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Digging Up the Past, Close to Home

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Artifacts, descendants tell story of freed slaves in Texas

Recovering a forgotten history of African American life was motivation enough for anthropology graduate student Nedra Lee and her peers to brave the Texas summer heat while excavating an old farmstead in southern Travis County.

"Working outdoors always brought a few surprises. There were always toads hopping around; a huge bee tree was only a few feet away from the house block; and some of us, myself included, learned the hard way what chiggers were," says Lee, "But finding cool artifacts contributed to the enthusiasm: the toy guns found at the site almost caused a riot."

Maria Franklin and Nedra Lee
Associate Professor Maria Franklin and graduate student Nedra Lee researched the history of the Ransom Williams farmstead in southern Travis County.

Along with fellow University of Texas at Austin graduate student Jodi Skipper and anthropology alumnae Bethany Duke and Valerie Prado, Lee spent three months last year working at the 19th century site.

Lee's adviser, Maria Franklin, an associate professor of anthropology, headed up community outreach and oral history components of the project. Franklin is an expert in African diaspora archaeology, which focuses on the experience of people of African descent around the world. The discipline has its roots in the study of black slavery and has been a popular area of study for historical archaeologists.

But the experiences of black people after they were freed has not received much attention from archaeologists, Franklin says.

"This was a chance for me to get involved with research on African Americans closer to home," says Franklin, who had conducted field excavations on historic and prehistoric sites in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, California and South Africa. "That was important since very little archaeological research of this kind had been done in the Austin area."

To read the full feature, visit: http://www.utexas.edu/features/2010/09/20/artifacts/