Moonshine archaeology project takes student researchers to North Carolina

MAGGIE VALLEY, N. C. -- Carly Hunter is not your average researcher. She, along with three other students and archaeology professor Kirk French, journeyed to Maggie Valley, North Carolina this summer to study illicit whiskey production (moonshining) in the Great Smoky Mountains. As an anthropology major and sociology minor from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Hunter describes herself as “very passionate about helping people.” She hopes her experiences throughout this project can help inspire other students.

Hunter learned of the project in her Introduction to Archaeology course, taught by French. She said she emailed him after class to express her interest in participating. All it took was a simple email to begin a research experience that served as both a learning experience and a stepping stone.

As the topic suggests, the Moonshine Archaeology project was far from boring. The students spent long days interviewing community members for their research. They used these interviews along with digitized newspapers to gain a better understanding of the history of illicit whiskey production. They even searched for hidden stone furnaces that were used in the making of moonshine. French describes the most amazing part of the project as “meeting one moonshiner in particular, that trusted us enough to allow us to document and film his hidden still.” 

This came with a significant amount of work for all involved. The students collected as much ethnographic information as possible, and meticulously documented their findings through video, drone and GoPRO footage, as well as digital photographs and written records. These experiences were not without academic and professional benefits for the students involved. Their involvement even benefitted the older individuals involved in the project by bringing what French described as a “fresh perspective.”

In Hunter’s case, she developed her research and presentation skills, which she will use to present her own research poster here at Penn State and at the Society for American Archaeology’s annual conference. She also learned cultural skills from working with people of varied backgrounds.

In fact, “taking the time to learn where people come from” was the most important lesson Hunter learned on the trip. She and the other students got to hear different viewpoints on society and authority in their interviews, and also to understand why people produced moonshine, despite its illicit nature.

Carly Hunter and the rest of the project’s team set a positive example for all undergraduate students on the importance of research. Hunter says she would definitely recommend this type of experience to other Liberal Arts students. When asked how students can become involved in similar projects, both French and Hunter emphasized simple interactions with professors. In Hunter’s experience, she noticed that “professors here enjoy seeing passionate students interested in the same things they are, and they want you to gain as much experience during your time here as possible.”

French certainly fits this description, giving students this advice: “Sitting in the classroom is important. Working in a lab or in the field is important. But doing both -- will change your life.”

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Last Updated October 10, 2017