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What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of the human past through the analysis of material remains that are left behind by human activities. Based on the analysis of these remains archaeologists try to reconstruct the daily lives and customs of past societies and offer possible explanations for changes in societies and cultures over time. Archaeologists commonly excavate, or “dig”, a site to uncover evidence of human activity, but the remains of past human activities can also be found plainly visible on the surface of the ground without going through the excavation process. Click here to see a video clip explaining the depth and scope of Archaeology, presented by the Archaeological Institute of America.

One thing archaeologists do not do is study dinosaurs or other fossils. This falls under the discipline of Paleontology. Paleontology includes the study of prehistoric life forms represented by the fossils of plants, animals, and other non-human organisms.

SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park is a partially-reconstructed Fort Ancient period American Indian village along the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio. The Fort Ancient culture, as defined by archaeologists, occupied the Middle Ohio River Valley between about A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1650 from what is now southeastern Indiana east to modern day West Virginia. The Fort Ancient peoples who lived in this area were the first intensive farmers of the area, and the last prehistoric group to occupy it prior to the arrival of European settlers. Unfortunately, it is uncertain who their modern descendants are.

The Dayton Museum of Natural History began in 1893 as a part of the Dayton Public Library and Museum. Over the years, collections gathered by prominent Dayton citizens on their trips around the world were contributed to the museum. Local natural history collections were also contributed. In 1952, a group of citizens organized the Dayton Society of Natural History* which took responsibility for the collections and transformed them into the Dayton Museum of Natural History. In 1958, the Museum of Natural History's main building on Ridge Avenue in Dayton was opened.

SunWatch, originally named the Incinerator Site, was first excavated and reported on in the 1960s by amateur archaeologists John Allman and Charles Smith. When news came in the early 1970s that the City of Dayton planned to expand a nearby sewage treatment plant onto the property and impact the site, Allman and Smith contacted James Heilman, the Curator of Anthropology at the Dayton Museum of Natural History, in hopes of recovering as much valuable information from the site as possible. In 1971 the Dayton Museum of Natural History (now the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery) began "salvage" excavations at the site with just this goal in mind.

This initial work was designed to recover as much data from the village as possible prior to the proposed destruction of the site to make way for the sewage treatment plant expansion. As excavations continued, a planned, stockaded village which was estimated to have been occupied for about 20 years and included apparent astronomical alignments was revealed. The roughly 3 acre village site contained many well preserved artifacts, including fragile items such as crayfish pincers, fish scales, turkey egg shell fragments, and even uncharred wood remains. The work at the site exposed many students and adult volunteers to archaeology for the first time and gave them an appreciation of the archaeology and history of the region.

With the cooperation of the City of Dayton the plans for the expansion of the sewage treatment plant were modified, and with the assistance of the city, numerous volunteers, scholars, and supporters the site was saved from destruction. Soon after, planning began to interpret and open the site to the public.

On July 29, 1988, after 17 years of excavation and research by the Dayton Society of Natural History, SunWatch opened to the public. Seasonal excavations continued through 1989. The years of excavation at the site, combined with additional analysis and research, have resulted in a remarkable understanding of the site's original inhabitants. SunWatch currently combines experimental archaeological research, including the reconstruction of the Fort Ancient structures in their original 13th century locations, with an interpretive center that exhibits many of the artifacts that have been recovered from the site. The village reconstruction includes five lath and daub structures with grass thatch roofs, portions of a stockade, and a native garden and prairie with plants typical of the period. Inferred astronomical alignments originate from a complex of posts at the center of the village that have also been replaced. There is also a picnic shelter and picnic tables overlooking the village and are available for visitors to relax.

In June of 2006, the Heilman-Kettering Interpretive Center at SunWatch reopened after an extensive renovation added over 6,000 square feet to the facility. The renovation included a new lecture room that can be divided in two and used for lectures, seminars, receptions, traveling exhibits, and other events. A meeting room that overlooks the reconstructed village, a handicap lift to provide access to the new second floor, and additional restrooms and other amenities provide for the comfort and enjoyment of our guests.

Because of its archaeological and historical significance, SunWatch was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1990.

Research and analysis continue today on the remains uncovered at SunWatch. Continuing analysis of the artifacts (pottery, stone tools, bone tools, textile fragments, and others) and their distribution, as well as the locations of houses, trash pits and other features at the site, continue to allow us to better understand the lives of the villagers who lived at SunWatch.

For a list of publications on SunWatch click here. For more information, please call 937-268-8199.

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