Getting down and dirty

A few years ago a fierce storm sent a large chunk of a breakwall into Lake Erie. The erosion caused by relentless waves eventually revealed more than natural rock and soil. A peculiar formation of rocks in a large circular pattern appeared.

Every archaeologist’s dream is to unearth clues from the past – the older the better. This find turned out to be the nearly 200-year-old original foundation of Dunkirk’s first lighthouse. Not forgotten, but long ago covered up, this discovery revealed the exact dimensions of the base of the tower and showed just how much the surrounding landscape has eroded and changed over the years.

Most archaeological “digs” are a slow and painstaking process that can take months. Grids are laid out to determine precise locations of where to begin soil removal. Layers of earth are carefully removed and sifted. When embedded objects are found, dirt is slowly brushed away. The site of the lighthouse did not allow for this because continued erosion would wash the foundation into the lake. What the archaeologists did do was spend a great deal of the summer measuring and measuring again as they carefully brushed soil to remove the foundation and relocate it with its exact dimensions several yards inland on the property. This original rock can be viewed today, preserving local history at the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum.

I witnessed getting down and dirty at the site of another archaeological dig on a recent trip to Virginia. The 150th anniversary of the Civil War “Battle of Lynchburg” (June 1864) was recognized at several events, including the museum grounds named “Historic Sandusky.” The original Federal era style home, called “Sandusky,” was used as the headquarters for Union General David Hunter.

Part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy was to continuously attack Confederates throughout Virginia. Lynchburg was important because it was a transportation hub of canals and railroads. The Union forces were repulsed and there were some casualties. About 100 wounded and dying Union soldiers were left behind in a barn which once stood behind the home. It is believed that some men were buried on and near the property. It is here that an archaeological dig is taking place.

Staff and graduate students from Lynchburg College have been trying to find clues and evidence of the daily life of the time. This includes searching for a separate kitchen dwelling where some of the foundation has been located as well as items such as ceramics and glass.

This evidence shows the dig is close to where it needs to be.

In bygone days, people created less trash, but had small personal dumps of what they did need to get rid of by burning, burying, or throwing rubbish in areas not far from the house. The archaeologists were working under a tent to protect them from the hot sun, but not much can be done about the down and dirty on the hands and knees work. Perhaps the remains of some soldiers are nearby, but that is not the direct focus at this time.

Hobby archaeologists find artifacts all the time. A person can find old milk bottles and times at an old farm house. Relics that date even further back such as Native arrowheads, pottery, or stone carvings can be fun to find. It was not uncommon years ago for children to follow a plow and find such items.

Through the years, volunteers at the Dunkirk Lighthouse have unearthed other treasures in addition to the old tower foundation. Various tools and even toys have been found. In one display case is part of a porcelain doll. There are holes around the shoulders, which were placed there so that the child could pin different outfits to it. One tourist said she thought it was called a “chuck wagon” doll; it didn’t take up much space.

Make it a good week and remember to mark your calendar for the Civil War Living History and Battle Reenactment to take place August 15-17 at the Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum, as well as the weekend of August 9 for The Haunted Chautauqua Festival by the Village Haunts and Beyond Ghosts. Those interested in more information about these events may call 366-5050. Anyone who wants to volunteer as a tour guide is also welcome to call.

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