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Civil War artifact search leads UNH student to Belize

Contributing Writer

Published: Monday, October 3, 2011

Updated: Monday, October 3, 2011 23:10



The hot, Central American sun beat down on their necks. Sifting through the plowed earth, they diligently searched for a piece of history left behind. Hours were spent looking through archives; preparing, learning, waiting for the moment of hands-on, practical use. 

They found something, an old map with the words "McRae Works" penciled on the front. Two more maps accompanied it. A history had been discovered that was closer to home than anyone had expected.

A few months ago, John DeGennaro was sitting in class learning about archeological methods, and now he has helped discover the homestead of a Confederate soldier who fled to Belize after the Civil War.

In the spring of 2011, DeGennaro, now a sophomore, and assistant professor of archeology Eleanor Harrison-Buck collaborated with the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research and the Research Experience and Apprenticeship Program to create a project that incorporated both classroom and hands-on learning at an archeological site.

REAP offers motivated honors freshmen a first glimpse into research, preparing students to do similar work in the future.

"It's a less intensive version," DeGennaro said. REAP partners students with a professional in the field, acting as a mentor. 

DeGennaro worked closely with Harrison-Buck and Adam Kaeding, a UNH teaching assistant for the field school in Belize, and colonial specialist on the Belize River East Archeology (BREA) project, of which Harrison-Buck serves as the principal investigator.

 "When you have an incredibly self-motivated student like John, the reward of working together, I think, is mutual," Harrison-Buck said.

The Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research was the main source of funding for DeGennaro's six-week study abroad experience. Not only was he participating in on-site archeological work, but he was also taking classes at a field school in Belmopan, the capital, with two other UNH students.

"Having the opportunity to go to Belize and work with professor Harrison-Buck was one of the reasons why I transferred to UNH," said Kerissa Paquette, a UNH student who took classes at the field school with DeGennaro

"Through UNH and professor Harrison-Buck, I was able to realize that archaeology is what I really want to do for the rest of my life," Paquette said.

Most of the work DeGennaro participated in was done in plowed fields; rural areas slightly removed from the capital. 

"It's very easy to spot artifacts," DeGennaro said, but at the same time makes it more difficult because "the context has been destroyed." 

The primary goal for working in the plowed fields was to find out who owned the land. After doing preliminary archive research under the guidance of Kaeding, DeGennaro learned how to set up grids to collect information.

"With archaeology, you try to get as much information as possible in the site while you are working because after that you can't go back; something could have changed," DeGennaro said.

In the plowed field, the group found three maps belonging to a woman in 1908. Written on one map was "McRae Works," and "Saturday Creek Works" was written on another. By searching the archives, DeGennaro and Kaeding discovered that the woman who owned the property inherited it from her uncle Colin J. McRae, a Confederate soldier from Alabama who fled to Belize after the Civil War and settled along the Belize River in the 19th century.

DeGennaro said the researchers knew the artifacts were colonial and not Mayan, and did later analysis to determine what time period they came from. Kaeding believed that McRae's property reflected a mercantile base, because they found items such as glass and ceramics.

One of the good things about archeology is that "it's an open-minded process," DeGennaro said. "You are open to find whatever is there."

Each day the group would be on-site by 9:30 a.m., where everyone ate a packed breakfast of scrambled eggs, beans, fruit, and fry-jacks, which DeGennaro said was similar to fried dough.

They would work until 2 p.m., when the sun would be so hot they were forced to stop. In the evenings, Kaeding and DeGennaro washed artifacts until 5 p.m., and then DeGennaro would attend labs and lectures at the field school.

 "That's very tedious, washing artifacts," DeGennaro said. With a toothbrush and water, he and Kaeding would work through the piles of artifacts, cleaning layer after layer of dirt and dust.

DeGennaro would like to return to the McRae-Stalworth site and continue with the project long-term for his honors thesis. After working with professionals, DeGennaro has a taste for archeology and would like to work as a volunteer on-site with Harrison-Buck and Kaeding. If he is able to receive grants, DeGennaro will spend the next few summers working along the Belize River.

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