Artifact Day at Old Cahawba

We set out from Mobile a little after 6:30 A.M. The sun was not quite high enough to soak up the dampness that still clung to the world around us. In a pasture alongside Highway 43 a doe munched clumps of tall brown grass. The sun was rising behind her. A thinning fog filtered the light to a warm hazy yellow. Mists still hovered in the low places.

The terrain grew hilly just south of Thomasville. 8:30 A.M. Last chance for a pit stop. We leave the land of Walmart, fast food, and the assurance of a gas station behind. Tiny communities of the Black Belt are all that dot the two-lane highways from here to Selma. Our destination lies in the middle of the middle of nowhere. Serene. Bucolic. Almost hidden but not forgotten, if you know where to look.

One hour later, a brown metal sign at the east end of Orrville drops a hint that we are close. I turn the car off Highway 29 onto the Old Cahawba Road. The clock reads fifteen minutes before 10 AM. We pass modest homes, cows in the fields, a gated driveway that hints at affluence, and another deer. She lets the car get a bit close before hopping a barbed wire fence into the cover of the woods.

Forest has reclaimed much of the land. I am surprised by the encroachment but not disappointed. Spanish moss hangs from a stand of oaks that fold their old arms over the road. Old Cahawba is a ghost town. The forest protects its ghosts here.

We pull in to the archaeological park visitor center across from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The church is where we meet with staff from the Alabama Historical Commission and archaeologists from The University of Alabama for Artifact Day. This weathered Gothic structure is a saintly reminder of days past. Rural Southwest Alabama has a gorgeous slideshow of the church here.

St Lukes Old Cahawba.jpg
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church & artifacts

Dr. Duke Beasley gives a presentation on archaeology at Old Cahawba. Washing, sorting, and processing artifacts will keep us busy all day. Kathryn, Nick and I start with processing.

Sitting at a table in the old church, we pore over our tray of treasures: an intact patent medicine bottle, a partially complete earthenware cup, a few pieces of mortar, part of a brick, and many glass fragments. Those broken fragments will go quickly, or so we think.

The process of processing, as it turns out, is not quite as simple as it seems. A wealth of information is available in the tiniest details of glass, both broken and intact pieces. Ridges only visible under the closest inspection leave behind proof that an item was hand blown. Seams felt along the rims and sides of old bottles are evidence of the use of molds or early machining. The imperfections tell a story.

Even the appearance of “colorless” glass could not be taken for granted. Analysis under ultraviolet light revealed a spectrum of the palest blues, greens, and pinks not visible to the naked eye. Metallic oxides. The fragments could be sorted yet again.

Kat and Nick chat on their lunch break with Dr. Duke.

Kathryn helped photograph some of the more interesting pieces for the university’s records. Our intact patent medicine bottle was one of those. Kat and Nick spent part of their lunch break chatting with Dr. Duke about their interests. Reporters from the Selma Times-Journal interviewed us about our experience. Here’s a link to that article.

Arc of afternoon sunlight in the doorway at St. Luke’s, Old Cahawba.

After lunch we switched from processing to washing artifacts outdoors. Just the right amount of elbow grease is what’s important in that job. Light pressure applied to the glass and pottery. Bit more work on those bricks and metal fragments.


I was seated at a picnic table with a group of girls ranging in age from 15 to about 7 or 8. While we scrubbed, we chatted. Through the course of our conversation, I learned that all of them were homeschoolers. We discussed everything from history to urban legends to family traditions to cooking and many other points in between. I must admit that I felt a bit old when the topic turned to popular culture.

The archaeological park is a great place to bring your dogs, on a leash, of course. Our outdoor work was done under the watchful eye of a beautiful red pit bull named Easabell. She belonged to a family of regular visitors to Old Cahawba. If your hands grew tired from the scrubbing, the gentle Easabell was only too willing to offer her tummy for you to scratch while you worked the cramp out of your fingers.

The group finished processing and began to pack up about 3 PM. As much as Kat, Nick and I would have loved to explore the park, we decided to head back towards Mobile. We were very tired and had a three-hour drive home. We will absolutely return to Old Cahawba, and soon. There are opportunities to participate in archaeological digs, trails to explore, history to learn, and tons and tons of photographs to take.

What was my first impression of Old Cahawba? There is an ambiance about the place, an air of history. The trails and markers invite visitors to take a step back in time. Something important happened here. What tales do the old streets tell? What lies beneath the forest floor? What secrets do the trees keep? Those are Old Cahawba mysteries saved for another day.

To learn more about the activities at Old Cahawba, click here.

© 2015-2017 Our Lives in Stories


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