About 1,400 years ago, in what is now Fort Morgan, someone was likely on their hands and knees, clawing away at the earth with a hatchet devised from carved stone.
The work was backbreaking. The days were long. In the end, this person, and many more, hand dug an 8 foot deep, 30 feet wide, half-mile long canal across the island, connecting Little Lagoon and Oyster Bay.
But at some point that day, that hatchet broke in half. And the tired laborer simply dropped it in the emerging canal and moved on.
The hatchet, which to the untrained eye looks like a broken rock, is one of dozens of well-preserved artifacts that a team of volunteers have uncovered at the site of what many experts believe to be one of the best preserved and oldest examples of engineering by Native Americans.
Historians believe the natives used the canal seasonally to move supplies between the two bodies of water. But at some point a large storm filled the canal with massive amounts of sand. Nature grew into and over the canal essentially hiding it in plain site from modern man.
Radiocarbon dating puts the digging of the canal at 1,400 years ago. Soil samples collected from buried soil along the bottom of the canal are believed to date from AD 566 – 654, about 600 years after the birth of Jesus.
This weekend, archaeologists from around Alabama will gather for their winter meeting in Gulf Shores and the highlight will be a field trip to the canal site. The public is invited for the discussions and the trip. Registration at the door is $5 per person.
Harry King, who led the completely volunteer effort to uncover the canal, said the hatchet was found during one of the last digs held at the site in December. It was near a post hole that was dug between a nearby mound and the canal. Experts say that hole is where canoes were tied.
The mounds nearby are essentially garbage collection areas. Fishermen rowed down the canal, tied off near the mound, offloaded their catch and processed the seafood they brought in, dumping the shells in mounds nearby.
“Simply put, what we found is very significant to the whole story,” said King who added that understanding what the early residents did here gives modern residents a better understanding of who they were and how they lived.
“It paints a picture right there of what they were doing,” he said.
Now that most of the digging at the site is finished, Gregory A. Waselkov, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of South Alabama, will be writing the final analysis of the site, King said.
Earlier there was discussion at the city level to place interpretive signage and even a kiosk at the site to encourage visitors, eco-tourism and preserve what is possibly one of the largest and most well preserved hand dug canals on the continent.
“It would be great to have pictographs and interpretations of the site so people can walk up and really see the lives that were here,” King said. “When you see it, you’re just there. You’re there with them and you feel like you just walked up on them while they were preparing their catch and heading home.
“I hope they do it soon before it’s lost,” he added.