Lake Forest College students dig into campus history
In a small third-floor laboratory packed with students, Lake Forest College anthropology professor Rebecca Graff points to a tray lined with artifacts in clear plastic bags.
Brown glass bottle shards, rusty nails, construction materials, pieces of buttons, fragments of lamps are among the artifacts, which she and her archaeology students discovered this fall while excavating the former site of an African Methodist Episcopal Church on campus.
"It got super, super interesting," Graff said of the dig at South Campus Drive and Washington Road. "And then the snows came."
A blast of winter weather put a stop to excavation, so students instead holed up last week in the college's new archaeology lab, completed just a few weeks ago, to start the analysis phase of their project.
"We're only at the really beginning of analysis, and analysis takes 10 times as long as excavation," Graff said.
The church existed from 1870 until the early 1920s, when the building was moved across the street to become an infirmary for Lake Forest Academy.
Students discovered an archaeological treasure trove in what used to be the church's backyard. Among other things, they found bottles from breweries that closed during Prohibition.
During a session last week, students sat at three long tables pushed against the lab walls, leaning over rubber basins filled with dirty water and scrubbing artifacts with toothbrushes.
"We found medicine bottles, prescription bottles, lamps," sophomore Emma James said.
They also found animal bones -- from chickens and a pig -- believed left over from the church.
"I think the biggest surprise to me is realizing that you could find things there; we're digging on street corners," sophomore Emily McCusker added. "Now that it's cold and it's started snowing and stuff, we're not sure how much time we have left."
Before the excavation began, students trekked over to the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society to learn about the origins of the church. They found little evidence it had even been there. It was missing from Lake Forest telephone directories of the early 1900s, and there were no photographs of it.
But it showed up on a fire insurance map of Lake Forest and in several newspaper accounts.
"The research Dr. Graff and her students are doing is absolutely crucial to creating a fuller picture of our community's history," historical society curator Laurie Stein said.
"Much of the church's activity is absent from the documentary record and this project can help to fill in those gaps."
Their class is designed to be hands-on. Students use archaeological tools like trowels and learn the proper methods of excavation.
In one corner, sophomores Grace Michel and Charlie Heckman chatted while they scrubbed.
"So right now, we're finding a lot of rubble and nails and glass," Michel said. "We found items like lamps. We also found a very big cement piece, which could indicate (the church's) foundation."
The students learned that finding nails probably signaled the presence of wood structures, she added.
"It's been very fun working with all these," Heckman said, gesturing toward his rubber bin. "Whether it's glass or brick, I basically get to learn something new every single day we excavate."
Graff has a history of digging up revealing objects in her pursuit of urban archaeology.
She found ceramics at a farmhouse once owned by abolitionists, and at an excavation in Chicago's Jackson Park, she found the plaster remnants of an 1893 World's Fair building.
"I've been teaching students how to do archaeology by actually doing archaeology," she said.
"They're learning both about the practice and also how we use it to illuminate a certain history."