Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Serendipity and Fort Tombecbe: Cooperation between Historians and Archaeologists


About two years ago my friend, genealogist Winston De Ville, sent me a hand-drawn colonial-era map or plan of a fort. I wasn't sure why he sent it to me, because the plan was unrelated to any of my research. In retrospect, he isn't sure why he sent it to me, either. The other documents he included with the plan concerned Bayou Teche, a subject on which I was (and am still) conducting research. Perhaps he got the fort plan mixed up with the Teche material and sent it to me by mistake?


The plan of a colonial-era fort.
(Source: Winston De Ville, FASG;
colorized by the author)


Regardless, he sent me the plan of the fort, I put it in my files "just in case," and I forgot about it.

Two days ago I was looking through my files and pulled out the plan of the fort. It occurred to me that another friend, archaeologist Dr. Ashley A. Dumas of the University of West Alabama, might find the plan of interest. She is presently excavating colonial-era Fort Tombecbe, located in rural Alabama. Surely it's not the same fort, I thought, but perhaps it will be useful for comparison with Tombecbe.

So I scanned and e-mailed the plan to her, stating in my cover note, "Don't know if this is of interest to you or not." 

To which Dr. Dumas replied, "Holy cow, that is Fort Tombecbe!!!! The fort I work on now! Any date associated with it? Did you find it yourself or is it online?"


Close up of the fort in the plan.
(Source: Winston De Ville, FASG;
colorized by the author)


I didn't respond immediately as I was off doing research. A short time later Dr. Dumas wrote back again, "Can you get a higher resolution image? Can I get one? I can't read all the writing. It looks like a draft plan of the fort, possibly by Lusser. Or maybe shows changing alignment of the palisade wall? Do you see that funny little rectangle with the circle attached in one corner of the fort? That's the bread oven. I excavated a portion of that structure and that bastion corner this summer."

Still I didn't reply, spurring another e-mail from Dr. Dumas: "Shane! you're killing me. Do you know if I can get a better copy?"

When I returned to my office I did not read Dr. Dumas’ e-mails in order. I therefore was unaware she had already identified the fort in the plan as Tombecbe when I wrote back:

"What, is it a helpful map??? That's the best copy I can scan from my photocopy, which in itself is crappy. Anyway, does the map mean anything to you? (I saw ‘tombe’ in the French at top, and for a second thought it might be ‘Tombegbe’ but I don't think so; I think it's just the [French] verb ‘tomber.’)”

To which Dr. Dumas quickly responded, "No, no. It's Fort Tombecbe. Where'd you get the copy? Is there a catalog number or something that I can use. . . ?"

Fort Tombecbe (May 1737) by Ignace Broutin.
(Source: 
2012 Fort Tombecbe Archaeological Project)


I finally understood the relevance of the plan and told Dr. Dumas where to find the original. (It's in Spain.) I then re-scanned in higher resolution the archaic French writing, "inverted" the scan's color in Photoshop to generate an easier-to-read negative, and asked Dr. Dumas, "Does this help to read the French (see attachment)?"

Unfortunately, I forgot to attach the scan, prompting Dr. Dumas to e-mail me back, "There's no attachment. I think you're trying to give me a heart attack."

I eventually sent Dr. Dumas the color-inverted image (the next day when I returned to my office). 


Some of the French text on the plan of the fort.
(Source: Winston De Ville, FASG;
colorized by the author)


On examination of the plan, Dr. Dumas observed that "The scale is at the bottom and goes up to 60 toises [one toise = 6.396 U.S. feet]. I think that the strange little geometric drawings above the fort represent [early Louisiana colonial governor] Bienville's encampment of April-May 1736. The timing of this map is interesting because it coincides with Bienville's first arrival at Tombecbe to meet with Choctaw chiefs." She added, "Desperate to get a good copy!"

Despite the unintended humor and fumbling around on my part, this is a good example of "interdisciplinary cooperation" among scholars — in this case, a historian helping an archaeologist. And of course it works in reverse, too. (Oddly enough, I tend to work more with archaeologists than with other historians.) And yet the incident also serves as a good example of serendipity: Had not Mr. De Ville accidentally sent me a plan of a fort unrelated to my own research, and had I not kept it, filed it away, and stumbled across it a few nights ago while looking for something else, I might never have thought of sending it to Dr. Dumas. And even then I did not think it would turn out to be the fort she'd been excavating.

Sometimes research and discovery happens this way: I can't tell you how many things I've discovered in my own research by accident. (Take, for example, the Cajun Coonass airplane photo about which I've written previously.)

For more information on archaeology at the fort, see The 2012 Fort Tombecbe Archaeological Project blog site.

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