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Digging up history

Carter County Historical Society plans archaeological excavation

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

We all know that Carter County has a rich Civil War history, including several skirmishes and battles within the county’s bounds. Dr. Gerald Dyson, history professor at KCU in Grayson, has discussed some of it in his presentations for the Carter County Historical Society. Now, though, Dyson wants to document it – showing exactly where one significant battle happened – and he plans to do it with an archaeological dig on a property where he believes this particular fight took place. The ultimate goal, he said, is to get a historical marker for the site.

“One of the projects for the history department, we’ve tried to do service projects every year, and one of the service projects that we wanted to do – and I thought it would be a good not just historical experience but a civic experience for students – was trying to get a historical marker placed,” Dyson explained.

Before he can do that, though, evidence of the fight has to be uncovered, and Dyson believes a dig will do that.

He believes that, he said, because earlier sweeps with metal detectors uncovered some promising artifacts. Nothing of significant value to anyone other than a historian or maybe some collectors, he said, but important enough that he’s keeping the exact location of the property quiet until the dig begins, later this month. But, he said, it wouldn’t be difficult for anyone with an interest in local history, particularly Civil War history, to figure out.

“This site was something we’d been aware of,” he continued. “And I got in touch and wrote a letter to the Kentucky Historical Society about it, and talked with the landowners… so it was something that was on our radar. But it was hard to confirm the location precisely.”

That was where historical research and then the metal detectors came in.

“I was able to confirm it pretty well through oral history and through examining the site, but it could be any house. We do have some maps dating back to the mid-1800s, but unfortunately they are geological survey maps, so they incidentally record houses, but they don’t record every house.”

He said they were still doing research on deeds related to properties owned by the landowner at the time of the Civil War, but then he got the idea to take it further.

“The idea came in that this could be a great experience for students, and a great experience for the community, and then it kind of went from there. We had a pre-existing relationship with this archaeologist that used to be a professor at KCU… but was willing to come up and do it with us really reasonably.”

To get ready for the upcoming dig, Dyson and his students did some preparatory work around the site that led to the discovery of some interesting artifacts.

“The archaeologist like to call it a remote sensing survey,” Dyson said. “But it’s essentially metal detecting, taking photographs, things like that.”

While conducting that survey, he said, they uncovered musket balls as well as buttons that dated to the Civil War era.

While he said he wasn’t too worried about history enthusiasts sneaking onto the site – in fact he’s offering opportunities to work on the dig as a fundraiser for the excavation costs – he wants to respect the current property owners’ privacy and keep any would be looters from destroying the grounds with a haphazard search.

And though they may not find anything more valuable than musket balls and buttons, it’s important to document and mark the site, he said, for multiple reasons.

“It’s not just important because it’s a 19th century plantation site and a site with Civil War relevance. But there’s also some important African American history there. We know from the 1860 census there were 11 slaves living there, in 1860 two slave cabins on the property, as well as, from what we know of the house, four individual rooms for slaves in the house as well.”

And while he asked us to withhold particulars about the location for the time being, he did say the skirmish held major historical significance as one of the first real battles to take place within the state of Kentucky between Confederate and Union sympathizers.

While slots on the archaeological dig were filling up quickly simply through word of mouth, Dyson said, those interested in donating toward the cost of the project or trying to find a slot to work on the dig (there is a $20 dig fee to help fund the project) can find more information by contacting the Carter County Historical Society on Facebook, or contact Dyson via email at gpdyson@kcu.edu.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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