It’s Day One at Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. Here’s what the team are looking forward to.
The first day of any dig has a special kind of energy. It’s the first time you get to meet your fellow diggers, and the first time you really get to appreciate the scale of the archaeological mission ahead of you, and the power of the potential additions to history that we’ll get to make together.
We’re joined by Amber (a hat designer), Cath (a doctor and expeditioner), and Catt (a student who wants to be an archaeologist). Our ages range from 17 to 65, our hometowns from London to Atlanta, and our previous archaeological experience from zilch to plenty.
But there’s one thing we all have in common, and that is an overwhelming sense of excitement at what we’re about to start. As we sit down for our first breakfast together, Amber tells us she’s so excited she literally couldn’t sleep.
With bellies full of American bacon, we hunker down in DigVentures’ headquarters to get to grips with the archaeology ahead of us. We scour maps, recap on some Shaker history and talk about what we think doing archaeology here can tell us that that the history books can’t.
As it turns out, there’s A LOT.
The Shakers, who set sail for America in the 1700s, set up their first community on Mount Lebanon in 1787. They rapidly grew in numbers, soon reaching a population of 600 people, and spawned hundreds of other communities across the continent.
Their society was a fascinating experiment, an attempt to build a community quite unlike any other. They were innovative, and tech-friendly – they liked inventing things that made their work easier. Although they were celibate, they were open to everyone, egalitarian, and diverse, and for a while it lead them to success.
But just as Shaker society boomed, it also busted. The big question is why? Why did this society that had so many of the ‘right ingredients’ ultimately dwindle into extinction?
Historical accounts make them sound so pure and harmonious that in some ways it’s hard to understand why they aren’t still going strong. The answer is not that they were celibate (think about it, most monastic orders are celibate) – there’s so much more to it than that.
The truth is never as pure and simple as it seems. Did some of the truth about the structure of their society, its inner hierarchies and interactions with the outside world fall between the cracks of history? This is something we think archaeology can start to test.
Internal contradictions can show up in the archaeological record in subtle ways; for example, historians might tell us that their society was egalitarian, but we might find huge disparities in wealth, or find indications of hidden hierarchies that add more detail to the historical narrative.
But those are the big questions, questions we’ll only be able to answers once we’ve gathered up all the evidence, and woven them together.
Our immediate task is to investigate the Centre Family Wash-House – a building that burnt down about a hundred years ago and has lain in ruin ever since. Right now, we’ve got to start carefully cleaning up of the remains that lie beneath us in the soil, and answer the basic questions first.
What items have been left behind? Can we establish a chronology of events? When did the fire happen?
We want to dig enough of the Centre Family Wash-House to map out its contents, find traces of useful evidence and press our noses up against the window of history and get a glimpse into the inner world of this fascinating society. Let the dig begin!