Field School: Week 6

You know what’s a really great workout?  Bailing water out of holes.  Two days of rain this week meant two mornings of scooping water out of units that looked like swimming pools, dragging buckets around to dump them, & I have pains in muscles that I didn’t even know existed.  But we had a day off from digging, so I guess that’s something?  I think it’s easy to forget how incredibly hard this work is until it’s the end of the week & all you want to do is eat dinner & go to bed at 8:30.

I re-watched all of the Cinema Sins videos of the Jurassic Park movies – & realized how many times they refer to paleontology/paleontologists as archaeology/archaeologists.    Archaeology is the study of human cultures through material remains.  Archaeologists do NOT study dinosaurs!  We also don’t like it when you touch our stuff.  We have to keep track of exactly where each pile of dirt & each item in it comes from.  If you visit an archaeological dig by all means ask questions – but please don’t touch things without permission & DEFINITELY don’t move them!

This knowledge of where each item comes from is called its provenience.  This concept is related to the term provenance, which has to do with tracking the ownership history of art pieces – something that comes up a lot in cases of Nazi-looted art & the like.  Archaeological digs are built on grid systems, with each square assigned a unique identifier.  The entire area of St. Mary’s City is divided into numbered 10-foot squares, & each of those is in turn divided into 4 5-foot units which are dug individually.  As we dig each unit, we keep track of the stratigraphy within it – the layers of dirt as they were laid down over each other in the past.  The earliest layer is at the bottom, with new layers deposited on it so that the most recent layer is at the top.  Within the stratigraphic system there might also be features – things like post holes that are now just a different color of dirt because the post rotted away or was removed & the hole filled back in.  Each layer & feature in each 5-foot square is given a letter designation.  So for example, in one 10-foot square you’d have letters for the topsoil layer in each of the 5-foot units – A, B, C, & D.  Under the topsoil, you’d have a new set of letters for each unit’s plowzone layer – E, F, G, & H.  If a feature shows up, it gets its own letter.  So, if you’re digging the northeast corner of square 4506, the topsoil layer might be layer C, the plowzone under it layer G, a ditch dug through it & since filled in layer K.  The same layers or features in the other three units of that square get their own letters.  Then, each item you dig up goes into a particular bag – things from the topsoil go into a bag labeled 4506 C, plowzone into 4506 G, & anything found in the ditch into 4506 K.  Provenience is so important because the context of an item – where it was found & what it was found with – is vital to understanding what it is & what it means to the site overall.  Without context, OK you’ve got a cool thing, but it doesn’t tell you much.  With context, you might be able to say when that ditch was filled in or what a certain room was used for – you can connect it to the objects in the same layer or the ones above or below, & to the site at large.  Basically, context is everything & provenience is how we maintain our knowledge of that context.

Four weeks from now I’ll be back in Florida!  This summer seems like it’s taking forever, but I’m sure when I leave it will feel like it flew by.

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