ANTH 491: Archaeology of the Bishop's Cabin

Month: September 2023

The Transcendence of the Mundane. By Olivia Westley-Sherman

In the public imagination, the field of archaeology holds a notable amount of intrigue. Through American media such as the Indiana Jones franchise, many people view archaeology as the business of constantly unearthing mysteries and discovering groundbreaking artifacts. Picture classic scenes from this type of media in which the handsome, tough male protagonist comes across a priceless object. The ancient medallion, grail, or whatever it may be glows in his face. It’s somehow perfectly preserved in an upright position. Now, picture a large group of scholars quietly digging their trowels around rocks and occasionally mourning the loss of a worm they accidentally sliced in half. For the most part, that’s what archaeology really looks like, at least here at the Kenyon Archaeology Project. 

This is not to say that archaeology, as practiced in reality, isn’t exciting. I may be biased as an archaeology student, but I think there is just as much mystery and excitement in revealing the mundane parts of the lives of those who came before us. This past Friday’s excavations and the archaeological theory we read as a class bring this excitement to fruition. In Cynthia Robin’s 2020 article titled “Archaeology of Everyday Life,” she discusses how important understanding everyday life in history is to piecing together the broader values and practices of society at the time. Robin writes, “Daily activities can have a profound effect on how households, communities, and societies operate. People’s daily activities and interactions shape their social world and societies,” (Robin, 2020, p. 381). How humans live on the day-to-day scale is ultimately how humans live their lives. Thus, how the early people of Kenyon lived their everyday lives reveals how these people really lived in general, at least during their time at the institution. Artifacts relating to everyday life also remind us of our own humanity, and the fact that humans have always done human things. We’ve always had our trinkets and our tools, and through the practice of everyday archaeology, we can see aspects of the present in the past. 

The artifacts we found during this week’s excavations pair well with this notion of everyday life in archaeology. In my excavation partner and I’s unit, we found remnants of the mundane. We found ceramics with floral decorations, but our most exciting find was the engraved stem of a smoking pipe. While neither of these examples glowed in our faces or revealed some kind of groundbreaking mystery (we can’t all be Indiana Jones), they did something more important. They showed us what people were really doing at the time of Kenyon’s founding. It’s important to note, too, that we don’t know who these objects belonged to. The history of Kenyon is so caught up in the mythologizing of Philander Chase that it can be easy to lose sight of what the students and workers–the average people–were doing at this time. The Indiana Jones movies make it clear that the artifacts the protagonist finds are transcendent, but I think the exact same thing is true of the mundane artifacts we’ve found. Through the material past, even just a small piece of it, we can imagine what life really looked like for people in the past. The objects we find today were used by people who are long gone but who are embedded in the history of Kenyon. The pipe stem was once part of someone’s daily ritual. These artifacts belonged to real people, and some were even sentimental knick knacks that took on a transcendent quality in the mind of their owners. Upon closer inspection, we can now see that what looks like a mundane piece of trash can become a sublime window into the past. 

The Person Behind the Myth

Over the last two centuries quite a bit has remained the same as Kenyon has developed. The river still flows south on its winding path and pileated woodpeckers can still be heard, and occasionally seen, as they make their way about searching for bug infested trees. Quite a bit has also changed. To take just one example, on page 71 of George Franklin Smythe’s 1924 Kenyon College, Its First Century at the time of the colleges construction residents of Knox County believed that, “God was Bishop Chase’s Friend”, due to a series of fortunate events that helped Philander Chase along in the construction of his shining city upon a hill. More recently on page 25 of Will Bunch’s 2022 After the Ivory Tower Falls: how college broke the American Dream and Blew up Our Politics- and how to fix it, the author notes that some of the residents of Mt. Vernon refers to the residents of the hill as, “the God haters.”

I used this anecdote at the beginning of this blog post because I find it to be an amusing little tidbit of information, but in all seriousness one of the things that has changed on campus is our perception of our founding figure. When I visited campus for the first time, before walking to admissions I explored the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was my first experience on campus. In that church you can find a marble bust of, and quote on Chase. If you go to the post office you’ll see the mural of him on horseback surveying the land where he would build the school. We have all, of course, heard his famous quote of, “this will do.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that Mr. Chase is currently a quasi-mythical figure for the college. You can see this glorification at work within the previously mentioned Smythe book, and it seems that since the time of that book’s publication that the trend towards aggrandizement has continued.

The Kenyon Archaeological Project, is a historical archaeological project, and as such we have been using archival information and primary sources on the college’s founding to help inform our research process, and in the near future, to interpret our findings from the site. Currently the digital Kenyon website maintains a collection of 56 website pages that host the letters and journals of Philander Chase and his family. These documents are proving to be particularly useful for understanding what we are looking for underneath the campus grounds.

These writings are also informing some of the potential research questions that our findings can answer, to give just one brief example. Chase’s letters frequently allude to fund raising issues. The quality of goods found within the archeological assemblage can potentially give insight into how severe these issues were. Another potential outcome from this study is a better picture of how strictly Chases edicts were enacted. To Take another example, Chase frequently complained about the use of liquor. Similar projects on campus archaeology at Harvard university have revealed that high quantities of alcohol were consumed in the college’s early years despite the substance being banned. Perhaps something similar happened at Kenyon, and our excavations may reveal this. If we were to find something like that it would pose new questions regarding things like Chase’s true role at Kenyon.

With that Being said the Journals and letters also reveal interesting lesser known pieces of information about Philander Chase. To put it bluntly, Mr. Chase was a bit of a character, and not just by modern standards. In one letter dated 3-3-1825 Mr. Chase complains about a negative pamphlet written on his character on efforts in England. This was actually a recurring problem for Philander that occurred multiple times within the 1820’s. I thought it might be fun to share some of these historical anecdotes.

You can see the silliness of Mr. Chase’s life within the earliest letter we have from Mr. Chase, in which he details how he may be removed from Dartmouth after being accused of cutting off a fellow student’s hair during a religious service. He was later acquitted of this charge.

In another Incident, while the college was still being housed in Worthington Ohio, Mr. Chase complains in a 1822 letter to his son Philander Chase Jr. about how his students have formed a mini rebellion against their tutor, who they apparently disliked. Here I will use a little excerpt from the Bishop:

“They proceeded to raise a rebellion in the other students and succeeded so far as to get 11 names to a paper addressed to the Faculty dictating that the delinquents should not be punished and accusing the Tutor of Tyranny.”

Beyond these misadventures the Bishop was often prone to decrying perceived sins and vices within society, which led him to choose the remote location of Gambier for his school. In one letter written on, 1-25-1828, Chase writes to his wife describing how he tried using a story of a drunken worker in Gambier who died in an alcohol induced accident to attempt to educate the non religious.

There are numerous other examples of amusing stories that can be found within Chase’s letters, and it’s fun to juxtapose these tales against the dignified image we have of Chase today. These writings serve as an important reminder that history is always more complicated than we make it out to be. One of the benefits of archaeology is that through physical reminders of the past we can form a clearer picture of what happened. This is the aim of our studies.

-Ethan McCullough

The Image shown above is a diary entry and sketch done by Philander Chase in his 1824 diary, which largely details Chase’s travels to London in that year. The full diary can be found, along with the rest of Chase’s writings on the digital Kenyon Website

Figure 1: A diary entry and sketch done by Philander Chase in his 1824 diary, which largely details Chase’s travels to London in that year. The full diary can be found, along with the rest of Chase’s writings on the digital Kenyon Website

How do archaeologists locate sites? Georeferencing and geophysics in archaeology

By: Tati Gross

In our first week in the field, we started by doing something many of us haven’t tried yet: georeferencing and geophysics! Before class, we prepared by reading about campus archaeology at Notre Dame, methods in our (actually exciting) archaeology textbook, and reading up on our guest speaker, Jarrod Burks.

In the textbook chapter, we learned that surveying methods depend on different facts like visibility (the extent to which an observer can detect the presence of archaeological materials at or below a given place), obtrusiveness (ease with which the materials produced by a people can be discerned by the archaeologist), and accessibility (the climate, ease of access, etc.) of the site. With an an obtrusive and high visibility site, pedestrian surveying works best. With less visibility aerial photography. Low obtrusiveness may lead to test pits/shovel testing. Ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, though, is used to define the “content and limits” (or boundaries) of known sites. GPR is an electromagnetic pulse is released into the ground. The return time of the electromagnetic pulse after it is reflected back to the radar receiver is dependent upon the density and distance (in the case of ground radar, depth) of whatever the pulse encounters.

Class began with Jarrod Burks, the director of Archaeological Geophysics at Ohio Valley Archaeology, Inc., coming in and speaking to the class. Burk’s experience with archaeology, as most of ours, did not start with a lifelong dream of working in the field. Instead, he started with a dream of becoming a physical therapist, but took an Egyptology elective and, well, fell in love with the discipline. For many of us taking this class and doing this project, this is our first time doing archaeology––it was uplifting to hear his story and realize this experience may be life changing. Burk’s dissertation was about the Hopewell Mound Group in Southern Ohio. Since then, he has conducted to geophysical surveys around the Middle Ohio Valley, collecting data at approximately three dozen of the state’s nearly 600 sites. In using magnetic surveys and aerial photography in three case studies of the Steel Group site, the Snake den group site, and Fort Ancient, large-scale geophysical surveys have revealed overlooked complexity at these sites, and shown that GPR can be a beneficial addition to surveying methods to define a site.

After hearing his story, we received our ‘write in the rain’ Archaeology notebooks, a yellow book about the size of a hand that we’ll be using as field journals for the rest of the semester, put on our sunglasses and hats, and went outside to the Bishop’s Cabin site. In discussion outside of the church, we talked about the geo-referenced grid laid over where we plan to excavate, and began talking about the plan of action for KAP (the Kenyon Archaeology Project). Because of Burks’s help before we made it on site, we realized that the size of the planned excavation may have changed. From what we thought might be a small cabin was, instead, a multi-purpose room (potentially a grammar school or a dining hall). As a class, we agreed we would use the geophysical imagery to locate our first excavation units.

But before we can start digging, we had to learn a few basics: How to use a ground penetrating radar (GPR; Figure 1), and how to properly map out 1m-x-1m and 2m-x-2m-square units (Figure 2).

Next week, we will continue to learn about campus and field archaeology, what to record in our field journals, and start establishing our units.

Figure 1: A student pushing Burks’ GPR instrument near Cromwell Cottage as Jared Burks looks on.

Figure 2: Students sitting down with nails, tape measures, and dirty knees mapping out a 2m-x-2m unit.