By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
NAUVOO, Ill. -- Michelle Murri held a key to history in the palm of her hand.
The small house key, carefully teased from the soil, could open doors to an even better understanding of Nauvoo's past.
An archaeological dig is underway to find the location of the home built for Joseph Smith Sr. and his wife Lucy Mack in Nauvoo. Recent discoveries led to a possible site just south of the Joseph and Emma Smith Mansion House.
"You found the key to Grandma's house," Bob Smith, the dig site host and a great-great-great-grandson of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith, said. "Working on the site, holding something they might have held before, making that connection is a positive thing."
Volunteers are discovering what appears to be a pier support, a structural support for the house, which research says was a double log cabin.
"Young Joseph talks about having a breezeway between the two structures and a roof over the whole area which was used for storage," Smith said. "We found walkway all along here. You can see remnants."
It's history both for Nauvoo and for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Joseph Smith Sr. was the patriarch of the church. This is the house where he gave his patriarchal blessings to his kids," Smith said. "This is a special spot."
It's special for Murri, a volunteer from LeVerkin, Utah, who just graduated from Utah State University.
"I've never been to Nauvoo. This was a perfect opportunity to visit and get some professional experience," she said. "It's taught me a lot about the history of Nauvoo and my own family history, and it's also taught me a lot of skills that I can use in my further archaeology jobs."
Archaeologist Paul DeBarthe heads a team of volunteers carefully digging into the past, screening buckets of soil and preserving their finds from bits of pottery to window glass, metal and buttons.
"Fundamentally, what we have here is a site that in the last three years has produced 10,000 pieces," DeBarthe said.
"Anytime you can touch something, it just makes you more aware of history," said longtime volunteer Synthia DeBarthe, whose husband Thomas is a cousin to Paul DeBarthe. "It gets into your heart and your soul, and you never forget it."
The Joseph Smith Historic Site along with the Joseph Smith Sr. Family Association, the Hyrum Smith Family Association, the Joseph Smith Jr. Historical Society and the Samuel H. Smith Foundation sponsor the digs.
The work brings together Smith, a Mormon, with DeBarthe, a member of the Community of Christ, along with volunteers of many faiths.
"To discover, preserve and share. That's what we're about," Smith said. "Religion doesn't matter."
DeBarthe has done archeological work in Nauvoo since 1971. Most of the work was done from 1975 to 1984, then resumed three years ago when Smith and DeBarthe met.
"We've got enough Smith family sites to keep us busy for 10 years," Smith said.
Among the finds are projectile points dating back 10,000 years to the age of the hairy mammoths, more points used by bison hunters 6,000 years ago, pottery from the Early Woodland period and a burial site from the Middle Woodland period some 2,000 years ago not far from the Smith's own family plots.
"People come here to pilgrimage to the Joseph Smith burial site and home site. Mormons in particular come for about five years of Mormon history, 1839-1844," he said. "For us to come looking for five years of history and find 10,000 years is really gratifying."
Replacing the wooden steps at the Mansion House with historically-accurate stone steps led to even more pieces of the past.
Volunteer Rebecca Esplin found a piece of what DeBarthe said was cord-marked, grit-tempered pottery. Working at the site was a perfect fit for Esplin, who just graduated from Utah State University.
"I've always loved Nauvoo, and I like historical archaeology as well," she said. "Finding things makes it a lot more exciting than just digging and not finding anything."
Pieces from the archaeological digs near the Mansion House come into the lab in the basement of the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo for classifying, authenticating and tabulating. From there, Synthia DeBarthe's job is to "try to put things back together again."
She carefully glues together pieces, including a butter churn one day last week, adding masking tape for support until they dry.
"What we're interested in doing is putting together enough pieces so we can create a museum over in the visitor center for people to get an idea of the times and how they lived here in Nauvoo," she said.
Synthia DeBarthe says she gets everything from stone to bone to glass, nails, ceramics and stoneware. The finds tell about early family life in Nauvoo.
"They had a lot of things," she said. They weren't poor, but they weren't rich. It appears they were comfortable."
Work done three years ago tried to explore the legend that the Smith homestead was built in 1805 as a trading post.
"We found 5,000-year-old stuff, 2,000-year-old stuff, but we didn't find very much attributed to a trading post in 1800," DeBarthe said. "In the meantime, across the street, we're finding some possible trade beads. Where was the trading post? That's one question we'd like to answer."
HOW TO HELP
Volunteers can spend an hour, a day or a week at the archeological dig sites in Nauvoo. Work continues through Friday, June 27. More information is available by contacting dig site hosts Bob and Becky Smith at 801-471-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.