dig, Schurr is picking up where he left off — this time, with high school students. “All the kids we get in the summer scholars program are really great kids,” he says. Schurr carries none of the pretension one might anticipate from a university professor teaching high schoolers: he speaks highly of the students and the students speak highly of him.

For the dig, each group of students was assigned a two-meter-by-one-meter unit of land and dug roughly 45 centimeters (about one-and-a-half feet) beneath the surface, stopping every 10 centimeters to sift the dirt and examine artifacts. The sifting contraptions are situated across the lawn — large, wooden and somewhat medieval-looking.

Most of the summer scholars — high-school juniors and seniors who apply for a two-week college experience at Notre Dame — had no prior exposure to the field. “When I heard about this class, I thought: This is going to be outside, outdoors, we’re going to interact, do hands-on activities,” says Maria Favella, a 17-year-old from San Antonio, Texas. “That was what drew me to it. And I like history.” Diana Borse, 16, of Denver, Indiana, says she’s learned a lot about archaeological procedures and Notre Dame’s past. “I didn’t really know anything before coming here, and now we find these artifacts, and we have to decide where they’re from,” says Borse. “So you have to know the history.” Both students say they were especially excited to find bullet casings. When I ask Schurr about them, hoping to reveal a crime thriller or untold battle, he replies they are probably from Old College’s farm days — from hunting.

One of the most unusual artifacts Favella and Borse found was a fragment of gold cloth, which Borse chose to research. “Cloths of gold were made all over the world for centuries, so there’s really not an easy way to date that artifact — I just had to go with Dr. Schurr’s rough estimate.” The cloth of gold was an exciting discovery for Schurr, too. “I’ve never found anything like that before,” he says. “We might want to take a fleck and look at it with X-ray fluorescence, and that would tell us what the metal was. Then we could tell if it was real gold.” He suggests that the finding might be a scrap of altar cloth from the original chapel.

John Crestman, a 17-year-old from Olive Branch, Mississippi, says he’s always wanted “to be the one to find and unearth history.” Crestman says he came to Notre Dame specifically to take Schurr’s class. For Crestman, the dig strengthened his pull to archaeology. “I definitely think this is what I’d like to do,” he says.

The day after I visit the site, I head to the Reyniers Life Annex archaeology laboratory to see some of the artifacts Schurr and his students have collected. With patience and enthusiasm — the hallmarks of a great teacher — Schurr discusses the objects: fragments of kerosene lamps, buttons, pipes, bone handles and pottery. Schurr has the air of a proud father as he describes the work his students have done and explains a little more about campus’ pre-1842 history.

“There were a few pieces of pottery that dated to the time Sorin came here,” he says, unzipping a plate shard from a plastic bag. Based on the decoration of blue edged ware, Schurr estimates that the plate dates between the 1820s and 1840s. “This same kind of pottery was used by the Potawatomi at the same time.” Although the plate was made in England, many Native Americans during the mid-19th century bought goods from overseas, just like their American neighbors. “So this could actually be an Indian artifact,” he concludes, noting that Father Badin lived with several Potawatomi when he first stayed at the Old College site.

While many Native Americans were forced to move from their tribal lands in the late 1830s, “the Pokagon Potawatomi were able to get legal permission to stay in Indiana,” Schurr says. “Some of them were removed as a group, some stayed in Michigan with the Pokagon band, but other just became part of the community.”

Schurr says the high school students inevitably grow frustrated sifting through hundreds of nails, bricks and other unremarkable debris but enjoy finding unusual objects. “We found a little tiny — probably a raccoon — tooth today. They were excited about that. And the girl that found it was interested in becoming an orthodontist.” He smiles. “Of course she would find something like that.” He notes that archaeology is challenging to younger students. “Archaeology requires a lot of patience, and a lot of concentration to detail.”

As Schurr explains how he identifies the objects, his tone is that of childlike discovery, eyes bright behind wire-rimmed glasses. “I think it’s exciting to learn about the past — it’s kind of detective work,” he says. “There’s no written word about it, but you can find things and you can piece things together.”

Schurr’s archaeological findings on campus reveal the University’s complex changes over the course of the 19th century, and America’s overall transition from a pioneer society to an urban one. More digs may happen at the Old College site — Schurr says it would be interesting to reach the original ground surface and try to collect prehistoric material. “You never know what you’re going to find,” he smiles.

Tess Gunty is this magazine’s summer editorial assistant.

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