We put up our gear & covered our units for the last time yesterday. This morning we had our final exam, and were officially done with our field school. I spent most of the rest of my day packing & cleaning, then went on a long meandering walk to say goodbye to the campus. I remember way back at the beginning of the summer, when 10 weeks seemed like forever, thinking that I would get to this point & it would feel like it had flown by, & it does. It’s amazing how much we learned in so little time. We went from baby archaeologists who asked if every little weird-looking rock was something we should save to being able to pick a bucket of soil clean of artifacts, with pretty solid accuracy, in less than 20 minutes. We learned the history of our site & how to tell visitors about it, went sailing on a tall ship, visited some of the most important colonial sites in the Chesapeake region, assisted with the eventual reconstruction of the Calvert House, & found some pretty cool stuff while we were at it. Tomorrow afternoon I board my train & leave it all behind. Hopefully I’ll make it back for a visit someday.
This week contained our Tidewater Archaeology Weekend, during which the public is invited to come screen for artifacts with us. For a couple of days before that we had been saving up dirt so that we had ten large bins to screen from; we went through all of that & had to go dig up some more! Saturday was rainy so we didn’t have many people coming but Sunday was gorgeous so lots of people came out & everyone had a good time & found lots of neat stuff. I worked with several kids who were really into it & might even be future archaeologists themselves! In one screen we found a nice piece of blue-glazed ceramic that might be pearlware & a fragment of a Native American clay pipe with a little bit of a design on it. Of course we found lots of bits of pig bones, so I asked the kids if they would think it was weird for someone to dig up something they’d eaten & they all said they did.
It’s hard to believe that I have less than a week left here. We only have three field days, then our final exam, then I’m on the train back to Florida on Sunday afternoon. This has been a great experience but I’m excited to head home. Then I’ll have a couple weeks to decompress before the fall semester starts. I still can’t decide if I want to keep my class schedule as it is now – five classes & then graduate at the end of the semester – or split them over two semesters & graduate in the spring. Five classes & a part-time job sounds really difficult (how do people work full time while in school???), I don’t want to stress myself out too much or bring my GPA down. Plus, I’m not entirely sure that I’m ready to leave USF!
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.
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!
I survived my trip to Maryland! It was about 18 hours from Orlando to Alexandria, Virginia, where the head archaeologist picked me up for the drive down to St. Mary’s City. St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a small, rural school with pretty much nothing anywhere near it except the museum site where I’ll be working. I like it though, the campus is beautiful and very wooded, it reminds me of Michigan.
We had three days of lectures on field methods, history, and some of the artifacts we’ll encounter, then two days in the field. Yesterday my group learned to use the surveying equipment, plotted a new square & started taking off the topsoil, today we finished the topsoil & dug through a layer of pea gravel that nobody expected to be there. We haven’t found anything really big but in sifting all of that dirt we came across lots of little bits of brick & coal, some nails, & a few pieces of ceramic & clay pipe stems. Digging holes and picking through dirt really is the best thing ever.
So here I am for the next couple of months. Should be interesting!
I never really understood why we have the group-specific History Months. Like it’s all history right? Why the need to occasionally single out this group or that group?
A couple of weeks ago in one of my anthropology classes some guy from the department asked us to do a survey so they could figure out if we were learning the right things, and gave each of us a question. I don’t recall the exact wording of mine, but I was supposed to define the concepts of sex vs. gender and write about a recent change in gender roles. I picked a quick & easy topic: women entering the workforce during World War 2 & the long-standing changes that stemmed from that. Easy. I could write about that in my sleep.
In that moment, I realized that I have no idea what that experience looked like in any other racial community. Like I’ve never seen a non-white Rosie the Riveter (not one of the original ones anyway). Not once in my life have I come across a photo of a bunch of women building bombs and not every single one of them was white. I’m sure they’re out there but I’ve never seen them. It never even occurred to me to look for them, which says a lot about how I’ve been educated. Chalk it up to media racism in the 1940s, ethnocentrism, whatever, it doesn’t matter, I’ve taken a zillion history classes and nobody’s ever brought it up. We don’t talk about black people between slavery & civil rights. Not much is ever said about Hispanics outside of colonialism and whatever happened in Texas. Asians get passing mentions with the railroads & internment camps, maybe somebody mentions a Chinese laundry, but that’s about it.
I still don’t care much for the special History Months, but I think that’s because it’s not really an inclusive concept, plus they recycle the same history over and over. Make all of history class inclusive. Bring in more perspectives on a wider slice of of life. Please!
I wanted to share something interesting I found out today in an essay called You Are What You Speak by linguist Guy Deutscher that I read for my anthropology class. He has some very interesting things to say about language and how it shapes the way we think about gender, time, and our feelings about inanimate objects, but the thing that caught my attention was in the concept of spatial relationships. It never really occurred to me that there could be a different orientation system than the one we use, but it turns out that there is. When we think of small-scale directions, we orient ourselves in terms of right, left, forward, & backward. This is called egocentric – our directional axis is based around our bodies and rotates with us; we are literally the center of everything. Some cultures use a geographic orientation system – their languages refer to EVERYTHING in terms of cardinal directions, and actually contain no concept of left or right. ‘Walk three blocks east, turn north, then it will be the first house to the west,’ isn’t really that crazy. It gets crazy when someone says ‘I left my keys on the north end of the dresser on the west side of the room,’ or ‘Scooch a little to the south,’ or ‘There’s a bee to the east of your head.’ THAT’S WHAT THEY DO. Not only do they talk this way, they REMEMBER things this way. Deutscher writes about a native speaker of such a language telling a story about his boat being capsized in the midst of some sharks and swimming back to shore:
“Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on.”
People whose native languages are geographic-based have INSANE senses of direction. Put them inside, outside, in a cave, spin them around, they can still tell which way is which. They just KNOW, because their languages force them to know, at all times. Just the way that we know left from right (most of us, I still struggle with this one….).