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A man with the heart of a 'Shovel Bum'

Chris Hazel self-proclaimed 'Shovel Bum'
Chris Hazel
The photo Springfielder Chris Hazel forwarded to go with this story makes it clear he is a "Shovel Bum".

They’re called Shovel Bums -- the oddballs and vibrant souls who do under-the-radar archaeology at construction projects all over the world. The photo Springfielder Chris Hazel forwarded to go with this story makes it clear he is one of them.

A childhood love of Indiana Jones movies propelled him to study at the University of Chicago, then into a career in archaeology. And though he’s now settled in his hometown for good, he arrived with a pocket of round-the-world Indy-type adventures he shared with WYSO Clark County reporter Tom Stafford.

Tom Stafford: In 1991, Chris Hazel was scaring grouse out of the English bush for Crown Prince Phillip to shoot at. The kind of work a shovel bum might like. But then a better offer came from Scotland.

Chris Hazel: And I got my first job on the M-74, which is a Motorway between Carlisle and Glasgow. That was archaeology of a Bronze Age Site.

Stafford: The weather was miserable; the landscape littered with the bodies of rabbits killed by an infection; and he was sweating all day with a shovel in his hands. But Hazel also was knee-deep in the lives of human beings who lived 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Hazel: Yeah, it was great. Pretty physical. And I liked that part about it. I probably would be bored in any other job. There’s a lot of variety.

Stafford: Boredom wasn’t an issue in a U.S. Marine Cemetery on the Pacific Island of Tarawa. His job was to clean up and improve the burial ground for Americans killed in battle – work he found rewarding.

But he also found himself surrounded by the dangers of World War II.

Hazel: You know, I was working with unexploded phosphorous grenades, right there. And bunker bombs. They had just shoved whatever was on the surface to fill up these burial trenches.

Stafford: And the diseases that preyed on those soldiers hadn’t gone anywhere.

Hazel: Tuberculosis was rampant. Dysentery was rampant – malaria. Ah, bubonic plague. They had plague rats there that were in my room at night.

Stafford: Even when blood was coming out of his pores due to dengue fever …

Hazel: …I was still digging trenches in the blistering, equatorial sun. But it was fun, you know? Yeah, I might have had a bit of death wish then.

Stafford: Hazel’s first stateside project landed him in two controversies of American history.

First the grounds of a nuclear power plant in Grit, Virginia, held artifacts he preserved of the Saponi people, which Hazel helped to preserve. There is a politically charged controversy over whether Pocahontas’ tribe forced them to escape the area for New York. It’s a story not keeping with Pocahontas myths.

Second, the land was connected with the Virginia Lynches for whom the term lynching was named.

Hazel was not drawn to this career solely by Indiana Jones. Another key influence was a history teacher at Springfield North High School.

Hazel: The biggest know-it-all, snobby historian.

Stafford: The detailed and authoritative tone of his lectures turned Hazel into a skeptic, if not a contrarian. And he’s not unappreciative.

Hazel: That person pushed me. And I think about it frequently. The thing that I like about archaeology is what is in the ground is what is there. Coming up with information that sheds doubt on the status quo is what I love about archaeology.

Stafford: Unearthing a new story can inspire him as well. Which takes us to an African Methodist Episcopal cemetery found under a parking lot in Wilmington, Delaware. There, Hazel opened a coffin and felt the earth move.

Hazel: He was in his early twenties. He had a horrible tubercular infection that had eaten his left shoulder.

Stafford: And the young man wasn’t alone.

Hazel: He was buried with a 3-year-old who had also had some pretty serious infection, and then a 9-month-old on his left side -- in the same casket.

Stafford: Hazel noticed the shared casket was plainer than others nearby. It lacked the trinkets and keepsakes they contained as well. So why was it so closed to the church in such an honored spot? The details are unknown. But he says the fundamentals seem clear.

Hazel: I think there's a tragic story. And those three people were loved. And the community was rocked.

Stafford: All their loved ones witnessed the suffering … and death of the young man who had just grown up … and two children who never had that chance.

To Chris Hazel, the now owner of Springfield’s Hazex Co., it’s an archaeological find worthy of Indiana Jones. It’s also the kind of down-to-earth, human tale every bum who lifts a shovel hopes to preserve.