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UGA students excavate Athens factory site

Katie Cowart

"Any understanding of the world must begin at home--or end there." --Siegfried Lenz, The Heritage, 1981.

Faculty members at the University of Georgia have partnered with Sandy Creek Nature Center to create a field school to teach students in a hands-on environment. 

“We wanted to establish a class that offers hands-on field experience to teach archaeological methods to students,” said Attila Gyucha, assistant professor in Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of anthropology. “When we first offered the class, we were working out of our backyard, but we learned about the factory site at the Sandy Creek Nature Center, and they were very open to working with us.”

At the southern end of the Nature Center lie the ruins of an early 20th century brick factory that made more than 25,000 bricks per day using a "tunnel kiln" patented by Frances Shaw in November of 1913. Rights to the process were assigned to the Shaw Kiln Co. of Atlanta later that year. The factory, which employed about 25 people, may have been the first to use this process.

“As the co-director of the project with Dr. Gyucha, I think that this is an important opportunity for students to gain valuable skills and learn through hands-on experience about Athens' past,” said Danielle Riebe, an instructor in the anthropology department. “As we move forward with the research, we hope to make this a community heritage science project that brings together local Athenians, UGA students, and other historical and archaeological specialists to learn more about the lives of people in past and the impact that local industry had on Athens' development in the early 20th century.” 

Students that take the class will become familiar with how to map sites and use different archaeological techniques to identify subsurface features of the factory to better determine ideal areas for excavation. Some techniques include ground penetrating radar (GPR), magnetometry, and the remote sensing method LiDAR, also known as Light Detection and Ranging. While specialists are required to collect and properly interpret these datasets, students assist in the data collection and work with other faculty at UGA to learn the techniques. At the field school, students learn how to properly excavate, interpret the stratigraphy, and identify cultural materials.

Along with the physical excavation of the factory site, there is also a research component to the class. Students use ethnographic sources to understand not just the function of the factory, but the people that worked there. This helps them learn more about the social context and demographics of Athens at the beginning of the 20th century.

“This partnership with UGA’s anthropology department allows Sandy Creek Nature Center to provide practical learning experiences for students on a local and accessible site,” said Randy Smith, facility supervisor of Sandy Creek Nature Center. “We've always wanted to learn more about the brick factory site, how it operated, and how it was an important part of Athens' history. I see this as an ideal situation where both UGA students and faculty can work with us and share valuable skills and knowledge that can be useful to the community.”

As developments are happening at the site, students catalogue their progress and findings on their Instagram page. The findings have also been presented at Anthropology Day hosted by the department. As more artifacts and data come to light, the students, professors, and members of the nature center hope to create an exhibit to showcase the information for the local community. 

Image: While excavating, students Jaylin Knight and Hailey Farrar screen buckets of dirt to ensure that no artifacts are overlooked or missed. All photos courtesy of Attila Gyucha.

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