Homestead Archaeologist: Unearthing History on a Rural Property
By Sarah Joplin
The table on our front porch that greets you with the “Welcome to the Boonies” sign is also decorated with odds and ends showcasing items of interest that we’ve found over the years. There is something about making discoveries on the land, of finding artifacts both natural and human-made, that mimics the joy of what Buddhists call beginner’s sight or Christians observe in a child on Christmas morning. Such finds also often pave the way for unanticipated creative meanders and side projects.
Over the years of living on the farm, we’ve come across a number of ‘finds” that have brought about childlike wonder and/or adult reflection, reminding us of our place in the natural order and the history of this particular piece of land. It only seems fitting to display our found treasures for all to see as we foster a spirit of show-and-tell.
Clay, Hematite and Geodes, Oh My!
Clay. For a gardener, clay can be a blessing or a curse. It didn’t take long to determine that we had the latter in our garden, but as we continued to investigate soil types around the farm, we found several types of clay, especially near a hillside spring which feeds our well. Like many before us, we dug and soaked the clay to purify it before trying our hand at sculpting. A small coil vessel resulted which led us to think about how we might fire our rudimentary creation into pottery. Before we knew it, we were well down the road much traveled by humans over the ages, down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. We nestled the coil vessel in a sand-filled cast iron pot and “fired” it in the heart of our burn pile. Intrigued by the results, we signed up for a pottery class at a local adult education program! Such are the journeys unleashed by the joy of discovery on the land; you never know where they will lead.
Hematite. Rock hounding or amateur geology is a common pastime at the farm. When even a walk down the quarter-mile driveway invariably yields some new treasure, it’s hard to resist learning about objects that sparkle or reveal unique colors, inclusions or patterns. One rock that we’ve found in abundance is hematite. A quick internet search on geology.com yielded the fact that hematite is one of the most abundant minerals on the Earth’s surface and the most important ore of iron. Next thing I know, we’re looking into methods of forging or smelting the raw material, investigating Celtic forges to extract the ore, newly cognizant of the bounty of the land.
Crystals. Occasionally, we’ll find round rocks of varying sizes and heft them back to the house with the intention of cutting them open to see if they have any crystal formations inside. Though these rocks look ordinary on the outside, we’ve learned that they occasionally contain minerals including quartz and agate inside cavities hidden within. Our property has some areas of exposed sedimentary limestone, a feature which indicates the possible presence of geodes. Though we haven’t exposed any crystals yet, we’re looking forward to it with high hopes.
Spear Points and Fossils
I’ll never forget the day we established our main vegetable garden in a patch of the field just below the house. After a whole day of my boyfriend’s working the site with the tractor, I went out to check on his progress only to find a perfectly intact spear point laying in plain sight on top of a deep furrow he’d made with the plow! Digging about 2 feet down in the thick clay to level the garden, he had unearthed the point from deep below the surface; it was pristine.
Our research indicates that the sharp point is made of Burlington chert, the lighter-colored relative to flint. Natives of our region include the Osage Indian tribe which dates back to approximately 700 BC and as we live in Buck Hollow, the arrowhead could easily have been used in hunting. After a failed attempt at making a kill, this overthrown spear probably went missing and was only rediscovered when I found it. We’ve been on the lookout ever since but have yet to find a specimen as fine as this treasure which I took as a good omen for gardening.
Our home is also on the site of an ancient inland sea which dates to the Paleozoic period. We’ve found fossils of what appear to be crustaceans embedded in rocks as well as what could have been the tooth of an enormous sea creature. We’ve also mused over finds of what appear to be fossilized bone and trees, knowing that giant mammals roamed the area where we live which was spared the flattening advance of glaciers during the Ice Age.
Remnants of Daily Life: Hardware & Farm Relics, Pottery, Glass and Toys
Not all items of interest come from the distant past. As we renovated the old barn, have taken walks on the land or even mowed the lawn, we’ve found objects that invite scrutiny. Among them are abandoned tractor and other mechanical parts, antique hand-made nails and hardware, fragments of pottery, pieces of vintage colored glass, old toys and furniture parts. Each of them reference former residents of this land and farm as physical links to the past lives lived here. Each tells part of a story and begs the questions of who they belonged to and when and how were they used.
Natural Wonders: Beetles, Butterflies, Moths and Mantis
In summertime, the air is aflutter with the color of wings. My boyfriend resumed a childhood passion when we moved here and collected over 400 specimens of various moths, butterflies, beetles, insects and true bugs over the span of 2 years. Slowly, the fanciful winged sprites of my youth were demystified, their beauty frozen, pinned and named, resulting in an artful and educational display of Mother Nature’s creativity and spectacle. Every hue of the rainbow, often accentuated with metallic sheen is coupled with striking design and form mostly intended as camouflage. We’ve collected, hatched and released numerous batches of luna moths for the sheer wonder of watching them emerge, pump their bodies full of life and majesty, and take flight.
Similar interest has been paid to the Praying Mantis. These bio-predators hold a special place in my gardener’s heart as they feast on many of the insects that prey on my tender greens. If you are on the lookout, you can often find mantis cases (ootheca) deposited on tall grass stalks and small branches. The practical side of collecting them in a jar to hatch in spring provides a whole batch of allies which can be distributed as bio-protection in the flower and vegetable garden. Then there is the awesome sight of watching the small casing hatch an ooze of hundreds of tiny mantis babies which grow rapidly right before your eyes. We’ve even caught a male and female mantis, watched them couple and the female eat the male before proceeding to lay her egg sack and then die. As the stream of minuscule mantises emerge 3-6 weeks later, the life-cycle continues.
Living in the country invites us to delight in discovery as we learn and build a relationship with the land. Whether taking a walk in the woods, weed eating, repairing a broken pipe, establishing a new garden bed or refurbishing an old building, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll come across an unexpected discovery. We can’t help but become part naturalist, part archeologist, part geologist. We come to glimpse the history of our surroundings through research inspired by finding relics that offer clues into the past. With each new finding, we learn about or are reminded of what defines this singular place and its cultural and natural history. Our connection to and appreciation of the land deepens as our own roots reach a little deeper into this place called home.
Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt. Read all of her The Yellow Barn blog on GRIT.
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