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St. Stephens By: Jerome Adams Print E-mail
Thursday, 09 July 2009

St. Stephens

By Jerome Adams


 The site of a major portion of our state’s early history is located in Washington County on the Tombigbee River. The town of St. Stephens was the capital of the Alabama Territory and where in 1818 a legislature met to prepare the area to become a new state in 1819. It had a population of a few thousand and about 450 buildings. The point of its location was because steamboats could go north only to this point because the river became too shallow. However, with the advent of flat bottomed boats the town rapidly declined and was a ghost town before the Civil War. The town reverted to wilderness so much that only careful investigation would reveal that people had ever lived in that location. Currently, the site is a historical park and this has come about due to the efforts of concerned citizens.

 Traveling south on Highway 43 from Tuscaloosa for about 130 miles and turning West onto County Road 34 at the community of Leroy and following signs took me to St. Stephens Historical Park a couple of times in June. Expedition 31 through the Museum of Natural History of the University of Alabama had set up camp at the park under the direction of Mr. Randy Mecredy, leader of the pack. Mr. George Shorter, professional archaeologist, led the actual excavation of the assigned units at the site of the Globe/Chamberlain Hotel. We looked for and investigated the long lost artifacts left behind by the residents and visitors to this place who came to sleep, eat, and drink. A fairly large layer of broken ale bottles indicated the popularity of alcoholic beverages.

 Forensics has been a big hit on TV where investigators examine evidence and its location etc. in an attempt to piece together criminal activities. Archaeologists are in the same sort of business not looking for criminal activities (though sometimes it is found) but rather to understand the various aspects of the lives of people in the past by looking at what was left behind. They look for artifacts which are things a human has made or used or incidentally left behind such as a footprint or drawing. If enough pieces are found of the “puzzle” an attempt may be made to guess at the remainder of the picture. Artifacts from a written historical period may refute, support, or add to the current understanding and knowledge. Artifacts before written history may be the only knowledge of a culture other than possibility transmitted oral history.

 Two groups were there to do the excavation. College students in anthropology from the University of South Alabama had Mr. Shorter as their teacher and guide for a class. The museum group was composed of a wide variety of people of various ages, backgrounds, and home places. Ages ranged from 9 to some in their 70s. Backgrounds ranged from lawyers, medical doctors, teachers, retired teachers, businessmen/women, interested citizens, to college, high school, middle school, and elementary students. Mr. Shorter was also the instructor of the archaeology aspects of the museum group, too, and was of a pleasant but studious nature so that all of us learned through hands on experience.

 As with a large puzzle if one were to just randomly pick up a piece every now and then it could be very difficult to tell where it was to fit. Something curious would emerge in the excavation unexpectedly and present difficulty in identification. One young man found a horseshoe with an odd attachment which had had a purpose long ago but for what? Mr. Shorter just scratched his head and wondered as the rest of us did.

 The majority of artifacts found consisted of square nails, broken ceramics often with a popular blue pattern, glass pieces from windows and bottles, bricks mostly of poor quality. Ron, a volunteer with the college group, found a complete, unbroken dark brown/green ale bottle and of course we knew its purpose. Other metal pieces were found of brass and silver. I found a “coin button” (brass, resembling a coin with a loop on he back for attachment to a garment) that was in good enough condition to still be used.

 Expedition campers (tents, no AC, outside dining) went swimming in the afternoon in an old limestone quarry and enjoyed educational and interesting programs after dark. One activity was to do a night walk and end up near the rim of the quarry, lie on tarps and identify stars and constellations. In addition to the stars we saw many artificial satellites fly at great speeds across the sky. Right after supper and free time where some played games and musical instruments campers wrote in their journals of that day’s activities. Journals were taken home at the conclusion.

 A ring neck snake, a gray rat snake and a green snake were discovered near the camp or dig site and were popular with several generating many photo as well as educational, and enrichment opportunities. Lizards, spiders, and other animals were observed.

 The experience of doing real archaeology under the guidance of a professional, associating with those of various backgrounds and locations (Naomi was from Canada), and ages in a natural and very rustic setting was well worth the tuition. These memories will last a lifetime. Expedition 32 will be next June so prepare to sign up and I’ll see you there!


Jerome Adams

Exploring Alabama

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