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Ancient village escapes urban sprawl

What was prime real estate 800 years ago-- still is today. The ancient remains of early agricultural villages are disappearing beneath Ohio's strip malls and housing developments. But for one site, the backhoes are on hold. It's become an outdoor classroom for young archaeologists, and their discoveries reveal new details of the region's ancient cultures.

When the global construction company Cemex acquired land near Dayton in the year 2000, they had no idea they were getting an archaeological site in the deal.

Artifacts had turned up on the land during a survey in the early 1980's. But was it just a scattering of potsherds and deer bones, or was the footprint of an ancient village still intact beneath? No one knew for sure.

During the next two decades, the question of the site's history was nearly forgotten. Until last winter, when Cemex planned to sell the land.

Robert Cook, an anthropology professor at Ohio State University, knew of the artifacts. He asked Cemex if he could document the site before it was sold and likely destroyed.

"In January when I found out that they were considering imminently selling the property they said well how sure are you that there's things below the ground surface," Cook said. "And of course I couldn't say with any certainty that would be something I'd want to stand behind."

There wasn't time to dig before Cemex made its decision. So Cook and a colleague conducted a magnetic scan of the site. The results showed a pattern of soil features, invisible to the human eye. The pattern confirmed that there was, indeed, something to excavate.

So Cemex held off on the land sale. According to spokesperson Jennifer Borgen, the company was happy to change its business plans.

"It's a real opportunity, if there is something there that exists to be able to preserve that for future study, for future generations to understand it better rather than just going in there, selling it off, and making a buck," she said.

Now that there was time for an excavation, Cook organized an archaeology field course. Eleven college students enrolled in this five-week summer experience.

"This summer the goal was to document features below the ground surface, to get carbon to do radiocarbon dates to estimate the age of the village, and to really demonstrate that this is a site worth saving," Cook said. He says it's a mission accomplished.

At the site, sandwiched between a shopping center and a busy highway, the students found pottery, arrowheads, deer bones, and charcoal. They also excavated the remains of garbage pits and what may have been houses.

Kevin Spurgeon is a history major at OSU. He and three classmates are uncovering one of the trash pits.

"We've got a nice little pit feature here. A trash pit, right guys?" he said.

(Group response) "Yes."

(Q) "How do you know it's a trash pit?"

(Spurgeon) "Because there's lots of trash in it. No, honestly? How do we know it's a trash pit guys?"

(Group response) "Burnt bone, charcoal, broken pottery..."

(Spurgeon) "There you have it."

Another student in the class, Melanie Cole, is a senior in anthropology at OSU. She says the experience has been intense.

"We've been learning all kinds of stuff," she said. "We've learned how to do surface surveys, how to do shovel tests, how to open units of excavation, how to use a trowel properly, how to use a shovel properly, opening features, learning to identify artifacts, that kind of thing. We've learned a whole lot of archaeology in a really small amount of time." Cook says the field experience is crucial for young archaeologists as they make career decisions.

But he's also excited to fit the summer's work into the big picture of the region's past.

"I think what this is, is a small little habitation, several families perhaps living seasonally," he said. "The only bone we've seen come out of a feature is deer bone, so it could be a deer hunting camp or it could be a lot of things."

A more thorough analysis of the artifacts will help fill in the details, including the time period the site was occupied. Cook believes it's 500 to 800 years old, but tests on carbon-containing artifacts will narrow the range.

He says continued study of the site could also help him understand the social structure that connected the region's many prehistoric settlements.

He's pleased that the site may survive its close scrape with urbanization.

"It would be a real good thing particularly in a developing area where people can see that as an example when so many times housing developments and shopping malls are literally tearing away the past at an unprecedented rate," he said.