Field Work Ends - Lab Work Begins

We're all finished with the fieldwork for our Phase I. All in all almost 70 shovel tests were excavated, covering pretty much the entirety of the yard (except for areas with buried utilities).

Here's a basic sketch map of the shovel testing. All of those black triangles are shovel tests where artifacts were recovered. It's a little overwhelming.

Here's a basic sketch map of the shovel testing. All of those black triangles are shovel tests where artifacts were recovered. It's a little overwhelming.

Typically in a Phase I most shovel tests won't contain artifacts, so it's easy to hone in on areas that require further study just by following the positive tests. In our case nearly every singe test contained something! So what do we do from here?

Although archaeological material was scattered across the entire yard there are areas with much larger concentrations. These are probably associated with historic trash dumps. There is also a spot with an unusual concentration of rocks that may point to a foundation. Before we find out, though, we have to complete the Phase I. This means processing the artifacts.

All of the artifacts recovered are currently sitting in individual paper bags. There are a lot of bags - 60 to be exact.

That's a whole mess of artifacts. Some bags contain a single artifact, while others contain dozens.

That's a whole mess of artifacts. Some bags contain a single artifact, while others contain dozens.

Each bag corresponds with a particular provenience or location in the survey. This pertains not only to the shovel test, but also to the soil layer that the artifacts came from. Like I mentioned in an earlier post it is essential to record where the artifacts came from so that we can learn from their spatial relationships to other artifacts and to the site. All of this provenience data is recorded on the bags, as are the contents, date excavated, and the excavators. To simplify things going forward I have assigned each provenience its own sample number, so I only have to write that number down but will still know where things came from.

The next step in processing everything is to wash the artifacts. Not only will this make my analysis easier, but it helps to preserve the artifacts as well. It also allows us to get better pictures of the things we've found, so keep an eye on the blog over the next week or so! 

Wrapping up field work

We've now completed three days of field work and we will hopefully finish up later today. This is much longer than I had initially anticipated, but there's a good reason for that - I didn't think we'd find quite as much as we have so far! Nearly every shovel test has been positive, so we are now working on a 5 meter grid as opposed to a 10 meter grid. It's going to be double the shovel tests but it gives us fantastic coverage of the entire yard. Most of the artifacts that are coming out of the ground aren't necessarily the most exciting materials - things like glass fragments, small ceramic sherds, and nails - but they're what you'd expect to find on a domestic site. When you have a house like this that's been occupied for over 200 years there's bound to be a lot of trash in the yard! Even though these artifacts may not look exciting they do help to tell the story of the site, especially when it comes to how the land was used historically. They've also helped us pinpoint a few locations that are worth further exploration.

A Phase I survey is used to locate sites but it doesn't give a whole lot of information other than that. Once we're done with this survey we'd like to move on to a Phase II, in which we can open up some square excavation units on some of the locations that we're curious about and excavate them in much more detail. This will give us a bigger picture of what exactly was going on here. One of the locations we want to look at more is a buried stone feature that looks like it may have been part of a foundation. By opening up a larger unit we can follow the stones out in either direction to see if that hypothesis is true. Before we get to all of this exciting stuff, though, we have to finish our Phase I. That means finishing the fieldwork today then moving on to the hard part. All of the artifacts recovered need to be cleaned, identified, and cataloged. All of our tests need to be mapped and a report detailing our work has to be written. This is going to take some time, so don't worry. Just because we're done digging for now doesn't mean there won't be more exciting news to share here!

 

Brant and I were hard at work Tuesday morning

Brant and I were hard at work Tuesday morning

Exploring the eastern edge of the property on Wednesday

Exploring the eastern edge of the property on Wednesday

Some of the artifacts out of a shovel test near the house. This is pretty typical for the late 19th/early 20th century and includes some ceramic sherds and a whole lot of both window glass and bottle glass.

Some of the artifacts out of a shovel test near the house. This is pretty typical for the late 19th/early 20th century and includes some ceramic sherds and a whole lot of both window glass and bottle glass.

Field work begins

Today was the first day of field work for the Caleb Rector House survey. We managed to get a good start in before the stormy weather chased us inside, but there's still a lot to get done. Before we get to today's findings, though, let's take a quick look back at last week's preparations.

One of the final things we had to do in preparation was to gather together all of the tools that we needed to get started. Of course we need shovels, but we also need a screen for sifting through the soil. Unlike most of our other tools we can't just go to Home Depot and buy one ready made. Thankfully I've put together a fair number of screens over the years - plus they're pretty simple. They're basically a wooden frame with 1/4 inch hardware cloth stretched over it. The 1/4 inch cloth is the size required by Virginia DHR archaeology guidelines and is pretty standard across the field. 

Attaching the hardware cloth to the screen

Attaching the hardware cloth to the screen

Shovels and screens are obvious tools, but there are a lot of other things that we needed before we could begin. A good measuring tape for recording soil depths. A compass for taking bearings and setting up our survey grid. Lots of forms for recording our shovel test data. One indispensable tool for any archaeologist is this little blue book -

Munsell Soil Color Charts

Munsell Soil Color Charts

A huge part of any archaeological work is recording what the soils look like as we excavate. This not only helps us determine the layering - or stratigraphy - of the soil, but it also enables us to look for man-made disturbances that give clues to how the site was used. Inside this little blue book are pages of color chips that we can compare to the soils we see. Each color has a number code so that anyone reading our report in the future can tell exactly what the soil looked like. We also describe the texture of the soil - is it silty, clayey, or sandy, etc.

A peek inside the Munsell. Most of the soils in this area fall into this range.

A peek inside the Munsell. Most of the soils in this area fall into this range.

Now that all of that is out of the way let's look at what we actually did today. The first thing was to establish a baseline for our grid. The easiest way to do this is to find a landmark that is nice and straight and work off of that. In this case there is a wooden fence marking the southern boundary of the property, so we took a bearing off of that fence line and started transects that run parallel to it. 

Looking out towards the corner where our survey starts. The fence line can be seen on the right.

Looking out towards the corner where our survey starts. The fence line can be seen on the right.

Our grid established (at 10 meter intervals) we finally began the process of digging. We began at the part of the yard furthest from the house, figuring that there would be fewer artifacts out there. What we started finding was interesting. Almost every single shovel test we excavated was positive, but the artifact concentrations were pretty small. Each test had a piece or two of glass, ceramics, or nail fragments. This is pretty typical for a 19th century house site, but I wasn't necessarily expecting to find stuff so far from the house. One other thing of note was that the soil in the vicinity of the modern raised bed garden showed signs of serious disturbance, and was full of small coal fragments, bits of plastic, and small stones. I believe that this is related to an earlier garden where the soil was tilled up at some point. Some of the more unusual artifacts to come out of this area of disturbance were two fragments of a vinyl record!

Intern Brant hard at work screening some soil. 

Intern Brant hard at work screening some soil. 

I'll continue to update as the week goes on and we begin to recover more artifacts. Hopefully things pick up as we get closer to the house itself. If we find anything really exciting you'll find out about it here first!

Welcome to the blog!

Welcome the the MHAA's new blog! We'll be using this space to keep the public updated on our upcoming archaeological projects. Beginning next week we will be undertaking an archaeological survey here at the Caleb Rector house in Atoka in the hopes of finding out more about the property and the people who lived here. 

Before we get started I'll share a little about my background. I'm the newest staff member here at the MHAA, where I work as the public programs coordinator. Before joining MHAA I spent over a decade working in archaeology and historic preservation. I got my start back in 2003 when I took the archaeological field school at Historic St. Mary's City in Maryland. I instantly fell in love - to me archaeology was the perfect blend of academic and physical work. I continued to work for Historic St. Mary's City, uncovering Maryland's 17th century capital, and served as a teaching assistant for their 2005 field school. I also spent a year working at Maryland's Archaeological Conservation Lab at Jefferson Patterson Park working on a comparative study of sites throughout the Colonial Chesapeake.

After leaving southern Maryland I spent many years working in the private archaeology sector, or what is known as Cultural Resource Management. These types of firms get hired as consultants when certain construction projects might impact historic resources. Typically they're only involved when state or federal funding is involved - things like highways, pipelines, or military bases - but some local governments have recognized the importance of protecting their history as well. Our job was to go in, perform archaeological and architectural surveys, and help come up with ways to best protect those resources while still allowing for necessary construction. This line of work took me all over the country and to all sorts of different projects. Sites I've worked on range from a World War II POW camp all the way back to an Archaic period Native American site and a whole lot in between.

Me in my natural habitat

Me in my natural habitat

Now that we have that intro out of the way let's look at the type of work that we'll be doing this summer. The project will begin with what is referred to as a Phase I level survey. This means we will establish a grid across the entire property and at set intervals we will excavate shovel test pits. These small holes measure approximately 15 inches across and can vary in depth depending on what the soils look like (more on that later). All of the soil from the shovel tests will be screened through wire mesh so that any artifacts can be collected. If we find artifacts that means the shovel test is “positive” and we will dig four more around it at a smaller interval. Known as delineation this process allows us to fill in the blank spots on the grid, giving a full picture of how the artifacts are distributed across the site.

The entire Phase I process has to be meticulously recorded. Archaeology by its very nature is destructive – once the soil has been excavated there’s no way to put things back the way they were and valuable information can be lost. For archaeologists, the location of the artifacts is just as important as the objects themselves, so information about where the objects are found can be used to date them and to understand how the site was used historically. Unfortunately, that important contextual information can be disturbed by both natural and human activity. Erosion, animal burrows, construction, and relic hunting are just a few of the ways that artifacts can be moved or lost from their original context, which means less information about how people lived in the past. This Phase I survey will help determine which parts of our property contain intact archaeological deposits and which places have been disturbed in the past.

We want to keep the public involved with this project as it moves forward. We’ll be documenting our work and our finds here on the blog. If you happen to be driving by the Rector House and see us out in the yard please feel free to stop by and say hello!

- Travis