- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

PALMERDALE, Ala. (AP) - Steps from workers blasting, moving, grading and molding steep hills along Self Creek into highway-level terrain, there’s a piece yet untouched by Northern Beltline construction.

There, a layer of Hartselle sandstone — formed and hardened by eons of geological forces — breaks the surface at a steep angle. “Ardell Bluff,” it has been nicknamed, after who owned the surrounding property.

That’s where Daniel Turner, Graham Townsend, Karl Bennett and Dan Bishop and others with archaeological group Panamerica Consultants, Inc., have spent more than two weeks in the September sun hunched over pits in the soil, scraping, digging, sifting and sorting.

“The worst part is the morning,” said Turner, field director with the company. “We’re in an oven here.”

That changes in the afternoon, when the sun glides behind the rock formation’s craggy overhang, and temperatures can feel much cooler.

It’s the perfect shelter.

The researchers likely aren’t the first ones to notice the spot’s protection from the elements.

They’re peering through layers of soil to learn about who may have also sought shelter in the area before Alabama was a gleam in anyone’s eye. The information will feed into a growing collection from decades of studies at other sites to help piece together Alabama’s human history.

Archaeological work is a slow, tedious process of elimination, and there are hits and misses.

The team starts by carefully carving square depressions in the soil next to the rock wall, sifting through the clumps of earth as they continue down to the region’s base of rust-colored clay.

As work goes on, those square depressions spread into long trenches.

It’s painstaking work, but the artifacts they collect go to a state curator facility, such as in Moundville. Their report will go into data other archaeologists can use to piece together a broader picture of life in Alabama circa 600 A.D.

“You can’t really tell much from one site and focusing on one site,” Turner said. “We want to put it into context. Without context, we’re really just counting stones.”

The group is working at sites identified through required pre-construction surveys.

Their work earlier this summer yielded artifacts including spear points and other items possibly with an age range as old as 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C. along Self Creek. That area now is covered with a temporary construction bridge as work continues on the proposed interstate’s first segment.

At another site — in the middle of the construction zone — the team happened upon the remnants of an intact chimney from an old homesite. As they dug around, they found glass electrical insulators in positions that would suggest the site was much younger than they thought.

That’s also a possibility with their current project. Just as ideal as the rock overhang would have been for people roaming more than 1,000 years ago, it’s also an ideal location for a moonshine still, Turner said.

So far, the group has located small buried shards of pottery; small flakes of “debitage,” or materials used to sharpen tools; and some hickory nuts that appear charred.

Those items must be age-verified through techniques such as carbon dating — helpful if any charcoal deposits are found nearby.

Still, Turner said the site’s location — upland and out of reach of Self Creek’s floods near forests with food sources — made it a good candidate for research.

While they may not know exactly what the people who roamed through the area thousands of years ago would have called themselves, Turner said their descendants likely would have been absorbed into the Creek tribe since they were predominant in the area when Alabama gained statehood.

“We’re going to try to say as much as we can about who was here,” Turner said.

The rocky overhang is the last site in the area of current construction.

The group will continue to collect what information they can before the sites are covered.

Other locations have been identified along the Northern Beltline’s proposed route that also will be examined in the future. Turner calls it protecting a “non-renewable resource” — our history.

“That’s the purpose of archaeology,” Turner said. “We’re not keeping it to ourselves, we’re sharing it with the public because the past belongs to everyone.”

The group expects to wrap up its field work at the rock overhang this week.

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