This place is for the birds!

By LeAnn Luce, West Region Program Manager, Indiana State Museum and State Historic Sites 

Recently I heard a cheerful sound. A repetitive “fee-bee, fee-bee” call came from outside my office window located in the “House of the Singing Winds,” the historic home of T.C. Steele. I immediately registered it as one of the many bird sounds I hear every day … but today this call spoke to me.

Most days I have been inclined to completely ignore the bird, bat, butterfly and bullfrog sounds that are in constant symphony here. I work on the programming details of several Indiana State Historic sites; pursue grant writing and spend most of my time concentration at the computer. My mother has visited the site and says, “I don’t how you get anything done … I would spend all of my time looking out of the window.” She is right; I had to condition myself to ignore the seasonal and day-to-day splendor of the flora and fauna that is found here.

But on this particular day, that sound made work truly impossible. I was actually becoming annoyed at the frequent persistence and repetition of the call. I decided to step outside and investigate.

What caught my eye first was the flitting, manic flight of a little gray-brown bird. The bird landed on a nearby tree branch, issued several sharp chip, chip calls and began frantically pumping its tail in what I interpreted as a territorial defense. I looked around the West Porch to see what might be making the little bird so agitated. I looked up and saw the oddest sight. Right under the eave was a nest anchored with marvelously sculpted mud and covered with beautiful green moss. In it were three little heads poking up, but remaining completely still. I had never seen a bird or a nest quite like this. Now I understood what all the commotion was about.

I had just seen my first Eastern Phoebe and her unique architecturally developed nest. This little architect had built a handsome piece of art and she had chosen to do so right here under the eaves of the art-filled, enchanting home of T.C. and Selma Steele. What a smart little bird!

I researched information about the Eastern Phoebe. This bird species is quite loyal to their nests and will reuse them year after year. With a little spring cleaning an old nest can look like new. In contrast, most songbirds build completely new nests every year.

The irony of this information was not lost on me. It is exactly what the Indiana State Historic Sites do with our state’s architectural treasures that are visited each year by thousands of visitors. Preservation, conservation and interpretation efforts are made and guarded at these sites so that these places can be frequented for years and years to come by visitors in the future. The hardworking staff and their dedication can be seen at any of the 11 sites open to the public.

So take a lesson from a little bird and come and see what the State Historic Sites are all about.

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Valuing volunteer time

Written by Karine Huys, Coordinator of Volunteer Services

Monday night was our annual volunteer recognition here at the Indiana State Museum. We had a lovely picnic theme with a pot-luck dinner and, at last count, there were 102 different items to choose from on the buffet table! Besides all the great food, we also presented our annual awards.

Over the last year more than 500 volunteers contributed 23,399 hours, valued at nearly $474,000! A highlight of the evening’s awards is always the top 10. These are the volunteers who have contributed the most time during the last year.

10. Nancy Crafton, 346 hours, valued at over $7,000
9.  Larry Boyer, 354 hours, valued at over $7,100
8.  Elizabeth Hohman, 385 hours, valued at over $7,700
7.  Barbara Parker, 422 hours, valued at over $8,500
6.  Kathy Lee, 428 hours, valued at over $8,600
5.  Janice Snowden, 431 hours, valued at over $8,700
4.  Jane Ann Buchanan, 542 hours, valued at over $10,900
3.  Bruce Herriman, 582 hours, valued at over $11,700
2.  Katy Edwards, 586 hours, valued at over $11,800
1.  Gerhard Gennrich, 641 hours, valued at over $12,900

These 10 volunteers contributed 20 percent of the total value of all hours donated last year!

We also recognized 11 volunteers who have contributed more than 200 hours to the museum in the last year and 39 volunteers who have contributed more than 100 hours. We also had several volunteers who contributed over 100 hours to a specific program in the museum. These programs included: the Naturalist’s Lab, Celebration Crossing, Guest Services, Collections/Curatorial Assistance, Program Support Team, Museum Store, Collections Computer Support, Covered Wagon program, Conservator Assistant and Gardening.

If any of these areas sound interesting to you, please contact the volunteer center at 317.232.8351 or indianamuseum.org/volunteer.

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An unassuming hero

So many people think heroes are larger than life. Superman, Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama, Michael Jackson, Odysseus, Lance Armstrong, Eleanor Roosevelt, Todd Beamer, Rosa Parks … the list is endless. And maybe they are larger than life, but most of them don’t start out that way — except for maybe the fictional ones.

The back of the Levi Coffin house.

Along U.S. 27 in Fountain City, just north of Richmond, is a red brick house that was once the home of Levi and Catharine Coffin. The Coffins were Quakers who had moved to Fountain City (it was Newport at the time) in 1826 from North Carolina in part because they were staunch abolitionists. This house and its property is now the Levi Coffin State Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark.

Why? Well, Levi and his wife were heroes to more than 2,000 slaves who were risking their lives for the sake of their freedom. They were unassuming heroes as, by day, Levi was the owner of a mercantile in Newport while Catharine kept house — sewing, cooking, cleaning — for their six children. By night, their home often became a refuge for escaped slaves seeking their freedom in Canada. The Coffins sometimes housed as many as 17 slaves at one time — feeding, clothing and caring for them until their journey resumed. And they did this at great risk to themselves.

The second floor crawlspace is on the left (the inset shows the inside). The false-bottom wagon is on the right.

My recent visit to the Levi Coffin State Historic Site gave me a glimpse into life on the run for escaped slaves. Though the Coffin house had many amenities for hiding slaves — from a hidden crawl space on the second floor and an indoor well in the basement to a false-bottom wagon in the barn — it must have been a terrifying experience. Not to mention unbearably hot in the summer and brutally cold in the winter. But for 20 years, the Coffin family generously provided food, clothes, shelter and moral support for those who needed it most.

Volunteer Janice McGuire explains some of the kitchen tools to a group of visitors.

Speaking of unassuming heroes … the Levi Coffin site is run completely by volunteers who care for the property, the artifacts and provide educational experiences for school groups and other visitors — including me! They tell a great story and work hard to make sure visitors come away with a sense of life in the mid-19th century. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH)  just awarded them the Albert B. Corey Leadership in History Award for their “vigor, scholarship, and imagination.” Congratulations to Saundra, Janice and the rest of the crew! Keep up the good work!

For more information about the Levi Coffin State Historic Site, visit indianamuseum.org/levi_coffin.

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Finishing up at Yankeetown

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager 

Although our dig is winding to a close, the work-pace picks up 10-fold! As with all digs, you end up finding all kinds of stuff at the end. It is one thing you can truly count on as an archaeologist. Working on the riverbank, Kara and I spent the day collecting various soil samples from each layer of the bank. It was particularly funny because Kara — our trusty registrar — thought she was coming out into the field to get away from paperwork. Ha!

Our goal at the riverbank was to bring together various points of research to get a good idea what the environment may have been like throughout prehistory (throughout the history of the banks development). We had all kinds of folks out to help, including geologists and soil scientists. The red and white pins were laid by geologist Ron Counts and mark general areas where we took soil samples. The small pegs at center are where we took our samples for pollen analysis. We were also able to take C/14 samples from some areas up the bank. All of these lines of evidence will hopefully help us reconstruct what this environment may have been like prehistorically.

Landside, the field school was making tremendous headway uncovering feature after feature. Burned posts in place, large pit features (maybe trash/food preparation?), burned soil, a cache of corn … everything indicating a thriving Yankeetown occupation at this location. Students map, photograph and excavate each feature and then screen the excavated soil for artifacts.

Don’t these pictures scream “I love archaeology!”

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Archaeology saves (turtle) lives!

Written by Kara Vetter, Registrar

Even in the field, a registrar can't get away from paperwork!

5 a.m. came too early today, especially for a night owl like me. We left the hotel and headed for the site around 6 a.m. with ominous rain clouds in the distance. During a quick necessities trip to Wal-mart, I wondered if the dry weather luck would hold out. As we arrived, the sky grew even darker and thunder could be heard in the distance. Comments flew between Michele, Amy and me as to whether the rain would hold off. After prepping our gear we descended, very slowly I might add, down the ladder. I got my “wet muck/mud sea legs” under me and got to work. Michele graded the bank face with a trowel high up the ladder while Amy and I created a secondary profile for photography later in the week. If you ever have the job of clearing away the debris beneath someone who is grading make sure you keep your mouth closed. Dirt — no matter where it’s from — tastes awful! With Amy wielding the camp shovel and I the small pick axe, away we dug for about an hour until the sudden crack of thunder warned us to scramble back up the ladder before the rain set in. At the top, we met the unofficial mascot for this dig, Widgee! He’s an adorable little dog, some kind of terrier we think, who belongs to Indiana University professor Dr. Susan Alt. He scampered around, being as doggily cute as possible while I met IU archaeologists Liz and Mara.

Scrapped for the moment, we headed back to Wal-mart for distilled water and beef jerky! The water was for later testing and the jerky was for us hard-working state employees … thanks Amy!

About a half hour later, we went back to the site and resumed digging and grading. But not before we channeled our Curator of Agriculture, Industry and Technology (and known turtle aficionado), Todd Stockwell, by saving a large turtle from the middle of the road … good deed for the day, check! A break for lunch was interrupted with more rain. Soggy PB&Js are a sad thing indeed. After the rain slowed, we braved the weather and assisted Michele as she lined up the grid so we could map out the archaeological and geological features. I even got to prove my upper body strength by pulling a large stake from the ground so we could secure the measuring tape. Just call me Kara “The Hoss Lady” Vetter …ha! After being pelted with wind and various types of rain, Michele called it quits at 1:30 p.m. The weather was just too erratic and making the riverbank too unstable for further work and Michele said that we looked like a miserable lot and took pity on us. On the ride back to the hotel, we saved yet another turtle — this time a box turtle. Two good deeds for the day!

So, my first day of archaeology work didn’t go as smoothly as planned but at least I have some dirt under my nails and light farmer tan to prove I did something, not to mention helping to defend road-crossing turtles everywhere. Here’s hoping tomorrow goes better and that I am able to take notes and map while Michele describes features to me at the same time. Fingers crossed!

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Volunteers from near and far

Written by Karine Huys, Coordinator of Volunteer Services

The Indiana State Museum recruits volunteers of all age ranges, skill levels and interests. But I decided this afternoon that I wanted to see how far reaching our recruitment was geographically. So I sat down at my computer, opened our volunteer database and pulled up the mailing addresses of all the current volunteers and interns. After some extensive sorting in Excel, map questing and rounding to the nearest whole number, I have a very impressive list. And here it is in Top 10 style …

10.       Anne from Danville at 22 miles
9.         Karen and Vic from Franklin at 23 miles
8.         David and Sue from Greenfield at 26 miles
7.         April from Franklin tied with Lilly from Lafayette at 30 miles
6.         Julie from Jamestown at 31 miles
5.         Linda from Coatesville at 33 miles
4.         Alice and Bob from Knightstown at 39 miles
3.         Carolyn from New Ross at 40 miles
2.         Nell from Columbus at 56 miles
And our farthest traveling volunteer at 59 miles — Karen from New Richmond!

Since I figured out who the farthest traveling volunteer was, I also decided to see who was the closest. It was close —no pun intended — and we have several people who walk to the museum for their shifts, but Barry is officially the closest at .53 miles. Our runner up, Carol, was only about one tenth of a mile farther.

While the Indiana State Museum sits in the heart of White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis, our volunteers are coming to us from miles and blocks away! If you are interested in learning more about volunteering, contact the volunteer center at 317.234.2449 or see the volunteer page on the museum’s website.

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Telling the whole story

One of the goals of The Indiana Reef is to not only highlight the beauty and wonder of the world’s coral reefs, but also to share how these reefs are affected by human actions and natural events. It does not take much environmental change to stress coral reefs. A slight increase in temperature, growing pollution, disease and increased sedimentation all play a part in damaging coral reefs.

The Indiana Reef will have a section dedicated to showing how vibrant reefs are disturbed by these factors in a section of the exhibit known as The Toxic Reef. Volunteers creating these pieces have worked hard to present a reef that visually shows the stress that underwater coral are currently fighting. On some pieces, the colors of yarn are faded and pale while recycled trash pieces are also attached. The fading of color is one way a coral reef reacts to changes in its environment and is the beginning of a process known as bleaching, where sections of the coral begin to die and turns white. The death of coral affects all the organisms that rely on it as a link in the oceanic food chain.

Efforts are underway in many areas in the world to conserve and protect living coral reefs from environmental dangers. Scientists are currently researching how corals in certain areas of the world seem to adapt to environmental changes easier than others with the belief that these stressors may have happened in the past. For more information about coral reefs and bleaching, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website.

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Doing the dirty … work

Written by Amy Sciutto, Collections Management Intermittent

I realized today that 5 a.m. is way too early for anybody to be awake. I came to this realization when the alarm clock, the courtesy wake-up call from the hotel and Michele’s cell phone alarm all went off at 5 a.m. Awesome. I then realized that 6 a.m. is way too early for anybody to try to work. I came to this realization when I tried to pee in the field, and happened to pee all over myself. Awesome. It was at this point in the day that I also realized that I was in for one dirty day. Little did I know just how dirty I was going to get. After I peed on myself, Michele laughed at me, and on we went, excavating away.

The first thing we did was try to figure out how to use a ladder. You would think that two highly-educated people would easily be able to figure out a ladder, well think again. It was like the blind leading the deaf. The darn ladder was folded in half and then once unfolded it continued to extend from every angle. Once the ladder could no longer be unfolded, and folded and extended and retracted, we haphazardly placed the ladder against the cliff that we were working on, said our prayers, and repelled to our destiny.

Around 7:30 a.m., the Field School from IU got to the site and began their work. By this time Michele had already began to excavate her feature while I was on water screening duty. If you want a fun task on a dig, water screening is perfect for you. I was responsible for dumping buckets of dirt onto a screen, then dumping water on the dirt, in the hopes of finding artifacts. What I discovered, however, was that when you mix dirt with water, you get a mess. Now I do want some things to be a surprise for when you go on a dig and get to do some water screening for yourself, but I will tell you that a sunburn, soaking wet shoes and socks, and bending over until you forget how to stand lead to an immense hatred for your life. But believe it or not, there are rewards for doing such a labor intensive job.

After lunch I found myself peeing all over myself again, but this time I was covered with Michele’s boots, so the joke is on her! That’s what she gets for laughing so hard, and not teaching me proper techniques for keeping dry when nature calls. After I laughed to myself, we went back to work. By this point we had finished excavating the feature on the cliff, and we had bagged all the artifacts to take with us. The next task was simple: to cut back the bank. If you thought water screening sounded fun, oh boy are you in for a treat. I stood on a 6-inch ledge with a pick-ax and had to pick away the face of the cliff. I was nervous at first because our rickety ladder was attached to the cliff I was ordered to pick at, but Michele reassured me that in the worst case scenario we could swim across the Ohio River to the Kentucky side, and easily make our way back to civilization. We picked away until our hands were calloused and bleeding, then called it a day. If I am able to walk tomorrow, I assume we will continue picking away at the face, in order to take samples, and all that jazz.

We gathered up our tools, ascended the stairway to heaven, also known as our trusty ladder, and went home for the night.

Now, I have to go wrestle the alarms out of Michele’s hands before she does something crazy again!

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A most excellent find!

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager

These students are working on a burned post.

A very interesting day to say the least! The trench has really started to show its true colors with features galore! A feature – generally speaking in archaeological terms – is the non-portable cultural evidence. It’s something that, if you take it, you destroy it (so you can’t really take it ‘as is’). Like, for example, evidence that a structure once stood at a particular spot but was later burned down. We see changes in soil and lots and lots of burned soil that form a nice square (in this case) pattern. We found evidence of a structure in 2008, and we have another one now! There are plenty of other things going on, too. There is a line of burned posts in place. We can kinda assume an association between the structures (or, structures in general) and the posts, but not really. We just don’t yet know.

This picture says it all … The sheer joy of doing archaeology and knowing you’re the first one to touch something after it was last held some 800 to 900 years ago. Here, a field school student shows us her find … a chunky stone. In the picture, you can barely see that the stone has been shaped to a perfect round, disk shape. The center of both sides is concave. These stones were used in playing a particular game of the same name. The collections of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites has some beautiful examples of chunky stones, but most lack good provenience. This is a most excellent artifact!

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Jonesing for your critter fix?

Warm weather, strawberry festivals and no more school traffic on my way to work are just a few of the many reasons I love June, but one of my favorites is Scales & Tails Fest. Since 2006 we’ve planned this annual event to celebrate  all kinds of critters. And since that first year, when I adopted my own dog, I’ve enjoyed bringing in as many groups and different kinds of animals as possible. Snakes, dogs, skunks, pigs, chickens, horses — you name it and they’ve been part of this program at some point.

This year I’ll have a lot of snakes and exotic animals as well as the cats and dogs that we all love to pet and cuddle. In addition we’ll bring back the miniature horses and also talk a lot about Indiana wildlife.

I’ll also make my annual trek up to Purdue to pick up eggs for the incubators. We’ll keep these guys warm and cozy for a few days in the R.B. Annis Naturalist’s Lab before they start hatching just in time for the festival. It’s always a lot of fun to watch these little chicks peck their way out of an egg and realize they went from nothing to cute little chicks in only 21 days! At that time I’ll be somewhere near the 252nd day of my own pregnancy and will still have a month to go. Yikes!

We also have several great programs lined up this year including one on snakes as pets, training your cat (yes, apparently they ARE trainable!), exotic animals as pets and miniature horses.

So if you just like animals, you’re thinking about a new pet or are interested in how you can get involved with these great groups, stop on by. See some newly hatched chicks, touch a snake, meet some interesting people and enjoy a fine Saturday in June. 

For more information about the event and links to exhibitor information, visit our website.

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