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The Excavation

Photograph, Catalog No. 208

The mound told its own story, and therein lies the true ‘lure of archaeology.’ Every mound contains a story, stands as a page in the history of man and races that should be preserved until it can be translated and recorded.  ~ Glenn A. Black, 1936

Nowlin Mound (12D0007) was one of the largest prehistoric burial mounds in the state of Indiana. It was a prominent mark on the landscape, measuring 165 feet long and 15 feet high. The mound was elliptical in shape and consisted of “two adjacent early mounds, each of which had had multiple additions before the whole was covered by a single mantle of earth to bring it to its final form” (Kellar, 1993). At some point in its long history, the mound was disturbed by unknown visitors. They left intrusive pits in several locations. But for the most part, the mound remained intact from its construction until the early 20th century. To locals, Nowlin Mound was little more than an interesting topographical feature. In fact, the mound was reputed to have been a popular spot for children to sled during wintertime.

The mound came to light during Glenn Black’s 1933 survey of Ohio and Dearborn counties for the Indiana Historical Society. He observed that “its size and shape […] made the excavation possibilities most promising from a material and cultural standpoint” (Field notebook). In 1934, he was commissioned by the Historical Society to excavate the site and write a full report for the Indiana History Bulletin.

After weeks spent making careful arrangements, Black arrived on site “shortly after 12 o’clock, Saturday June 23 [1934]” (Field notebook). He set up camp with Bernard O. Bucher (foreman), William Rude (workman and cook), Joe R. Schuyler (surveyor), and his wife Ida Black on the property of Guy Nowlin. As soon as he was settled in, Black wrote to Eli Lilly, the president of the Historical Society and his personal friend:

“Our camp consists of three tents, one for cooking and eating, one for Mr. Rude’s and Mr. Bucher’s quarters and one for Mr. Schuyler who lives and works in his tent. We have the dining tent screened with cloth net and is really clean and sanitary. We have taken every precaution to prevent illness and with the good water supply we have I do not anticipate any trouble of that kind. Mrs. Black and I eat our lunch at the camp and in   order to conserve the time of Mr. Rude (who is the cook) she cooks lunch and has it ready for us at noon. We enjoy the camp very much and it is really so attractive that if it were possible to have some of the very necessary conveniences I think we would be here all the time” (Letter from Glenn A. Black to Eli Lilly, June 30, 1934).

Ida Black also took the time to record her thoughts about their arrival in camp. Though Ida was just as interested in archaeology as her husband, she had her doubts about camp life:

"Arrived at camp 8:30, Bernie had contracted for 2 # fresh green beans. Cooked them also apple sauce from our own sheltering tree had canned pears and received in the morning mail a tin of home made cookies from Joe Schuyler’s mother. They were fine. Terrific wind flowing all day, comfortably cool. I had visitors, lovely people two of whom were school teachers the others local housewives. I had them all register in our guest book. Glenn wishes with all his heart that we could live in camp. Will I weaken?" (Field notes). 

Stripped of all its romanticism, life at camp was, after all, pretty rough. Weather was unpredictable and could sometimes be downright insufferable. For instance, on August 6, 1934, Lilly wrote to Black with a sympathetic tone: “these hot days I have been sweating for you! Don’t have any heat prostrations, for heaven sake, but go easy” (Letter from Glenn A. Black to Eli Lilly, August 6, 1934). On November 19, he joked: “another rainy day!! I can just visualize brother Glenn and assistants bedraggled and woebegone on their muddy hill top. Doesn’t it beat the band?” (Letter from Eli Lilly to Glenn A. Black, November 19, 1935). Towards the end of the 1935, the weather was bitter cold. On November 16, Black wrote to Lilly, “The weather has been so bad that I have rented the front room at Nowlin’s for the boys to sleep in as it would be almost murder to ask them to sleep in wet beds in this cold weather” (Letter from Glenn A. Black to Eli Lilly, November 16, 1935).

Photograph, Catalog No. 4464

 In addition to the weather, there was the unrelenting problem of chiggers. Chiggers are pesky little insects that attach themselves to the skin, causing irritation and swelling. In 1935, Black asked Lilly to send some of the Lilly company’s Sulphur Ointment in the mail, since “the chiggers are fierce this year” (Letter from Glenn A. Black to Eli Lilly, August 4, 1935). He was evidently granted his request, because a few days later he wrote: “I am looking forward to receipt of the Sulphur Ointment as I am raw all over from chiggers and have found no remedy so far except scratching.” (Letter from Glenn A. Black to Eli Lilly, August 8, 1935). Lilly cautioned him, “Don’t make a mistake about the Sulphur Ointment for chiggers. It is not a cure – it is a preventive.” (Letter from Eli Lilly to Glenn A. Black, August 9, 1935). Despite all of these discomforts, Black and the crew seem to have remained upbeat. Their good humor is evident in a number of the photographs, such as this one from 1934 with the caption "chigger inspection" (Photograph, Catalog No. 4464). 

Photograph, Catalog No. 218

Interest in the Nowlin Mound site (12D7) was intense, especially during the first year of excavation. People flocked from all over to see Glenn Black and his crew at work. Many of the local newspapers were quick to compare excavations at Nowlin Mound to the sensational discovery of Tutankahmun’s tomb in Egypt only ten years prior. An article in the Shortridge High School newspaper, for instance, began “When archaeology is mentioned we always think of Egypt with its pyramids and tombs, little realizing that our own state has recently been the field of one of the most interesting and alluring explorations yet made”. By July of 1934, there were about 50 visitors per day. After garnering some added publicity from the Cincinnati Times-Star and the W.L.W. radio program, the site had a record-breaking four to five thousand visitors on August 26. Black wrote: “It taxed our endurance to handle all of the people and describe [the site] to them” (Letter from Glenn A. Black to Eli Lilly, August 26, 1934). Shortly thereafter, Eli Lilly wrote to Black to jest about “your ‘sermons on the mount.’” Out of concern for his friend, he added, “I hope they will not rob you of your one day of rest from here on in.” (Letter from Eli Lilly to Glenn A. Black, September 4, 1934). Without a doubt, the excavations at Nowlin Mound aroused local interest in archaeology and Indiana prehistory.

Of equal importance was the shift in methodology represented by excavations at Nowlin Mound. Glenn Black’s work has been described by one of his successors as a “significant [landmark] in the history of American field archaeology […]” (Kellar, 1965).  This is primarily because of Black’s meticulous and systematic approach. Until the Nowlin Mound excavation, archaeologists of prehistoric mound sites tended to focus their efforts on recording details about burials and artifacts. However, Black went one step further and paid close attention to the structure of the mound itself. Regarding Black’s excavation report, the archaeologist James Kellar says: “there is probably no more precise description of mound architectonics in print” (Kellar, 1983).

Glenn Black’s attention to detail can be attributed to his recognition that archaeology is, by nature, a destructive enterprise. In his excavation report, he writes “a mound once dug is a mound destroyed; if the story it has to tell be lost on the initial attempt it is lost forever” (Black, 1936, p. 212). In other words, archaeological evidence can only be interpreted in the context in which it was originally found. Black understood this tenet of archaeology very well. It is the reason why he documented the entire excavation. It is also the reason why museums provide such an important service in preserving both the artifactual and documentary evidence of excavations. After all, once a site has been excavated, its artifacts and documentation may be the only remaining record of the people and the cultures that formed it. Black’s ideas were novel in his time, yet they stand as an example to researchers and curators, even today.

References

Black, Glenn A. (1936). Excavation of the Nowlin Mound. Indiana History Bulletin, 13 (7), p.97-342. 

Kellar, James H. (1965). In Memoriam of Glenn A. Black, 1900-1964. American Antiquity 31 (3): 402-405.

Kellar, James H. (1983). An Introduction to the Prehistory of Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society.

Nowlin Mound Digital Library.