Digging for (history) gold

Archaeological digs focus on Hollywood Plantation workers, pre- and post-Civil War

The excavation site. Beyond the thicket of trees is Bayou Bartholomew used at one time for transportation. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Quite a bit is known about the Taylor House, built in 1864, and its inhabitants at Hollywood Plantation near Winchester in Drew County.

Home of Dr. John Martin Taylor and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, the building and grounds were donated to the University of Arkansas at Monticello in 2012 for historical research and interpretation. UAM has since restored the two-story dog-trot home along with the Taylors' grave stones, a smoke house and rebuilt kitchen.

But less is known of the people who worked the plantation -- enslaved people and, after the Civil War, sharecroppers. None of their cabins or houses remain.

Matthew Rooney, station archaeologist for the University of Arkansas Monticello Research Station, is focusing attention on the people who worked the plantation pre- and post-Civil War. Last year, Rooney oversaw the excavation of the former site of a Black sharecropper's home on the west side of the Taylor home. Finds from this dig are on display in a "Black Lifeways Through the Valley" exhibit at the plantation and include snuff bottles, bricks, buttons, buckles and broken pieces of dinnerware.

Through census records and information found on headstones in graveyards on the plantation, Rooney has traced and found former residents, as well as descendants of the plantation workers, and conducted oral-history interviews. And in December, the Taylor House and grounds were host to Preserve Arkansas' series "Behind the Big House," a two-day program on the dwellings and lives of Arkansas' enslaved people.

In mid-May, the Tunican Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society was invited to participate in finding other home sites of the people who actually worked the land that at one time encompassed 10,000 acres in Desha, Drew and Lincoln counties.

"According to tradition," Rooney says during the search, "the slave quarters were about a quarter mile down from the house, on this side of the bayou.

"Bayou Bartholomew runs behind us here," he explains, pointing to a tree line, "and it was also said that the commissary, which was a little west of here, in that little grove, was between the quarters and the house. So it should be here somewhere. So we're just doing some archaeological testing here."

After making a series of shovel test pits across a pecan grove to the east of the Taylor home, Rooney identified sites to excavate carefully measured 2-by-2-meter units, where the volunteers slowly removed layers of dirt, screening all the removed soil to find artifacts and possibly a home site.

On a table near the test pit are some of the items unearthed by the volunteers. Pointing to some of the square-cut nails found, Rooney explains, "This is the earlier nail technology before our modern wire nails that they would have used in the antebellum times."

Many ceramic fragments have been found, including parts of dinnerware along with stoneware used for food containers like pots and jars, he continues. Also found: slate fragments with lines that would have been part of a slate writing tablet.

Items such as nails can help tell when the cabins were built and other items such as glass and buttons can help tell how long that site was in use. In the last three days of the excavation, Rooney says, the edge of a fireplace was uncovered. He feels confident it was part of a slave cabin.

"I plan to open up excavation units in the adjacent spaces to uncover more of it," he says, "but first I will have a specialist conduct a ground-penetrating radar survey over the still-covered area of the fireplace to see if we can identify similar signatures elsewhere in the pecan grove."

In addition to the cabins, Rooney also hopes at some point to excavate two different sharecropper churches that were on the plantation. The discoveries made about the houses and lives of the Black men and women who worked on the plantation will be made available to the public.

Using funding he received from an Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council grant, a website will be created that he says "will include a virtual archaeology exhibit and an encyclopedia of people, places and events important to the history of the community."

And the people that Rooney has tracked down who have a connection to the plantation and community?

The station archaeologist says he is partnering with The David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History to collect oral-history interviews with several people who were sharecroppers on the plantation and in the nearby area between the 1930s and 1950s. These will be saved as a collection on the Pryor Center's website.

"I want to have the virtual information online so that people can find their ancestors here because some people just know they were born in Winchester, but they don't know anything else about what was going on out here. And so now they can see the real story."

The next Behind the Big House by Preserve Arkansas at Hollywood Plantation will be Feb. 9-10, with keynote speaker James French of the Montpelier Descendants Committee. For more information about work done at the UAM Monticello Research Station visit archeology.uark.edu/who-we-are/research-stations/uam/.

photo The Tunican Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society members Hope Bragg and her son, Kenny Bragg, also a senior at Michigan Technological University majoring in anthropology/industrial archaeology, use a mesh screen to separate soil from artifacts. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
photo Kenny Bragg and his father, Don Bragg, president of the Tunican Chapter, work together excavating a unit. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
photo A variety of pottery, glass and bone bits found in the unit which will be used to help tell when the site was in use. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)