Field School 2016 – Week 5
Sabrina Wandres — St. Mary’s College
“A Summer Half-Way Troweled With Half-Way To Go”
To begin our fifth week of Field School we had a somewhat fresh start. Sam, Alaina, Laura, and eventually Sarah began taking the topsoil layer off of one edge of a newly labeled 10-by-10 ft. unit. Once they were able to clean up that edge, they were able to record the elevations for the unit. Then, because there was a line of Belgian blocks running through the unit, the blocks were mapped, drawn out, and then removed and added to our pile of tarp weights. The shovels and trowels were now in hand. Just as in previous weeks and as will inevitably happen in following weeks, the digging began. Focusing somewhat on the walls in order to maintain their shape and upkeep, a 5-by-5 ft. unit was taken down from the plow zone to the following layer of subsoil. And this was where the fun truly began. While screening the plow zone layer, bucket by bucket, artifacts were beginning to be uncovered: a piece of a pipe heel with a maker’s mark – although exact initials cannot be made out until after they have been washed, a couple of pieces of lead shot, and some lovely ceramics.
On the other side of the land of tents were August and I, screening help from our chief archaeologist Travis Parno. We had started afresh as well, with a newly uncovered 5-by-5 ft. unit where we started with a rough screening of the topsoil. I began to shovel through the plow zone, chunking away the layer. It seemed as if this week needed to go out with a bang in some way for the Fourth of July, and indeed it did. A treasure trove of artifacts followed Sarah’s find of the first (half of a) glass bead. August followed by finding another fully intact bead and some lead shot as well, while I managed to find a piece of façon de Venise – although, to be completely honest, I handed to Travis only because it was glass and not because I knew exactly what it was.
There was even some American Indian ceramic sherds and a pipe stem or two. Oh, all the goodies one will find if one looks hard enough – which everyone does while screening which is how we manage to find the tiniest of flakes.
And yet, there was more to be done. Some other units needed to be troweled lower in order to reveal more of the subsoil below or leveled a bit more and the walls needed to be fixed up a little bit. Ruth and Sarah took up this task of endless troweling while Travis and August screened their soil. Low and behold another glass bead and more interesting artifacts! However, their task was not made easy due to the abundance of roots, and large ones at that, running through their units. Being careful not to rip them out which would disturb the stratigraphy, they took the root cutters and began snipping. All this will not have been in vain once we begin going deeper and deeper into the seventeenth-century earth!
We have heard many lectures, but not so many from Travis Parno and surely not enough on his work on the Fairbanks House in Massachusetts. This week was different – we got to hear it all. He had worked on excavating around a driveway during his first season there, although what they uncovered was a stone cellar which unfortunately would have to be left mostly for later since it was in a precarious spot on the property. But in the next season he spent there, he focused on another hit that had come up on the Ground Penetrating Radar survey that showed something may be lying below the surface, and there was: the stone foundation of a building. He had traced those who had lived at the Fairbanks House for eight generations in order to better understand the history of the house and tried to explain those people who kept adding onto the house and the kinds of things they added to its value as a piece of living history. After finding many interesting artifacts, he wishes he could go back for another season or two to continue searching for the lost history that hides below that ground (although he’s content to leave that task to another archaeologist now that he’s here at Historic St. Mary’s City!).
Last but not least, we decided to venture out to Montpelier in Virginia, the home of President James Madison, to see the archaeology they were performing. We were given a general overview of the property and how it was owned by the Madison’s as a plantation with slaves and how it transitioned from the DuPont family to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Similar to the ghost frames of Historic St. Mary’s City, there were timber-frame houses indicating the slave quarters that were on the property. After walking through the restored house and enjoying a scrumptious lunch at the café, we followed our tour guide Terry Brock around to see what they were working on digging up.
Their concept was simple: focusing on giving a voice to the voiceless slave community and their descendants that still lived in the Orange County, Virginia area. They accomplished this goal by digging up and recreating the duplexes and other buildings that were used by slaves in order to present their history and those lives to the world. One main way they went about doing this was not just excavating sites they knew were associated with slaves and others in the vicinity, but by reaching out to the descendants of those slaves and asking for their input in terms of what history they want shown.
When Terry told us one of the main things they wanted to remain the same about the property, I was honestly in awe: the descendants wanted the walnut trees that were on the plantation to remain there because they felt the trees were witnesses to the lives of their ancestors. Although this is a difficult task for an archaeologist since roots terrorize sites with ease, the purpose of this archaeology is for the descendants and thus there was only one solution: to work around the roots and keep the trees alive no matter how intrusive they were to a site. This is an important step in the right direction for public archaeology and I cannot wait to see how the work on the house and the excavations progress.
With half of our field school over and half left to go, we are slowly but surely digging deeper into the seventeenth-century Calvert House backyard. And we will undoubtedly find more interesting and intriguing artifacts when we dig the soil the seventeenth-century family walked on.