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The University of Alabama

A Story Previously Untold

Museum Excavation Provides Glimpse of Slave Life at Tannehill


By Chris Bryant

Everyone has a story. Sometimes you have to dig a bit in order to tell it – especially when it’s covered by the absence of freedom and beneath the layers of time.

Slave labor helped build and power Tannehill Ironworks, an Alabama foundry that, at its zenith, produced more than 22 tons of iron a day for the Confederacy. Almost nothing was known about these men, women and children who, some 140 years ago, toiled long hours at the site.

“The people who worked here, lived here and died here, they have a story,” said Randy Mecredy, director of UA’s Alabama Museum of Natural History. “That story needs to be told.”

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Now, thanks to a recently completed four-week expedition hosted by the Museum, a portion of it can be. Throughout most of June, some four dozen amateurs, working with Museum staff and led by Dr. Jack Bergstresser, director of the historic park’s Iron and Steel Museum, excavated one of what’s believed to have been 15 slave cabins at the site near Bessemer.

“We’ve found some very telling items,” said Bergstresser, pausing underneath a tent while, nearby, the soft, repeated clinking of others’ trowels tell of the steady pursuit for the next artifact.

Bergstresser motions to a small copper band discovered during an early portion of the dig and now laying underneath a glass-topped, wooden display case. “It’s shaped just like a wedding band,” Bergstresser said. “Knowing that slaves obviously could not afford gold, I wonder if that little piece of copper was given with the same love you might have given with a gold ring, if you could have afforded it.”

Prior to the Museum’s expedition, Bergstresser said it wasn’t known if male slaves were brought in as a transient labor force during high levels of activity at Tannehill or whether slaves lived as family units at the site. The expedition’s finds, including a child’s marble, a woman’s glass bead, a spoon and various pieces of kitchen ware, are indicators of the latter, he said.

“All of these artifacts, combined, tell us that, more than likely, we had a slave family living here and that they were preparing and consuming their meals here.”

Learning this, Bergstresser said, gives researchers an opportunity to further study the site to learn how slave family units functioned.

“We think that’s important because we think the slave household was sort of the incubation place where – hidden behind the beads that warded off the ‘evil eye’ and outside the master – you could pass on the dream of a better day. Maybe the seeds of the Civil Rights movements of the ‘60s were being formulated in those slave cabins.”

UA’s Alabama Museum of Natural History has hosted these authentic scientific digs with professional archaeologists since 1979. The digs are one of the few archaeology camps in the country providing a hands-on scientific field school to participants as young as 14.

The recent excavation, the Museum’s 29th such event, at Tannehill Historical State Park, attracted one participant from Canada and others from Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia, as well as from across Alabama.

Brittany Milsaps, an 18-year-old Tuscaloosa participant who is a multi-year veteran of the digs, called the expedition at the historic state park “exciting.”

“You grow up thinking history is just a story from a book, and when you get out here, it becomes alive. It’s real.”