Hollywood’s fictitious adven-turer Indiana Jones searched for priceless antiquities guarded by booby traps and curses. But real-life archaeologist and IUPUI anthropology professor Paul Mullins and his crew are welcomed by the guardians of the commonplace “treasures” he seeks. And while he hasn’t turned up any Holy Grail, Mullins and the students working under him are recovering artifacts that shed light on the rich history of the places and people who once called near Westside Indianapolis home.
Daisy Borel (above) is the past president of the Ransom Place Neighborhood Association. The association has been given many of the artifacts unearthed by Mullins’ archaeological teams, helping the campus and its neighboring community learn more about a shared past through excavation and examination of “commonplace stuff.” Kathryn Glidden (below, left) director of the archaeological lab, confers with students Courtney Benson (left) and Julianne Conant. Archaeology Field School participants are taught to use artifacts as “discussion points” toward defining the texture of a given community.
Anthropologist Paul Mullins is an urban Indiana Jones of sorts, at least in neighborhoods close to the IUPUI campus where archaeological “digs” have extracted the priceless artifacts of the everyday and the ordinary.
Since the summer of 2000, Mullins has conducted the IUPUI Archaeology Field School. Students in his eight-week course have dug up a plethora of bottles, bricks, glass figurines, rusted metal, animal bones, coins and other items during digs on campus and in the neighboring Ransom Place Historic District.
“Rather than look at people’s best material culture, their finest things, what we do archaeologically is look at actually their garbage, the most innocuous, everyday stuff,” Mullins said.
“Our logic has always been: I can learn more about you from all that commonplace stuff you keep in your household,” he said. The field school Mullins conducts is part of Ransom Place Archaeology, a cooperative project of IUPUI, Ransom Place Neighborhood Association and the Indianapolis Urban League.
The project uses archaeological excavations, oral historical research and public interpretation to probe the complex confluence of African-American culture, business and consumption, and race and racism in Indiana’s capital city, according to the project’s Web site.
Named after a 19th-century African-American resident, Freeman Briley Ransom, Ransom Place borders the northeast edge of IUPUI. With Indiana Avenue and its popular jazz clubs as its central artery, the near Westside was home to African Americans of all classes, along with a legion of African-American businesses and social organizations, in the late 1800s to mid-1900s. This summer’s dig, at 847 California St., was the fulfillment of a dream for Mullins. “I’ve always wanted to dig in the 800 block because, for many people, this is the heart of black Indianapolis in the early 20th century.”
The dig site was the former home of Dr. Joseph Ward, a North Carolina physician who moved to the house in 1918. He later directed the Veteran’s Hospital at Tuskegee, Ala., and was the highest ranking African American during World War I.
Built in the 1890s, the house was on a block where the “leading lights” of the local African-American community lived, including Ransom, a number of African Methodist Episcopal pastors and modest entrepreneurs.
“At a point between 1905 and 1930, it was a happening place,” Mullins said.
Among the bags, boxes and shelves of artifacts recovered in previous summer digs are bottles from a 1920s corner grocery story on Camp Street; and a letter opener and other objects, circa 1920-35, retrieved from what was the engine room of a meat-packing shop, the current location of the School of Law’s parking lot. Other treasures: a Cracker Jack premium from the mid-1930s that drew national attention when it turned up at the 2000 dig.
IUPUI students who have participated in the field schools have gone on to pursue master’s degrees in archaeology at universities in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. While summer school students have earned college credits digging up artifacts, student volunteers work throughout the fall and spring semesters to clean, identify and catalog the bounty from the previous summer’s dig.
Robyn Cords, a senior, was among those who spent two to three hours a week in the lab during spring semester. They washed and cleaned items unearthed in excavations at the site of the future IUPUI student center. Articles from that dig include the remains of a two-story outhouse that once stood near Cavanaugh Hall.
“I find it very interesting,” Cords said as she cataloged a number of items, including a long-lost marble. “You have to think, whose was this? Was it some little kid’s? That’s part of the mystery. That’s what intrigues me.”
Mullins and his students are welcomed by Ransom neighborhood residents who appreciate the reclamation of the community’s history.
“We are eagerly waiting for Paul to do some (more) digging,” Daisy Borel said before the summer dig began. She is the past president of the Ransom Place Neighborhood Association, and the keeper of a small collection of glass, bottles and other items recovered from sites in Ransom Place. The collection, often visited by neighborhood schoolchildren, is located in the 800th block of Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Borel sees the discarded glasses and bottles that some might call trash as “jewels, because it shows that even though they were poor people, they had some pristine stuff. They didn’t have a house full of junk,” she said.
“My long-term research interest is to really understand (the) contradiction of what life is like across the color line,” Mullins said. “How is it that these folks could be lawyers, doctors, working-class folks contributing to the city, (and) they could decorate their houses just as they are supposed to do in all the etiquette manuals, yet be denied the most basic civil privileges; and continue to invest in American society despite the way it (society) had treated many of these people poorly?”
He doesn’t expect his digging to turn up the answer to that question. Instead, “what we want to do is use archeology as a sort of discussion point,” Mullins said. “This gives us a way to talk about what it meant to be black, white, rich, poor, German, Italian … It gives us a point to begin to have discussions with folks.”
“We are tying to find ways to put history, neighborhood history, on the landscape in the most visible way we can,” Mullins said. “We now share this landscape. The university is part of this history now, and we are connected firmly to all these folks who have lived here before.
“I don’t want students to think that the near Westside has always been a flat expanse of asphalt just waiting for them to pull their cars in.”
Mullins’ trusting community contacts include one woman who gave him a textbook and supplies she used as a student at Madame Walker’s beauty school. The items, along with dig artifacts, were displayed at an exhibit at the Indiana State Museum.