Field School: Week 7

I had a couple of interesting finds this week – a blue & white glass bead & part of a pig mandible with several teeth still in it, which was honestly pretty creepy.

We had lectures on maritime archaeology, the wreck of the HMS Braak, & the archaeology of Naval properties, all very interesting topics.  Because of all the federal laws in place to protect historical & cultural resources, all projects completed by or involving federal agencies must have surveys to assess their impacts on those resources.  Big organizations like the Navy might have some archaeologists on staff, but for individual projects or smaller agencies, that’s where Cultural Resource Management firms come in.  CRM is booming right now, & these consulting businesses hire people like me to come out to their project sites for however long they need, be it a week or a month or a season, & help with the surveys & test excavations required to see what might be impacted by the project.  There’s even a name for people who wander from project to project – shovelbums!

It was crazy hot & humid this week – one day it was 98° but the heat index was 110°.  It did cool off eventually though, & really it hasn’t been too bad for July in the mid-south.  I thought it might be 100° every day.  I have just 3 more weeks here before I head home to Florida!

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.

Field School: Week 5

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We opened several more units this week, including some that had been dug before & we’re going to do further work on, or that are adjacent to other squares and just make it easier to see the whole picture.  We have a resident bunny who hangs out with us for some portion of almost every day, he’s not real tame but he lays in the clover and watches us.

The highlight of the week was our field trip to George Washington’s family home at Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia.  We didn’t actually get to go into the house but we had a special lecture & tour of the grounds with the staff archaeologists.  It’s a complicated place – the excavation they’re doing this year is behind the kitchen building, with modern utilities on top of the historic kitchen midden on top of the postholes of a building they didn’t know was there, with a giant hole from a 1940s tree replanting dug through the middle for good measure.  We also got to see the Lives Bound Together exhibit in the museum, which is on until September 2018.  Lives Bound Together tells the stories of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population by directly contrasting the objects they used and the lives they led with those of the Washington family.  On the way back to St. Mary’s City I was lucky enough to spot South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s motorcade on the other side of the highway, so that was interesting.

We have a long weekend over Independence Day and then we’ll be back to it with a Wednesday to Sunday schedule for the rest of the summer.  With five weeks down and five to go, I’m now officially halfway through the class!

Field School: Weeks 3 & 4

In Week 3 we became noticeably better at picking out which objects were artifacts, although not necessarily at knowing what they were.  We opened a couple of new squares, with my group starting on a new unit one square away from our first one.  It too was full of gravel, but not so bad on the roots since it wasn’t next to a tree.  We learned the art of schnitting, a technique of removing soil little by little using a shovel to scrape away the top layers very quickly. We found a few small pieces of various types of artifacts mixed in with the pebbles, but we were really looking for a modern pipe trench that was mapped in adjacent squares and finally found it on Saturday.  We took a tour of the nearby Spray Plantation and Brome Howard Inn to look at the architecture and check out one of the original slave quarter buildings that used to sit near where we are digging right now.  It was a sobering experience to stand in that tiny building and try to imagine living there with 7 or 8 other people.

Week 4 was my turn for a lab rotation – basically scrubbing dirty chunks of brick and coal all day.  I did enjoy cleaning glass though, it’s pretty and it’s one of the only things we have that really gets clean!  It was interesting to get an idea of how the lab setting works and what materials require different handling, but I’d rather be out in the field.  This past week we also survived our midterm artifact identification test, I haven’t gotten my grade yet but I think I did fairly well.

In my wanderings around campus I discovered a bunch of forts in the woods, including one tiny fairy village made of pebbles and twigs, and a turtle in the science building.  It was so hot one day that I decided to walk through the building instead of around it so I could have a few minutes of air conditioning and spent a few minutes with Izzy the diamondback terrapin.  At first I thought she liked me, but then I realized that she just thought I was going to feed her.  I visit her a couple times a week anyway.

Field School: Week 2

In the second week of our field school, we had a couple more days of lectures and then continued working on our site.  It was an exciting week with several nice finds and a handful of visitors to talk to.  My group found lots of teeth & bone shards – we’re digging near a 19-century smokehouse so no surprise there – plus some nice bits of 17th- and 18-century ceramics & a couple pellets of lead shot.  On our last day of the week I found a pipe!  We find a lot of fragments, but so far this is the only one with bowl and stem together.  Because my find required a more delicate tool than a trowel, I go to be the first one to use the brushes, which is weirdly exciting.  Another member of my group found a couple of pipe stem pieces with a fleur-de-lis design stamped into it, and someone in another square found one with the maker’s whole name in it, instead of just his initials.  People smoked like chimneys 200 years ago.

 

On Saturday evening we had a real treat – sailing the Maryland Dove, a recreation 17th-century trading ship.  We were each put in charge of a couple of ropes and one of the crew members stayed near each group to translate the captain’s orders into actions and make sure we did them correctly.  It was really interesting because this is still a very rural, wooded area so seeing it through the rigging of a ship, with no engine sounds or vibration, gave a reasonably good sense of what the first English settlers would have experienced sailing up the river.  It reallllllyyyy gave me an appreciation for how much of a pain it must have been to actually travel that way, with a dozen people all having to work in synchrony to achieve every little change in course.  All we did was sail up and down the river for an hour and we all left exhausted!

 

Journey: Amtrak’s Silver Star

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Orlando, Florida to Alexandria, Virginia – 934 miles

Coach class on the Silver Service trains uses single-level Amfleet cars, so the view isn’t quite as good as on the double-decker Superliner cars on some of the long-distance routes but it was still a lot of fun and I spent pretty much the whole 18-hour trip just staring out the window.  The Silver Star and Silver Meteor use the same tracks for the most part except that the Star swings west to hit Columbia and Raleigh, while the meteor takes a more direct route through Charleston and Fayetteville.  Neither has any ocean view at all.

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The historic Orlando station.

I didn’t have anyone next to me until the station before my destination.  There was supposed to be someone but…I guess they lost them.  The car attendent kept wandering around going “where is my Philadelphia?”  Pretty sure they got off in Florida and never got back on.  Great for me, probably not so much for them.

I got on in Orlando in the evening, fell asleep as we were crossing into Georgia, and woke up two states later just inside North Carolina.  We passed through several major cities and all sorts of tiny adorable towns.  The only sad part was that it was dark out for such a big chunk of the trip, on my way back I’m going to try & book it so that I go through those places during the day, and the ones I already saw at night.

The Silver Star isn’t exactly the epitome of comfort but I arrived in Alexandria on time (!) the next afternoon having spent $117 and basically no effort in the process.

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