Many people have the mistaken impression that archaeologists study only lost civilizations or ancient prehistoric cultures. In fact, archaeological excavations of historic sites and even modern landfills yield valuable insights on historic events and morecurrent affairs.
David Bush, an archaeologist with Heidelberg Collegeís Center for Historic and Military Archaeology, has been directing excavations at the Civil War prison camp at Johnsonís Island in Lake Erie since 1990. His work has added a unique perspective to our understanding of the lives of the Confederate officers imprisoned there.
Bush and his team first identified a ditch that was dug around the prison compound in 1864 to discourage prisoners from trying to tunnel their way to freedom. The researchers then set out to locate the campís latrines.
Latrines, or sinks as they were called, were rectangular pits 8 feet wide by 12 feet long and 2 to 5 feet deep.
The sinks proved to be remarkable time capsules containing objects dropped accidentally or deliberately into the sewage. Understandably, even valuable objects were left. For example, the excavators found a gold locket containing a badly deteriorated photograph and a lock of hair.
Bush also uncovered dramatic evidence of the desperation of the prisoners to escape. In almost all of the sinks that were older than the 1864 ditch, he found evidence of tunnels extending from the sinks toward the stockade wall. At least 10 prisoners are known to have escaped, but whether any of these tunnels provided the means is not known.
The Johnsonís Island site is a National Historic Landmark, but that recognition does not guarantee that it will be saved for posterity. In an interview posted recently on Archaeology online, Bush pointed out that, although Civil War battlefields are considered for financial support by the Civil War Preservation Trust, prison sites are not. "
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