Fayette students explore Johnson's Island 2010.06.03

Written by David Green.

johnsonsisland.jpgBy DAVID GREEN

Fayette science teacher Sheila Killam is the veteran of two summer archeology digs. When she found an opportunity to get students involved in the adventure, she jumped at the chance.

“It’s something I enjoy and I wanted to share it with the students,” she said.

The opportunity arose when she participated in the on-going dig on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky. Mrs. Killam earned credit in a summer class there last year and she learned that school groups can also take part.

She invited eighth through 11th grade students to participate—pointing out they would have to pay the cost of the program—and eight students signed up.

Johnson’s Island is described as Ohio’s most significant Civil War site. Forty acres were leased in 1861 to create a prison for Confederate officers, although some enlisted men were also among the more than 10,000 soldiers who spent time at the facility during its operation from 1862 to 1865.

After the Civil War ended, the property was plowed for agricultural use, a move that buried thousands of everyday items for people to find 150 years later.

Before taking the trip to Johnson’s Island, students watched a video produced by the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology—a research center at Heidelberg University.

The video gave students some ideas about putting artifacts into a historical context, such as considering how the piece was used and where in the prison it might be found.

At the island May 19, students took part in a basic anthropological exercise in the cemetery by making observations and creating a hypothesis to explain what was discovered. Dr. David Bush, the director of the Johnson’s Island project, evaluated the responses and gave his explanation.

Students were then taken to the current dig site on the former prison grounds and shown the proper way to dig with a trowel in a 2 x 2 unit—a square measuring two meters on each side.

Eventually, all soil is removed in the unit, but proper digging takes away a thin layer at a time to preserve any soil features that might indicate how the area was used.

“The students weren’t allowed to ask, ‘What is this?’” Mrs. Killam said. “They had to make a guess about what it was. They really had to think before they spoke.”

Soil is placed on a sifter so eventually only the artifacts remain. The eight students unearthed about 800 items, but only five were catalogued as field specimens. Nails, mortar, bone fragments from meals, brick, flint and many other items are not catalogued.

During a follow-up session, each student presented something they found, along with a guess about how it was used.

Ryder Sommers found the first complete rubber ring of the season. Hard rubber was patented in 1851, according to the Center website, and often made its way into the prison via buttons and rulers.

Some prisoners became very adept at creating jewelry from the rubber, and others made items from mollusk shells. Students also found a piece of a ruler, along with three shells—one that was carved, one that was cut and another that wasn’t yet worked.

That was a good session. Mrs. Killam didn’t find any field specimens during her summer class.

“I like this program because it goes across many areas of the curriculum—history, science, math,” she said.

She also likes the way the project makes students think about the past. They read from the diary of Lt. William Peel who was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg and later died on Johnson’s Island.

Peel was housed in Block 8, the area chosen for excavation this year, and students read what he was thinking on the date of their visit, but 146 years earlier.

“It helped students think about what was going on that day and to get a perspective on the prison,” Mrs. Killam said.

On the way back to Fayette, they talked about the odd feeling of seeing nothing but trees while knowing that thousands of people once lived there.

Their connection came from sifting through the debris in search of items that haven’t seen the light of day since they were buried so long ago.

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