Field School: Week 9

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!


Field School: Week 8

The whole week was brutally hot – I think the heat index was over 100° every day.  I actually ended up missing half a day because of the heat, which of course drove me nuts, I hate missing time on anything.  It was a good week overall though.  This was our field trip week, with visits to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestowne, two places that I’d never been before.

The lab at Williamsburg is amazing – they have a whole room dedicated to a study collection of faunal remains.  Basically it’s an exercise in comparison – all the bones are from known species of known age, so when you find a bit of bone out in the field you can use the collection to figure out what animal it’s from and how old that animal was.  We also got to peek through drawers of artifacts that most people don’t get to see, including lots of pottery but also metal bits, children’s toys, and most amazingly soles from centuries old leather shoes.  Organic bits such as leather or rope survive only under special conditions; they must be in anaerobic environments or continuously wet or dry.  Bogs and very dry deserts are great places to find organic artifacts; in Williamsburg they pull things like that out of the bottoms of wells.  We went out to where they’re digging this year and also to where they have a dig set up for young children to participate in.  The kids’ area is really cool because it’s a legitimate dig, they’re not just pulling out fake things that get tossed back in for the next group.  It’s located in a cellar that was dug in the 1940’s, with all the soil & artifacts tossed back in as a big jumble of stuff.  There’s not a lot of information for an archaeologist to glean from a big jumble of stuff, so they can allow children to dig it up without losing anything.  I guess every slot is full every single day, it’s a really popular activity.  Outside of the lab & archaeological sites, I found the town itself to be a little on the kitschy & crowded side for my taste.  It reminded me a lot of high season on Mackinac Island – really legit & awesome stuff alongside goofy gift shops & way too many bars with herds of sweating tourists wandering around.  If I was to go back there it would be in fall or winter when it’s slower, cooler, & easier to understand.  I did get to visit with 3 of my island friends who were around, so that was great!

Jamestowne is only a half-hour or so from Williamsburg and consists of two parts: the archaeological digs at Historic Jamestowne on the original site of the fort & Jamestowne Settlement, the museum & recreation a little away from the original site.  On the site itself they’ve set up a frame & a half-wall of two of the buildings & a simple palisade to show how things were laid out.  They’ve also got the cellar open where they found Jane – the 14-year-old English girl whose skull showed evidence that she had been murdered & cannibalized.  On our lab tour we got to pass around a 3D print of her skull; later at the Archaearium museum we got to see her actual skull, which was a pretty surreal experience.  Over at Jamestowne Settlement is an amazing museum where they seem to have spared no expense.  Beginning in 1600, the galleries walk you through time comparing the lives of English settlers, the Powhatan people they met in Virginia, and the Africans they brought over as slaves.  Full-blown recreations of rooms, houses, & a whole London street scene, all located inside the museum building, are just absolutely stunning.  Outside the museum is a recreation of James Fort, a Powhatan village, & three tall ships, but there was a certain kitsch to all of that too & I didn’t stay very long before I went back into the museum.  I guess I just wasn’t feeling the living history last week.

I can’t think of any really fantastic finds from our field site this week, but here’s an NPR podcast about St. Mary’s City, including interviews with my teacher, his assistant, and the director of research, if anyone’s curious.

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


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.