Historian field trip: Archeology on Joint Base MDL

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walt Napier III

Commentary by: Mr. Walt Napier III, Historian, 514th Air Mobility Wing      

One of the beauties of history is how many different fields it touches.  There are political, military, social, economic subfields that all have historians who dissect and research these particular topics.  Traditionally, historians focus their research on written sources: books, laws, policy statements, government records, news stories, etc.  As the discipline became more professionalized during the 19th and 20th centuries, historians began to incorporate different fields into their research and search for voices that are overlooked in traditional sourcing.  Historians can read laws on slavery or pamphlets from abolitionists, but there are few written sources discussing how an individual in bondage may have lived.

 Archeology is a discipline that broadens the horizons of our knowledge by studying pre-history and history through material culture.  Archeologists can examine remains, ruins, and artifacts to help fill in the gaps left by written sources.  A great example of the value of material culture is seen in ancient history where between 90 - 99% of all written sources are now lost to us. 

Recently a number of base historians were invited to see the work done by the archeology team under Dr. Sharon White (787 CES/CEIEA) on Joint Base MDL.  This real life Indiana Jones and her team find, study, and preserve various historical and pre-historical sites dispersed around the base.  Prior to the base’s existence, the majority of the area was scattered with farms normally dating from the mid to late 19th century.  The area was used by nomadic Native American populations prior to American settlement.  During World War I and World War II, the government bought much of the land and quickly established facilities to train future combatants.  Many of the existing structures were destroyed to make room for the new training facilities during the quick build up.

Dr. White’s team has a multi-purpose function.  The first is to find and study different sites.  The majority of the team’s finds are from the 19th and 20th centuries due to New Jersey’s climate.  The acidic nature of New Jersey’s soil and the high water table mean older artifacts typically decompose before they are discovered.    Despite nature, however, Dr. White has found proof of nomadic Native American life, with a particular specimen she was able to date to around 5000 years ago. 

The team currently has seven sites planned for the year.  Each site is roughly a ten week dig.  Before starting the dig, the team looks over maps, old records, and notes made by previous archeologists to find known or potential sites.  Once on the ground, the team surveys the area looking for signs of disturbance.  A great trick they taught us was to look at the trees.  If there is one really big tree surrounded by much younger trees, the area is likely to have seen human settlement.  From there they pick numerous spots and do a shovel test.  While digging the team works methodically to remove the soil and check every layer of context for artifacts or signs of habitation.  Once they find something, the team will carefully excavate any structures or artifacts, take pictures and notate the context they exist in. 

Any significant find is taken from the site for preservation.  Significant basically means artifacts that Dr. White recognizes as valuable to future researchers.  The objects are pictured and studied before being sent to a university in Rhode Island.  The state of New Jersey currently does not have a facility that can sustain items for an extended period of time, so Dr. White essentially rents space in Rhode Island that has the proper preservation capabilities.    

After the dig, the site will be recovered by soil and foliage to ensure it remains undisturbed by the public.  Dr. White then notates the location on various Joint Base MDL maps and make notes for any future archeological expedition.  By notating the site’s location and what was found there, she can also forward plan any future base expansion.  Any time the military needs to build a new facility, Dr. White consults with the engineering team and helps find a location enabling the military to accomplish its mission without disturbing historically valuable sites.

The particular area we visited was old farmland prior to World War II.  The team was currently about half way through that particular dig, and had already uncovered two brick structures, including a storage cellar.  On the surface where the team had been working old nails and glass could be seen.  The surrounding area may also contain signs of Native American habitation, but at the time of our visit no Native American artifacts had been found yet.  After roughly two feet of digging the hole begins filling with water, creating great difficulties for the team to excavate any deeper where older artifacts may exist.  Sometimes, however, it is just about knowing where to look.  One of the team members, Chris, explained that older cultures could read the land very well.  When looking for artifacts older than a few hundred years, the best place to look is on high, flat ground.  Nomadic cultures did not build permanent structures to fight the elements, so they would work with the terrain instead of against it.

The Historian’s Office would like to thank Dr. White and her team for allowing us to see the great work they are doing.   We wish them luck on their future excavations!