Volunteers search for pottery pieces and other artifacts at Water Works Park

Ah, Sunday in the park, sitting on the ground and poking around in the dirt with your bare hands.

It may not sound like a pleasant time for a grown woman, but Kimberly Barnhart was enjoying herself as she toiled Sunday in the name of archaeology at Amerson Water Works Park.

“This is the chance of a lifetime, to come out here and be Indiana Jones for a while,” Barnhart said. She had come with her 8-year-old son, Max, her 10-year-old daughter, Megan, and her husband, Keith, to help NewTown Macon look for Indian artifacts in a 23-acre tract within the park that has been identified as a significant archaeological site.

She had found a few pottery shards within minutes of starting her search.

“My kids love Indians,” Barnhart said. “Megan was an Indian princess for Halloween. It’s so cool to bring it to life.”

Sunday was the second day on the second weekend of the volunteer project, which was brought about by a recent glitch in NewTown’s efforts to develop the park, formerly the site of a Macon Water Authority water treatment plant.

In late September a NewTown employee had much of the archaeological site harrowed to control erosion, not realizing that NewTown leadership was considering an extensive excavation of the site. The harrowing disturbed artifacts near the surface, an archaeological no-no (although the area already had been plowed by farmers and part of it had been graded by the water authority following the flood of 1994).

NewTown decided to make the most of the situation by asking for volunteers to help make a systematic search for artifacts exposed by the harrowing.

“We saw an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons,” said Chris Sheridan, a member of the NewTown Macon board of directors. “We’ll use it as part of the body of knowledge of the area.”

By mid-afternoon Sunday about a dozen people had turned out to help the search.

Stephen Hammack, a professional archaeologist, is the coordinator of the project. (He says “principal investigator” is the archaeological term for his role.) The site, located next to a playground, has been divided into 225 units, each 20 meters square. Volunteers search square-by-square for artifacts, storing them in plastic bags — one for each unit in the grid.

“We’ve found, so far, a thousand or more artifacts, most of it pottery,” said Hammack, who serves as secretary of the Ocmulgee Archaeological Society. “Most of what we found are from the historic Creek period, 1686 to 1716, that 30-year period that we know they were here.”

Hammack said the designs on the pottery shards indicate that some are from the Woodland Mississippian era, which lasted from about 900 to 1650.

The mounds at the Ocmulgee National Monument were built during this time.

Hammack plans to gather the information from the volunteer search, combine it with what he has learned from artifacts previously found at the site by private collectors and write a report for use by archaeologists who may eventually conduct an excavation of the site.

“Hopefully they’ll get some insight out of it,” Hammack said. “But you find out so much more by digging than from just finding things on the surface.”

There will be another volunteer search of the site Sunday from 11 a.m. to dusk. Call 718-3398 for information. The park is located at the end of North Pierce Avenue.

In 2005 the water authority donated its former treatment plant, damaged in the 1994 flood, to the community to make a 180-acre park.

In January the park was dedicated and it is currently open on weekends only.

It is managed by the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail Executive Committee of NewTown Macon, a quasi-governmental agency supporting downtown development.