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NKU students, faculty in third year of archeological excavations at New Richmond’s Parker Academy site

By David Kubota
NKyTribune reporter

Students and faculty from Northern Kentucky University recently began their third year of archeological excavations at the Parker Academy site in New Richmond, Ohio.

The site was the location of a school operated by the Parker family during the 1800s. The school was unique as it accepted all students, regardless of race or gender. Similar schools were attacked and burned down, but the Parkers’ school lasted for decades.

Students and faculty from NKU recently began their third year of archeological excavations at the Parker Academy site in New Richmond, Ohio. (Photo by David Kubota)

The school’s geographic location was also key because its proximity to the Ohio River allowed for runaway slaves to seek refuge at the school. Kentucky was a slave state at the time and Ohio a free state.

Dr. Brian Hackett, the director of the public history program at NKU, is the historical expert for the site.

“The Parkers were deeply involved in the Underground Railroad and would often publicly voice their support for the abolitionist movement,” Hackett said. “There was an atmosphere of protection here, that made the place unique.”

Due to the Parker family’s openness, runaway slaves and women could seek an education at their academy, a rare occurrence in that time period.

The family kept documents and letters surrounding the operation of their school. Professors and students rely on this archive to inform them about the time period. In their excavation, students and faculty are hoping to find tangible evidence that confirms accounts in the archive.

Dr. William Landen, a professor of history at NKU, says sometimes what they find differs from the written history.

“The Parker’s were very strict in what their students were allowed to do, but we often find bits of pipes and whiskey bottles,” Landen said. “You won’t find that in the archives.”

In an effort to prepare them for future employment, the Parker family trained students in valuable skills such as woodworking. Students were also encouraged to learn an instrument, and excavators found a harmonica near one of the dormitories.

“They ran an entire self-sustaining farm, there were plenty of opportunities for their students to learn various skills,” Landen said.

NKU students work at the Parker Academy site in New Richmond, Ohio. (Photo by David Kubota)

This year the excavation site has moved to where the male dormitories once were located. Previously, excavators worked on the schoolhouse land. Students and faculty had difficulties finding valuable items at the schoolhouse site as it had since been used as a horse pond and then as a garbage pit.

Landen cites the differences between working in the archives and the fieldwork that occurs at the excavation site as a valuable lesson for NKU students.

“Working out here just brings the history to life,” Landen said. “We often find fragments of daily life, stuff you just can’t find in the archives.”

Items like pieces of plates or bowls, glass, and even animal bones left over from the Parker’s student meals are often found at the site.

NKU students and faculty work the site from 9 a.m. – noon, Monday through Friday. Often working in 80 to 90-degree heat, weather doesn’t stop them, either.

“If it rains, we throw some tarp tents up and continue, unless it’s a torrential downpour,” said Dr. Sharyn Jones, a professor in the department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Philosophy at NKU.

Jones has been working on the site since it started in 2015 and is thankful for public and external federal funding that has allowed the project to continue.

The faculty would like students to think beyond just their own educational disciplines. Many of the students at the site are studying a wide range of topics, including archeology, anthropology, and various areas of history.

Students working at the site receive various forms of payment for their work. Many are there under some form of grant or fellowship, while others receive a weekly stipend to cover the cost of traveling to the location.

For Chelsea Hauser, a student working under a fellowship, it was her first year on the excavation site. Previously, she found herself toiling over the archives.

“With the archives, you look over a lot of letters and receipts, while this is a lot more of digging in the dirt,” Hauser said.

While she admits that a lot more information can be learned from the archive, she really enjoys the sort of fieldwork done at the excavation site. Hauser was standing in a small pit, four or five-feet wide and a few feet deep. The pit had been worked on since 2016.

“We work in 10-centimeter layers, and in 2016 we were at level four (40 cm deep),” Hauser said. “Now I believe we’re at level seven (70 cm deep).”

Each layer is combed over, sometimes quite literally, for artifacts. Hauser demonstrated a variety of unconventional tools that they use to go through the dirt.

“We use a lot of things you wouldn’t assume, like here’s a dust pan, a spoon, a toothbrush, and a comb,” Hauser said.

Items like pieces of plates or bowls, glass, and even animal bones are often found at the site. (Photo by David Kubota)

Toothbrushes and combs can be used to carefully uncover and slightly clean items in order to identify what they may be.

Discussing her time at the site, Hauser says she values the experience of archeology she is receiving from working there.

“You read all these things in the archives,” Hauser said, “but there’s something about standing in the spot where the people you’ve been studying once stood, that just gives you a deeper connection.”

Liza Vance, a graduate of public history, was also clearing through a pit. Pursuing her masters, she also found the value of connecting the archives and the evidence found in the dig. She’s been working on the dig since it first began and is thankful for the opportunities the fieldwork has provided her.

“The fieldwork is a lot more active, and I like seeing the layers as we uncover them,” Vance said. “I love archeology, and in this time and atmosphere of division, I think it’s important to tell these stories.”

Vance hopes to learn to take the artifacts and write detailed reports about them, as this is vital to acquiring her master’s degree.

Andrea Shiverdecker, an anthropology major and research fellow, had just found a fragment of a dinner plate. While she loves combing through the archives, Shiverdecker identified a specific aspect of fieldwork that stood out.

“I like to visualize, and we have photographs of what the school would’ve looked like,” Shiverdecker said. “When the artifacts we find match up with the photos, it ties everything together and makes history really come to life.”

Planning to graduate in December, Shiverdecker is learning and absorbing everything she can while on the site.

New to the site and separate from the excavators are Amy Prues and her assistant Matt Winkler. As geographic info specialists, Prues and Winkler are mapping out the excavation site so future iterations of the dig don’t comb over the same territory.

“We’re using coordinates to create detailed maps,” Prues said, “because they believe these digs will go on forever and they want to be able to better target the dig sites.”

The maps will also contain the digital footprints of the buildings that previously existed. Prues and Winkler plan to complete their work within a month.

The entire excavation project will run the length of the summer and their work can be followed on their Instagram account at parker_academy_nsf_reu.

David Kubota is a Scripps Howard Foundation intern at the NKyTribune this summer. He is a student at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media.

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