A team of archeologists is excavating a site on Redstone Arsenal to preserve artifacts and features there, in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, before work starts on a construction project.
The excavation site is located at what was the Fennell Plantation, likely occupied between 1820 and 1940, according to Redstone Arsenal’s Cultural Resource Manager Ben Hoksbergen. “The current excavation site was probably the location of the main house for the plantation owned by members of the Fennell family from 1843 to 1918,” he said in a release.
About a dozen people were working at the site Friday, a mix of employees at New South Associates Inc., of Stone Mountain, Georgia, which is under contract to excavate the site, conduct historic research, and analyze the data from the dig, and others hired for the project.
“We’ve numbered up to 81 features so far” from the site, Anne Dorland, of New South Associates, the primary investigator and archaeologist for the project, said. About 5,000 artifacts have also been discovered – from ceramic buttons to stone tools and horseshoes. Features, or nonportable archaeological remnants, that have been found include trash pits, foundations, and cellar pits.
Just recently, the crews have unearthed the remnants of a chimney dating to the early 1800s.
This archaeological site was discovered in 1999 and it was determined it “might have some information that might be valuable to historians and archaeologists,” Hoksbergen said.
“So when it became evident that the site was going to be impacted by construction, we did some additional testing out here in 2019 and we had contractors, professional archaeologists come out and dig these nice little square holes across the site, screen the dirt, take all the artifacts to a lab and evaluate them and inventory them and research the history, and we determined that the site is significant,” he said.
“It’s got components possibly going all the way back to Paleo-Indian times, 13,000 years ago. We found one artifact that dated to that period,” Hoksbergen said.
“We think the bulk of (the site) might be in the 1830-to-1840-time range,” he said, “and it was probably occupied right up until almost before the Army acquired this land in the early 1940s.”
Hoksbergen said the team wants to determine when site was occupied, who owned it, the social status of individuals who lived here and how they interacted with the outside community, and “what this information might tell us about the broader scope of American history.”
The land had two previous owners before Isham J. Fennell, one of the wealthiest planters in Madison County who owned thousands of acres throughout the state, bought the plantation in 1843 and made it his primary residence, according to Hoksbergen.
The plantation was subdivided and sold off in the early 20th century, according to Hoksbergen, and in 1919, Moses Love, a local African American farmer, bought the parcel where the excavation site is located. He sold the land to the U.S. government in 1943 as part of the land acquisition for the Huntsville Arsenal.
Artifacts will be sent to a New South Associates lab, cleaned, stabilized and inventoried, Hoksbergen said, and artifacts and documents related to the dig will be permanently curated at the Erskine Ramsay Archaeological Repository in Moundville. The findings of the dig will be detailed in a report that will be made available to local public libraries.
Hoksbergen, the installation archaeologist who works in the Directorate of Public Works’ Environmental Division, is responsible for coordinating compliance with federal laws on historic preservation.
At the Team Redstone virtual town hall Thursday, Hoksbergen said that, in addition to what is on NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, 999 archaeological sites have been documented at the installation, ranging from Paleo-Indian camp sites that date back at least 13,000 years, Indian villages, and burial mounds to more recent sites like historic farms and plantations.
“We’ve got around 500 historic buildings – buildings and structures over 50 years old,” which are managed by Hoksbergen’s office, he said. “We’re also in charge of implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” he said, explaining that the law requires federal agencies to coordinate with federally recognized Native American tribes on how Native American burials, religious items and cultural properties are managed.