It’s a chilly spring morning outside Miami’s McGuffey Museum. A group of anthropology students make their way down Spring Street around 10 a.m. toward the former home of William Holmes McGuffey.
The scene they enter resembles that of a murder investigation, with areas sectioned off by caution tape and six boarded-up holes in the ground.
But students in professor Jeb Card’s Anthropology 416 class see things a little differently. After setting down their backpacks, groups of three head to their designated hole in the ground, trowels and clipboards in hand. Each group steps into their sectioned-off area and removes the board covering the square hole.
Minutes later, students spot Card walking down Spring Street with a few shovels in one hand and a coffee mug in the other. Card steps onto the grass and surveys the area. He stands tall among his students, dignified. His hair is peppered gray, and his casual jeans and button-down are accented by a tie covered in hieroglyphics.
Card drops the shovels and walks to each of the three sections, two holes in each section.
“Okay, remember to get your depths,” Card says.
Each group of students is bent over their designated hole, stretching string across the diagonal and measuring the depth from the middle.
“Oh, that’s exactly what you’re already doing. Okay, awesome.”
While the Anthropology Department has held teaching labs examining over 10,000 artifacts, from ancient homo erectus tools to pieces from the Inca Empire, this is the first time students have gotten the chance to work in the field on campus.
Last November, Card came to Stephen Gordon, administrator of the McGuffey Museum, to discuss potentially digging in the area. This is the first time a class like this, applied archaeology, has existed at Miami. It’s a capstone for both the anthropology department and the newly created archaeology minor.
The McGuffey House was built in 1833, making it the second oldest building on campus after Elliot Hall. It was in that house that William Holmes McGuffey created his first “Eclectic Readers” — a series of books used to help teach students to read through stories of honesty, hard work and moral and ethical standards. McGuffey’s readers spread through schools across America, making McGuffey a household name. After McGuffey left Miami, the house went through various owners and renovations until Miami University purchased the home in 1958 and turned it into the museum it is today.
Card and Gordon discussed which areas around the house would yield the biggest potential for finding artifacts. The side of the house facing Williams Hall had windows and doors that were previously boarded up, leading Gordon to think that side had once been the front of the house.
The spot in the back was chosen simply because it was the back of the house and when a garden was put in the same location, pieces of brick and other small artifacts were found.
And the spot along Spring Street was primarily chosen for visibility, so people could have an idea of what was being done, Card said. They even put a banner up so passersby could learn more about the program.
At each group, Card chats with his students while monitoring their progress.
“So, we’ve been getting a lot of soil change,” one of the students says to Card.
“Are you debating whether to close the level?”
“What are your depths?”
“We’re not quite down…”
“I didn’t ask that,” Card says. “What are your depths? Let’s get your walls cleaned up, they can be a little more straight. Use the square trowel.”
Each time the soil changes in any way, how it feels or sounds, that’s a different level, Card says.
“It’s like bullet casings next to a body,” he says. “Those bullet casings aren’t useful if they’re found 3,000 miles away, but if they’re found next to a body, they’re really damn important. Context is everything.”
So, the students photograph and draw maps of everything throughout the process.
One of the challenges of this dig is the fact that it is a class with set time constraints. Typically, Card says, a full-time dig is eight hours or more of consistent work every day, whereas this class only has an hour and a half on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the remainder of the semester, weather depending.
This day, Thursday, April 19, marks day four of being out in the field, meaning they’ve had under 8 hours of total work time. But Card is pleased with how much they’ve accomplished in that time.
The group behind the house has been having the most success. So far, they’ve found several small artifacts dating back to the 19th century, consistent with what they’d expect from the time McGuffey lived in the house. What they’re really hoping to find is context — a line of bricks, for example.
A student approaches Card and stretches out her hand. Glass. Card tells her to bag it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
One group near the road has had similar luck.
“Any artifacts today?” Card asks.
“Just a piece of glass.”
“Cool, cool,” he says. “Wait, there’s more of that clay! What is that?”
“Yeah, it’s here, too.”
“You know what, try to clean that up a little. See if it’s a thing. I don’t think it’s a thing, but I don’t really know. Just try not to remove it. Also, I saw you got in the Bigfoot course! There were so many people asking to get in.”
Next semester, Card is teaching a new course: “Investigating the Paranormal.” This time, it’s on Bigfoot, but in the future he’d like to tackle other myths and legends. He also happens to co-host the podcast, “Archaeological Fantasies,” which has over 60,000 subscribers.
Every so often, the sound of dirt pattering against a plastic tarp can be heard from each of the groups. One student holds up a foldable wooden contraption with a wire net while another dumps a bucket of dirt on top. The student with the sifter shakes the dirt back and forth over a plastic tarp, hoping to catch any artifacts they might have missed.
One students gets excited after spotting something among the dirt on her sifter. She hurries over to Card and hands him her finding.
“Really wanna know?” Card asks as a smile stretches across his face. “It’s a rock.”
Back at the group along Spring Street, one student has found a bone fragment.
“Do you think it’s just one bone?” she asks.
“Which bone was that, the one with articulated surface?”
“Yeah, but is it weird to find…”
“Random bone?” Card interjects. “No, I’ve found random bits of human on the side of a building before.”
“Okay,” she says, not skipping a beat as she heads back to digging.
Progress is slow. Each group gets through two or three centimeters a day. Card estimates they’ll get to 20 centimeters by the time the class ends this semester. At that point, Card says, they’ll put a marker in the hole, fill it back up and potentially come back to those spots in the future.
“I think I found bone!” one of the girls in the group behind the house yells across the yard.
“Possibly,” Card says upon examination. “You could always lick it.”
“There’s a whole thing with paleontologists and archaeologists when you need to know if it’s bone versus rock,” Card says. “If you lick it, and it sticks to your tongue, it’s bone. If it’s rock, it doesn’t. I mean, I don’t do it.”
“Hey, uh, Dr. Card. What is this?” another student asks.
“What the hell?” Card grabs the unidentified black object from her hand.
“It was under this rock.”
Card is silent for a while, turning the object over in his hand.
“No, really. What the hell is this?” he asks in shock. “This is ridiculously pretty, polished-as-hell ceramic. I think. Let me check with Gordon. My first thought is that it’s obsidian, but it’s not.”
Card makes his way across the lawn to Gordon, who’s adding some finishing touches to the museum’s landscaping.
“Alright, so 19th century ceramic. It’s literally coated in obsidian-like glaze. Look!” Card’s face lights up like a kid in a candy store.
Students from all the groups run to check out the shiny object.
“Cool, that is 19th-century for sure,” Gordon confirms. “You don’t see this every day.”
“Alright, let’s bag it.”
For the rest of the class period, students call Card over to their groups to examine more objects: small chunks of brick, pieces of varnished wood and pottery.
Their hands, if not protected by gloves, have turned red from the cold. Each student has two muddy circles around their knees from constantly kneeling in the grass. As many of the groups start to pack up their trowels and re-board their holes, one group behind the house stares into their hole in confusion.
“Look at this! Get a photo of this!” Card tells the group.
He peers down into the hole, pointing to a U-shaped mark in the soil.
“Is that a soil change?”
“No, it’s not a soil change,” Card says. “Someone get a photo of this! Don’t dig this up. I want a photo in case it rains. Don’t dig it up. Dr. Gordon, come see this!”
To the untrained eye, the mark looks like nothing more than a different color of soil, nothing of note.
“Is it coal?” Gordon asks.
“I don’t know, but it looks like a circle!” Card says. “Things just got interesting!”
“What an interesting thing for a professor to say,” Gordon jokes. “Things just got interesting.”
“Caroline’s working on a nice piece of pottery over here,” Card tells the student with a camera. “But that’s not the interesting thing. Take a look. Check this out! It’s very heavy with charcoal.”
Someone asks what the small circle in the dirt means.
“I don’t know. Post mold? Gordon thinks post mold. Have we gotten notes on this? Dimensions? It’s a carbon-rich layer that appears to be u-shaped. Note that it’s open on the north end and closed on the other ends. Something like that.”
One student starts mapping the anomaly on a lab-sheet, trying to keep up with Card.
“That is interesting, but maybe it’s actually not. Maybe it’s just my paranoia, but I don’t think so. That looks like a thing.”
With that, Card tells the class to start packing up. The mystery will have to wait until next week.