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11:56 am
Thu March 6, 2014

Archeology Bolsters Background Of Historic Kansas City Homestead

The name Wornall means a lot in Kansas City.  It’s a road, a historic place and a large connection to the Battle of Westport in 1864.  

An archeology project, begun last year and now completed, aims to cement that piece of history for generations ahead. 

Science and sweat

Doug Shaver with Civil War era lead bullet, one of hundreds of artifacts unearthed in archeological study of Wornall House Homestead.
Credit Dan Verbeck / KCUR

In the front yard of the  Greek Revival Style house, built more than 150 years ago by John Wornall, archeologist Doug Shaver was out in the sun shoveling dirt into a box with a screen on the bottom, sifting out anything that wasn’t dirt.

Shaver said of the Wornall Homestead Museum, “We’re building a puzzle without having a picture of what it was," says Shaver of his work at the Wornall homestead Museum. "And this puzzle in this case is a history of this location.”

One of two lead bullets turned up on the screen in the midst of the  dirt and recognized immediately by Shaver as a .44 caliber revolver bullet.

"This is an unfired round, but it dates to that period," says Shaver, referring to the Civil War era.

The Battle of Westport

Shaver says most people associate the house with the Battle of Westport and the Civil War.

Wornall House, built in 1858, was in the middle of the Battle often called the Gettysburg of the West.  Thirty thousand Union and Confederate States soldiers fought there.  The house was a field hospital for both sides. But Shaver notes that was just one day in its history.

The homestead stood on 640 acres covering much of what is now the  Brookside Neighborhood and district south of Loose Park.

Even marbles matter

Anything found in this archeological monitoring has a connection to the land--even marbles. Shaver studied the history of  the clay and glass marbles found there, dating from the 1850s to 1915

“Wornall had several boys. And of course you’d expect to find marbles when there’s boys about," says Shaver.

Steve Wilson has worked at Jackson County historical sites for decades  and got his hands dirty with the rest on this archeological bunch of professionals and volunteers, looking for what they call ‘diagnostic materials’ to check out.

Wilson says some of the discoveries as cut nails, a few forged nails, ceramics, and glass.  Wilson says he can learn a lot from the thickness of the glass.

“It tells us a lot about its age," says Wilson.

Some of the discoveries might confirm or refute widely held ideas of  how life was lived,  as Kansas City grew into what it is now.

Lure of the unknown

The unknown is the lure for Shaver and why he was hired by the Wornall House Museum.  The timing was right. Foundation repairs were being made last year. Contractors  dug around the House. Shaver’s people went through it, ton by ton.

Shaver’s aim was to look beyond the articles that were discovered, the silver-plate spoon, the location of wells and long forgotten walkways.

“Part of what’s good about doing the archeology on these historic properties is, this helps  you to understand not just the property and the people that lived there but also how it tied into the events of our city," says Shaver "That is, how these artifacts and these historic landscapes contributed to the development of our city.”

Discovering what's still underground

It’s not like the kind of archeology most people think about.  A gadget called a ‘gradiometer’ is run over the property to learn a bit about what’s  still underground.

"If the soils been dug up and then placed back in the ground again it’s going to have a different signature than that around it.

The study would also include all the burials that are no longer marked, although none turned up on the Wornall House Homestead.

So next time somebody decides to dig, there’s a partial picture what’s down there, other than actual discoveries this time.  The Hamm's  beer can from the 1960’s, the bullets, the simple toys from a hundred years ago.