Digging deep into the past near East Troy
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A blue transferware plate dating back to the 1800s was one of the items found by archaeologists while digging up the Field family privy near East Troy. The 19th-century outhouse also served as a landfill of sorts for everything from broken plates to corset stays. Photos courtesy of Patricia Ladwig, WHS-MAP..
EAST TROY--For history detectives, evidence of the past can be gleaned from scarred battlefields or pulled from the yellowed pages of old diaries.
As it turns out, history also can be found in a humble bathroom — at least of the 19th-century variety.
(Read all of this week's stories from Walworth County Sunday HERE. )
Paul Reckner, an archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, will discuss the unexpected places the past turned up during recent archaeological excavations in East Troy in a presentation through the East Troy Area Historical Society on May 24.
Reckner’s archaeological crew was contacted weeks ago by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to scan the roads along U.S. Highway 12, which is being resurfaced from Elkhorn to Whitewater this spring and summer. State and federal regulations dictate that major construction projects with government funding need a detailed survey of the area.
“Essentially what we do is compliance archaeology,” Reckner said. “We’re invited by various state and federal agencies in the planning stage of construction projects to take a look at the area engineers may need to disturb as part of the construction process and see if there’s anything historically significant there.”
Reckner’s crew often partners with the DOT, the state’s Department of Natural Resources or other agencies. But the Wisconsin Historical Society isn’t the only organization that’s asked to do such digs — private companies are contracted to look at projects statewide, he said.
When called in on these projects, archaeologists first research records like early plat maps to see if the area reveals anything of potential value. Based on those findings and reviews with project engineers, the crew then does digs, making a series of holes in the ground, sectioning them off and sifting through the dirt — what Reckner calls “more like Discovery Channel archaeology.”
Some finds, like an ancient burial mound, can’t be disturbed. In other cases, archaeologists will try to see if artifacts at a site can be saved or at least information recorded before the land is torn up in a construction project.
Reckner said he’s surveyed miles-long corridors in some parts of the state and found nothing, while other projects have yielded a wealth of artifacts.
“It all depends on the history of the landscape and land use in the area,” he said. “But there’s a lot out there. Wisconsin’s got a long and rich history of human occupation. As soon as the glaciers retreated from the state over 12,000 years ago, people followed the game animals that headed for the grazing land that was there. People moved right in and they never left.”
In the course of the U.S. Highway 12 survey — which is still going on — Reckner and his crew discovered evidence of three prehistoric campsites and a spear point that dates back 8,500 years — probably shot by some ancient hunter passing through the area. But a surprising yield came from another find.
For the complete story, see HERE.