What’s the value of a button? 

When it’s from a Union soldier’s uniform, extracted with great care from deep in the dirt, the answer is quite a lot.

“Nothing beats finding something,” says Olivia Puccetti, a DePaul anthropology student participating in the archeological dig of a portion of Camp Douglas, the Confederate prisoner-of-war compound which stood 150 years ago on the current site of the John J. Pershing Magnet School for the Humanities.  Nicole Grinbarg, who’s worked at the site three times, initially in a field class and subsequently as a volunteer, agrees: “When we found the Union button, it was so exciting: Everyone dropped their tools and ran over to see the treasure.”

Camp Douglas is one of the best kept historical secrets of Chicago, says Michael Gregory, a lecturer in the Anthropology department and director of DePaul’s field school for the site, which is being excavated by the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation. “In the United States and even in the Midwest, there are plenty of historical farmsteads, plenty of prehistoric sites, but there’s only one Camp Douglas. Here it is!  We’re lucky to be part of this.”

Each fall, students in the field school spend at least one day digging into the soil of the school’s playground, through a level where they might find material from the Bronzeville neighborhood of the 1930s and earlier, down to the sandier deposits of the camp itself. 

“It’s a great dig because we don’t have to move too much dirt to get to the site level,” says Gregory. “That means there’s a better chance of discovery with every outing, and of course artifacts are the big thrill of any excavation.” Last year, the archeologists-in-training uncovered a small Union army company insignia that would have gone on a kepi cap. During another dig, they found a stub-stemmed pipe, which was popular with Confederate soldiers. Just this month, Gregory and his students recovered grommets from a tarp/rubberized blanket, several clay pipe fragments, two unfired percussion caps that would have been used in rifles, and three unfired minie balls which were conical bullets used by Civil War soldiers of both sides.

Before graduating in 2015, Tom Gorman participated in the Camp Douglas dig five times, volunteering at least two days during each of the week-long investigations. He was attracted to the site specifically, and to archeology generally, for several reasons:  “I like working with my mind and my hands at the same time. Site excavations require more than one kind of ‘knowing’: You need a real knowledge of history and artifacts from other times, as well as a complete and subtle understanding of soil composition and sediment and other geological materials. I love always being expected to know more and more stuff.” Gorman works for the Illinois State Archaeological Survey/Prairie Research Institute.

Grinbarg shares the same love of hands-on learning: “I like that archeology combines history and science in a tactile discipline. Digging is like being a detective: I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, but I’m just now learning the stories of its neighborhoods by digging up their past.”  Puccetti emphasizes the hard work in an excavation: “It’s not Indiana Jones—it’s not opening up a door and finding lost wonders. Digging is a hard science; we document every little thing we do, every step we take, with detailed, precise notes so that others can use our data.”  

That said, one of the pleasures of the Camp Douglas excavation is meeting volunteers from the community. “The Foundation welcomes all kinds of people—students, neighborhood folks, scientists from the Field Museum—people who are curious and open-minded,” says Grinbarg.

“Archeology today is all about community building,” adds Gregory. “We want to show the public what we’re doing and why it’s important. We want them to get their hands dirty, just like ours are.”  The elementary school students are especially welcome. “We invite them and their families to the site for a day;  we give demonstrations and mini-lectures; the kids solve puzzles and even do a mock dig. Archeology is fun for everyone, and it matters to everyone. That’s why this dig—and the several others that DePaul students participate in—is so important. It’s part of our promise to students: an education that’s engaging and relevant.”
For more information about DePaul’s participation in the excavation of Camp Douglas:




Photo: DePaul University/Jeff Carrion