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Dig Gives Anthropologists, Students a Look Into 1870s Nicodemus

Bit by bit sometimes literally a 16-day dig gave amateur
anthropologists a look into the 1870s and life in the first post-Civil War
settlement founded by and for blacks.

One day, the dig in early June turned up pottery fragments.

“It was crushed up,” said Sharon Sage, of Auburn,
who was documenting the dig for the Kansas Anthropological Association.
“They think it was an earthenware bowl. They think the pieces they’ve dug
up can be refit.”

By the end of the dig, there was more.

The digging and sifting turned up the stone walls of a
dugout home, along with the door frame of a root cellar. Artifacts included a
metal butter knife, glass bottles, metal and shell buttons, tin cans and the
stand for a sewing machine, dated April 1879.

The project focused on a dugout site about 2 1/2 miles
northwest of Nicodemus.

According to oral histories collected by the Kansas State
Historical Society, Emma Johnson Williams and her family emigrated from Kentucky
to Kansas in the 1870s. She was
pregnant at the time, and other settlers helped the Williams family construct
the dugout in time for the baby’s arrival.

The field school, which drew almost 45 participants, is a
partnership between the state historical society, the anthropological
association, Washburn University,
the Midwest Archeological
Center, the Nicodemus National
Historic Site and the Nicodemus Historical Society and Washburn

“This site gives us a different impression of the
African-American past,” said Flordeliz Bugarin, principal investigator for
the field school and assistant professor at Howard
University in Washington,
D.C. “It’s an opportunity to document
the past of African-Americans that needs to be more emphasized.”

Groups from Washburn, under the direction did preliminary
work at the dugout site in 2006, part of a multi-year project to excavate such

The group was under the direction of Margaret Wood,
assistant professor of sociology and anthropology.

“Margaret found botanical remains peaches in a glass
jar,” she said. “She also found a number of perfectly round holes in
the wall that were probably used for wooden beams to go through.”

Washburn students, joined by students from Howard, returned
to Nicodemus for two weeks in May to do research at the former schoolhouse

“It’s been an eye-opening experience, seeing Nicodemus
and meeting the people here and seeing how closely tied they are in the
relationships they have with each other,” said Kameron Arnett, a
20-year-old anthropology major from Howard.

Artifacts found at the two sites will be analyzed at Howard,
Bugarin said, as researchers study the lives of the freed slaves who started
new lives in Kansas.

“This wasn’t a dream,” she said, “but they
saw it through.”

Information from: The Topeka Capital-Journal,

– Associated Press

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