Volunteer `shovel bums' really dig buried history. Archaeology buffs help to excavate Ohio outpost
Bolivar, Ohio — DAVID LEHBERGER, a test lab supervisor, gladly gives up weekends and vacations to be a ``shovel bum.'' Mike Murphy, a high school English teacher, forgot to return to class one day, he was so preoccupied with ``digging.'' Digging up what? History. Mr. Lehberger and Mr. Murphy are amateur archaeologists who spend every spare moment on hands and knees searching through dirt, using paint brushes, tweezers, even popsicle sticks. Fifteen or 20 years ago, they would only have been observers at a dramatic excavation of a Revolutionary War outpost that took place last summer (see story on the next page). But economics and changing attitudes put them and other volunteers at the side of professional archaeologists at Fort Laurens in Bolivar, Ohio.
It was a group of amateur archaeologists and history buffs who wanted to keep the Fort Laurens excavation going after federal and state funds dried up in the late '70s. Members of the Sugar Creek Valley chapter of the Ohio Archaeological Society and the Tuscarawas County Ohio Historical Society were prepared to continue excavating Fort Laurens, but the state could not finance another dig. Earl Olmstead, a local historian who is currently writing a book about a Revolutionary-era figure, raised nearly $14,000 in private donations, enough to pay for the project.
Michael Gramly, chairman of the curatorial department of the Buffalo Society of National Science, directed this summer's dig and three previous ones at that site since 1972. Dr. Gramly relies extensively on amateur archaeologists to assist him. He has surrounded himself with a network of volunteers who may not have academic credentials but say they are deeply committed to archaeology.
``I started as an amateur arrowhead collector myself,'' Gramly said in a telephone interview. And by letting amateurs help him, he says, ``they make me a man of 100.''
Not all professional archaeologists are as eager to employ amateurs, he points out. But this seems to be changing.
Stephen Williams, Peabody professor of American archaeology at Harvard University, endorses Gramly's approach and says the profession is working to nurture a more cooperative relationship between amateurs and professionals. Because of funding cutbacks over the last decade, many institutions are seeking amateurs' help on projects and are finding the outcome to be ``mutually beneficial,'' according to Dr. Williams.
Murphy spent a week in the trenches at Fort Laurens. His first dig with Gramly was two years ago, when the ``bug really bit,'' and his interest in archaeology took hold. Murphy credits Gramly's enthusiasm and drive for stoking his own interest in archaeology. ``The spinoff of Gramly's attention has been that myself and two others are working at a spot four miles from my house, finding artifacts that are helping Gramly in another project,'' Murphy says. ``Oh, you still get professionals who won't talk to someone unless they have degrees in front and back of their name,'' he adds.
Lehberger finds the work very tedious but admits it's ``amazing to pick up an arrowhead - to hold this thing in your hand and realize it was made 8,000 or 9,000 years ago and you're the first one to touch it since then - it's a fantastic feeling. It makes you feel like you're helping to make history and clearing up miswritten history.''
The Fort Laurens site may be unique, according to chief curator of the Ohio Historical Society Amos J. Loveday, in that it is the only locally sponsored archaeological dig that he knows. Since the budget cuts of the early '80s, the society has been less involved at their state-owned sites, but, Dr. Loveday says, the ``local communities have been good at stepping in and taking up the slack. It's good because it gives local communities a sense of participation - a sense of pride in what is going on.''
Difficulties can develop when the state can't closely oversee site development or restoration or both - as they had in the 1970s. Left to local initiative, Loveday says, the research is too sporadic.
Loveday also cautions that amateur groups digging on private property often get into trouble when they dig without consulting a professional. The damage is usually discovered after the fact, when all clues to reading the history have been destroyed. (On state-owned sites, a permit must be released, which pretty much guarantees that a survey will be done and that a professional archaeologist will supervise the work.)
Both Loveday and Gramly have this advice for those interested in doing archaeological work: Check with a local chapter of your state archaeological or historical society. If you don't have one, contact a nearby university or college archaeology department. Then read, study, and talk with experienced diggers before you turn one shovelful of dirt.