Underneath your lawn, it's still 1834

by Jack Neely

I wouldn't have noticed it if they hadn't closed the bike trail for construction. The signs closing the trail forced me and my bicycle back on the Kingston Pike sidewalk, and new scenery.

I was late for an appointment, but when I glanced over and saw more than a dozen perfectly square holes in the lawn by the new Unitarian church—and more than a dozen people standing in those holes with trowels and probes—I knew I'd be even later.

It was, of course, Historical Archaeology Field School, hosted by Professor Charlie Faulk-ner: UT Anthropology sections 430 and 530. I could never pass up a chance to audit a course.

In 95-degree heat, students scrape the dirt's surface, a millimeter at a time. A few students are on the hillside, shaking dirt through the screen tables. A couple are working with a surveyor's transit. Most are in these three-foot-square pits, making the dust muddy with dripped sweat. Occasionally, a trowel scrapes a bit of something hard. "Dr. Faulkner!" they call above the whoosh of 50 cars a minute on Kingston Pike.

Dr. Faulkner, the only one who doesn't seem to be suffering in the heat, scrambles over. He looks like an archaeologist is supposed to: A thin man with a short gray beard in a T-shirt, blue jeans, and a cap from the Gay Fish Co. in Frogmore, S.C. For the last 30 years he's led investigations of sites where mysterious people of all colors left clues: prehistoric Indians, late 19th-century industrial Knoxvillians. He's made East Tennessee his Olduvai Gorge.

Now he's on the hillside the Confederates charged as General Sanders fell. But by then, the stuff Dr. Faulkner and his class are finding today was already underground. These are relics not of a battle, but of a home: a fragment of a dish with an intricate design: a mossy-green vine with tiny leaves, intertwining bright green and orange intersecting stripes. An off-white fragment of a clay tobacco pipe. A shard of pearlwear. A bit of blue-and-white shell-edge. Shards with floral designs. Hundreds of shards in all.

It looks like the leftovers of a wedding shower that ended badly. But this debris has become sanctified among lawn detritus because it's over 160 years old. And much of it's fine china, imported from Asia or England. One shard even bears the trademark of its manufacturer, the English potter Clews, which dates it firmly to 1817-1834.

These weren't your primitive cabin dwellers, Faulkner comments, a wry understatement. An assistant remarks that they've found fragments of eight separate tea services here, with eight distinct designs.

"One of the reasons this dig is different is that the preservation is so good," Faulkner says. "It's a real surprise to have it all here." Most relics were just a few inches under the turf. Even a flower garden here could have erased most traces of this home.

"At sites this old, nails are often just a glob of rust." From a group of items in a dustpan, he plucks a circa 1815 nail that's still straight, intact. If it came in a plastic box from Home Depot, you wouldn't take it back. They've found hundreds of nails—some of them hand-made in some local forge in the 1790s, others machine-tooled, probably around 1820.

A still-usable straight pin with a ball end, which indicates it's pre-1825. Fine, thin window glass. A sharp bone, a couple of inches long: a pig's incisor. Archaeologists have to know about geology, geography, American hardware, English teaware, and porcine anatomy.

In one of these holes is a cluster of flat stones—to an archaeologist, an obvious hearth at the western end of a good-sized cabin, not quite a thousand square feet.

Dr. Faulkner calls a break and explains what he's learned about the family that lived here. All the young students go immediately to the shade of a tree; they lie in the grass and drink. Standing in the blazing sun chatting about a long-dead family, Dr. Faulkner does not join his students until a reporter makes the suggestion.

A friend of Dr. Faulkner's researched the deeds. One William Bell bought these 500 acres in 1793, before Tennessee was a state; Faulkner believes Bell built the cabin they're now excavating. Bell lived here with his wife and eight children—and, somewhere around here, four slaves—on this peaceful hill overlooking the river, beside the new Kingston Road, nearly two miles west of the rowdy territorial capital Knoxville. After Bell's death in 1813, it went to the Clarks, who held it until 1834, when the house was apparently torn down.

The cabin was forgotten, through the war, through the construction of a Victorian house that went up on the hilltop, then another house built beside it, the Bonnyman house which in the '60s became Mrs. Moncier's Teen Center. I sometimes mowed the grass here when it was the Teen Center, shoved a mower over this spot dozens of times, and never guessed there was a hearth and pig teeth and extravagant broken china underfoot.

As they demolished the Bonnyman house and prepared construction of the church in early '97, Faulkner came here in response to rumors of bottle-hunters on the site. Faulkner's wife, Terry, poking around a felled tree down the hill, found the first relics.

Faulkner calls his class back to the dirt. The work seems much harder when you're not finding anything, and one student's getting discouraged with his hole, which doesn't seem quite as exciting as some others. The young man in a floppy hat and khaki shorts looks like he's hoping Dr. Faulkner will call this a dry well, give up on it.

But Dr. Faulkner's puzzled about why they haven't found more evidence of the cabin's foundation there. "Keep digging," he smiles. "Dig faster, but more carefully."

To be an archaeologist, you have to know everything, endure everything, and, always, keep the faith.