Days 18-21: Time to Get the Hell out of Dodge. . .or Rock Hill

There’s nothing quite like the rank smell of wet, moldy dirt to brighten your Monday morning! Thanks to the monsoon-like rains last Sunday, our units had been percolating under a foot of standing water–that’s the perfect damp, dark recipe for mold and mildew! Apart from the white fuzz coating the inside of the units, we’ve also been able to enjoy the ripe smell of some poor animal that must have crawled behind the fence and died over the weekend. FYI, the heat’s not helping much.

Aromas aside, we’re in the home stretch of this excavation season. While the group at the other side of the site was busy excavating a large borrow pit (where people had dug a hole in order to “borrow” the dirt for some purpose), our little group finished the last two units we were planning to excavate in the western block. Unfortunately, we don’t have much to show for our trouble, but some of the cool recent artifact finds include decorated potsherds (cord-marked, net-impressed, and complicated-stamped, to name a few techniques), pieces of brass rolled into beads, black-and-white striped beads, and a barroom brawl’s worth of modern shattered bottle glass. (Boy, was that fun to pick through!)

Now all that remains is two days of profile-photographing (taking photos of the soil stratigraphy in profile view), dirt-hauling, shovel-washing, and backfilling fun!

My nicely clean-troweled unit (last Thursday), just before photography. We have learned well the distinction between “clean dirt” and “dirty dirt”. XD

Good morning, units! This is how our excavations look every morning and again at quittin’ time, swathed in barbed wire and tucked in snug beneath a double layer of plastic, which keeps rainwater out and mice and mold in. I’m not sure what’s worse.

 In the video above, you can see a bit of what the excavation process looks like during the day: people digging, people sifting, and people collecting data. (Basically people doing hard work in hot weather.) You can also catch a glimpse of our makeshift circus tent shelter.

You know you’re in Rock Hill, SC when. . . (I took this photo on my way back from getting sushi for lunch and buying my groceries at the organic food store. The employees at both stores know me, so I’m thinking it’s time to flee Rock Hill.)

The next couple days are going to be pretty busy, so I may not be able to write the next post until this weekend, when I should be able to share some photos from my field journal. But until then, stay tuned and thanks for reading!

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Days 15, 16, and 17: “Hot as Blazes” and Other Similarly Optimistic Expressions

The temperature has skyrocketed these past few days, easily reaching 100+ degrees. Health guidelines suggest that people playing sports or working outdoors in such weather should drink about two quarts of water per hour. Multiply that times 9 hours of field school per day, and the suggested amount equals roughly the volume of a small kiddie pool. (Needless to say, I haven’t been drinking quite that much water.) However, we don’t tote 20 gallons of water to the field every day just for the heck of it, thank all that is good.

Despite the heat, things have been progressing swimmingly at the dig site. (Literally. Tuesday morning, we had to bail a swimming pool’s worth of water from the storms over Memorial Day weekend out of our plastic-covered units.) On Tuesday, I helped one of the professors finish collecting data and mapping points for the topographic map, which involved trekking through uncharted territory swathed in a healthy growth of poison ivy. We were essentially trail-blazing, using a pair of limb loppers to hack through branches in order to create sight-lines from the total station to the prism. It’s awfully difficult to get a proper reading when there’s a giant bush in the way, after all; there were times I could see neither prof nor prism due to all the flora.

During Tuesday’s lunch break, we took a group excursion to the other site (38YK3), known as Sprat’s Bottom. (Look but don’t touch, if you catch my drift. XD) From what we had heard of the site, it sounded like some sort of paradise–composed of sandy soils, with the site itself sandwiched in-between two strawberry fields and close to the Catawba River. The dirt’s always finer on the other side, am I right?

Lies. It was all lies. Turns out that Sprat’s Bottom is worse than our quiet little spot in the cow pasture–there’s no shade to speak of, the strawberries are shielded by commercial law and electric fences, and the river is most likely certainly polluted (although that didn’t stop a few students from diving in head-first). I’ll keep the cows, thank you very much.

Back in the pasture, I helped the prof and a grad student lay in three satellite units surrounding the main block of the site; we’re digging these in order to take a general survey of the area surrounding our excavations. The first unit we dug was south of the main block and contained very few artifacts (but a nice batch of red clay). The second unit, which we finished today, lay to the east and contained 99 potsherds (including a rim sherd with punctated and incised decoration [that’s a fancy way of saying that someone had drawn dots and lines on the rim of the pot]) and a piece of brass. Somehow, I’m seeing that third, western unit in my immediate future.

The southern unit, before photography. Clay. Everywhere. (Compare the color of this soil with the color of the dirt in the unit below.)

Early in the life of the eastern satellite unit. According to the grad student, this one wasn't a spirit-crusher, but it was a back-breaker. (Is one really more preferable to the other?) I will argue that the Unit from Hell qualified as both a spirit-crusher and a back-breaker, all in one!

Impromptu, make-your-own shade. Note the distinct lack of shade over my units. Note it well.

I hope everybody’s having a great week! I’m starting the countdown: six days of field school remaining.


Days 13 and 14: The Unit from Hell

A sun-baked, solitary unit. Dirt as dense and dry as Egyptian mud bricks. Soil chock full of two-inch-thick cedar roots. Clay that turns to rock in a sifter screen.  Twenty-five centimeters or more of homogenous topsoil. Devoid of artifacts. Requires an entire day to excavate and document one level. . .

Such is the legend of “The Unit from Hell”, a classic horror story that has been passed down from archaeologist to archaeologist, teacher to student, since the days of tomb raiders and mummy curses. The story survives and continues to thrive today as a parable imparting resilience in the face of adversity.

No, really.

Don't be fooled by its innocent, clean-troweled look. This one's a monster.

Yesterday, my partner and I were assigned to excavate a quiet little unit off by its lonesome along the fence line. One of the professors and a grad student seemed doubtful that the unit would be finished by the end of the day; my partner and I shrugged off their doubts, confident that we’d have it tagged and bagged by lunchtime. With ample time for sunbathing in-between.

Boy, were we wrong.

As I slaved over the unit with my shovel (I could jump up and down on the flat of the shovel like an idiot and only manage to scrape off a few measly specks of dirt) and my partner endeavored to force three-inch clay clods through the 1/4″ sifter, we quickly realized that this was no ordinary unit. In fact, the next time said professor and grad student wandered by to check on us, we desperately inquired as to what exactly we had done wrong in order to be assigned the so-called “Isolation/Punishment Unit”. (In reality, this unit was simply part of a general survey of the area, to ensure that we’re covering all our bases at Catawba Town.) After assessing the situation, they rightfully took the blame for tasking us with such a godforsaken unit and stopped by to lend a hand whenever they could. (In fact, I could even say they took pity on us; we got to erect a pop-up canopy over the unit to shield us from the sun.)

As if the condition of the soil wasn't already bad enough, it simply refused to end! Even when we finally leveled it off, we still hadn't quite struck the desired subsoil.

As for the silver lining (those actually exist?), the unit spawned endless jokes, especially after it was re-buried beneath twenty square centimeters of dirt, never to see the light of day again. We all danced a well-earned victory jig on top of the replaced soil. Plus, the experience of digging this unit made me extremely grateful for the regular units we excavated today. I kept volunteering for shovel duty, enjoying the feel of my shovel slicing through that dirt like (relative) butter.

I was also treated to the experience of using a total station to map points around the excavation sites in order to create a topographic map of the entire area, since official topo data isn’t currently available for York County. The process involved trekking through a field, following my professor, as I shot laser beams from the total station to the prism at various points. It’s strangely satisfying to see all the little points you record turn into a proper, lovely map on paper. (Either that, or I just like the thought of being able to shoot lasers. Probably the latter.)

At any rate, keep the former story in mind if you ever find yourself wandering a cow pasture at high noon–and pray that you never encounter the Unit from Hell.


Days 11 and 12: The Trail of Orange Tape

I’m having nightmares about dirt.

Seriously. Every night for the past week, I’ve had at least one trippy dream per night about shoveling never-ending piles of dirt, troweling the bottom of a never-ending unit, or sifting through a never-ending mountain of dirt. Sense a common theme here? I even had one dream in which some malicious soul was continually pouring dust pans full of dirt into the unit I was oh-so-meticulously-and-painstakingly attempting to clean-trowel. Pure evil, I tell you. (I wonder if there’s any such thing as post-dig psychological rehab. XD)

At any rate, the trend has certainly continued, and I’m learning something new every day. Some of my buddies and I were transferred to the other dig site on the “far side of the pasture”, in order that we might experience as many excavation environments/conditions as possible. (Oh, so that’s why they call it “field school” and not “slave labor camp”. Gotcha.)

It just so happens that this other site is situated directly atop a former midden, or trash heap, where the Catawbas of the 1750s would have dumped all their refuse: broken pottery, scrap pieces of brass, shattered bottle glass, etc. Archaeologists are dumpster divers by nature; we love finding people’s trash, since it can tell us so much about what types of items people used, in what way they used them, and for what purposes they used them. The adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” comes to mind.

What they’ve found so far at this site is that the soil can be vertically distinguished into a number of cultural (rather than arbitrary) levels, where people or some outside force had an effect on the way in which the soil and the artifacts it contains were deposed. Here, we’re currently excavating in three levels: a top level of dark soil in which a small number of artifacts are found, a subsoil level in the middle that contains the majority of the artifacts and is distinguished by reddish soil and calcined bone, and a lower level in which the frequency of artifact finds decreases.

Normally, we’d simply run all of the dirt through a 1/4″ sifter screen–however, although this process is relatively quick, we lose many smaller artifacts, like beads and fragments of bone, when they fall through the screen. The size of the screen mesh depends entirely upon what information you’re trying to gain from a level and which artifacts you’re interested in preserving. If you’re simply surveying an area and attempting to locate features, then a larger screen size will allow you to move quickly and determine the relative densities of pottery in an area. Contrarily, if you’re digging an area (like the midden) specifically in order to sample and analyze the artifacts it contains, then a smaller screen is the way to go.

The paper trail gets a bit confusing at this point, since the dirt must now be ushered through a multi-step process in order to ensure that the artifacts are preserved. In level 2, where cultural influence is concentrated, the dirt is first screened through a regular 1/4″ mesh to remove bark and rocks and extract sherds. This time, though, the dirt that falls through the screen isn’t immediately destined for the backfill pile; instead, it’s caught in a box lined in 1/8″ window screen. The same dirt is screened a second time, and smaller artifacts such as bone fragments and some beads are extracted. The dirt that accumulates in clumps and doesn’t fall through the 1/8″ screen is collected for water screening. A 10-liter sample of dirt from the level is also saved for a later process called flotation. The identity of each bucket of dirt is distinguished by an all-important piece of orange flagging tape with all of the dirt’s vital stats.

During the process called "flotation", soil samples are poured into drums filled with water--the light, barky bits (or light artifacts, like charcoal and seeds) float to the surface and can be skimmed off.

In addition to learning the ins and outs of the 1/8″-screen process, I was also inducted into the incredibly muddy but ultimately rewarding process of water screening. Recovered soil from each unit is poured into a strainer and washed in buckets of water to remove as much mud and dirt as possible. Eventually the water gets so muddy and full of sludge that it’s like dunking your hands in clay-colored paint–my hands were stained at least three different shades of dried reddish brown by the end of the day. However, there’s a method to the madness: After separating the wheat from the chaff, what’s left are the incredible artifacts we couldn’t even see in the dirt we screened half an hour previous. Finds today included hundreds of glass beads (black, white, striped, green, blue, and imported red) and an oxidized piece of wire!

There's archaeological gold hidden somewhere in all that mud.

As if that wasn’t cool enough, we’ve also had all kinds of creatures, great and small, come to visit our excavation site. Aside from the regulars (the cows and earthworms), we’ve seen mice, toads, a black racer snake, cicadas, grubs, beetles, five types of ants, giant spiders (one crawled up my arm today *shudders*), skinks, and the farmer’s yapping dogs. It’s quite the menagerie.

Here’s to hoping I don’t see more dirt in my dreams tonight. There’s plenty of that on-site, thank you very much.


Days 9 and 10: It’s All in the Wrist

Whether you’re cooking dinner, writing a paper, or driving a car, everything requires a specific technique. Over the past two days, I’ve expanded my technical repertoire to include proper methods of total-station orienting, trowel sharpening, and dirt flinging. Yes, dirt flinging–a useful skill for any average college student. (Or is it?)

We spent yesterday chasing another pattern of phantom postholes but had little to show for it by the end of the day. (Why can’t X just mark the spot, for once?) Today, though, the mystery became just a bit clearer, as we uncovered another posthole and discovered one more hiding in the baulk between two units (take my word for it; dirt can be downright sneaky), presenting us with a total of three postholes in a rough line. Combine this information with the previous posts and features we’ve excavated, and voila! We’re still absolutely nowhere. Despite the roughly 29 square meters our team of eight has excavated at this portion of the site, we’re still grasping at straws for potential clues–Have we found a house? If so, how did the house align with the contour of the slope, and which direction did it face? Are we standing inside or outside the building? And most pressing of all, why did these people build storage pits that were so darn shallow?

The world may never know. (Scratch that, it’ll just have to wait until next week. XD) Thankfully, we have some metal detector data (and our brains, of course) to help us unravel the puzzle. I think we’ll forge ahead in a new direction next week (quite literally), based on what we’ve learned from the units we’ve excavated so far.

Thursday. . .

. . .and Friday. See how the sifters are conveniently placed to backfill as we work? Also, the entire leftmost 2x6 m track was clean-troweled and photographed today. Twelve square meters is a lot of troweling, believe me.

Speaking of which, since we had managed to excavate the 2×6 m swathe in entirety, it was time for the units’ picture day! Detailed documentation and paperwork is completed individually for each unit as it is dug, but before photography (when we preserve the units for near-eternity in pixelated form), some preliminary steps are required. First, we use the total station, a piece of surveyor’s equipment, to check and re-set the nails marking a unit’s corners on the arbitrary, invisible grid we’ve imposed on the site. My partner and I received a crash course in total station technique, taking turns “sighting” a mini prism by peering through a square machine with an archaic interface, set on a tripod. The total station fires a laser beam that reflects off a prism attached to a meter stick, balanced on the head of a unit’s corner nail.

When you look through the lens of the total station, it feels almost like you’re preparing for a missile launch–you have to peer down the sight and through the lens, use knobs to adjust the focus and direction of the sight, align the cross-hairs with the center of the prism, and press a Big Red Button when you’re all set. Except, rather than launching a missile or a rocket, the total station tells you precisely how much spatial difference there is between a point on the grid and the position of the nail. Then, you yell across the site at the prism-holding person, “One point five centimeters west, two south!” and get them to adjust the nail. Sounds like fun, am I right?

The pre-photographic phase, again, requires a pass of clean-troweling, where everyone lines up across the width of the units and shaves off every offending speck of dirt that is humanly possible to eliminate. But, for the prettiest photos, you need the sharpest trowels. Thus, my partner and I received another crash course–this time in trowel sharpening, a process which involves rapidly scraping a metal file against a trowel’s edges. Man, we had those trowels as sharp as knives! (And certainly sharp enough to cut our fingers while bearing down on them during clean-troweling. Ouch.)

Once the unit has been completely bagged and tagged, it’s time for some good ol’ fashioned dirt flinging! In order to prevent an unfortunate cow from stumbling into our units and to avoid invoking the wrath of the land’s owner, once we’ve came, seen, and conquered, we fill in the holes with dirt from our sizable backfill pile. Yesterday, we had to fill in the L-shaped block of units where one had been excavated as deep as 60 cm below the surface. After lunch, we all picked up our shovels, lined up around the dirt pile, and flung clumps of dirt into waiting wheelbarrows. As I quickly learned, there’s a technique to this, too; when you fling dirt with a shovel, you can’t follow through on your swing like in tennis. You have to stop the motion of your wrist at the precise moment you want your dirt airborne. As one of the grad students so profoundly stated, the speed at which one swings his shovel is proportionate to the cohesiveness of his dirt clod. Yep.

After you’ve dumped dirt over the product of hours of sweat and tears, everybody hops onto the “mush pit” of sifted dirt and stomps around, just as if we were pressing grapes for wine (as in one of the famous scenes from “I Love Lucy”). At this point, you’re incredibly thankful for the artifacts you recovered and the data you acquired, since all your work has been quite literally returned to dust. XD

Have a great weekend, everybody! Thanks for reading.


Day 8: Journey to the Center of the Earth

When you were a kid, did you ever believe that if you were to just dig far enough, deep enough, you’d eventually tunnel straight through the Earth and pop out from under a manhole cover somewhere in China? I certainly did, and I think most archaeologists would agree.

So far, we’ve been attempting to establish patterns of pits or postholes by completing a wide, lateral survey of 1×1 m units. If something significant is lurking beneath ~20 cm of dirt, we’ll catch a glimpse of it this way. But once we began excavating in the vicinity of the earlier shovel test, which had recorded soil changes at a whopping 60 cm below ground surface, we needed to go vertical in order to (literally) ferret out the source of the change. We threw all caution to the wind, “leveling up” (or down, depending on your perspective XD) by forsaking level 1 and descending to level 2. In my unit, we dug a total of ~40 cm (about 16 inches) straight down, but the unit to our northeast eventually troweled down more than 60 cm (about 2 feet). By the time they had finished, there was enough room for both students working the unit to sit in the hole and still be below ground surface. We could nearly see China!

. . . Unfortunately, the trail we were pursuing seems to have grown cold. The soil colors are mottled and mixed, with no definite change in stratigraphy. Even in the prime suspect pit area, very few artifacts were being recovered. Better luck tomorrow? My partner and I have moved south again, back to a unit off the original plot, and we’re hot on the trail of some very promising-looking posthole remains and are hoping to uncover a house.

Today was a bit of a wacky day on-site, for some reason or another. Our little group of six students + one grad student + one prof whiled away part of the morning swapping funny stories and telling jokes across our sifters, and I managed to learn the likely one and only archaeology joke in the book. Our dear prof is also currently in the process of pranking said grad student. . . I’ll let you know if it pays off. 😀

Notably, Wednesday is movie and pizza night. What’s better than watching “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” with a roomful of archaeologists? Some of us (myself included) know nearly every line in that movie by heart, while some were newcomers to the classic Indy trilogy, which I found quite surprising. I thought it was a prerequisite for archaeology majors to be well-versed in the wily ways of Indiana Jones, especially since that’s the first question everyone poses when you proudly state that you’re an archaeology major. “Do you want to be like Indiana Jones?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that, to which I can honestly answer, “Yes, and I have that hat.” Regardless, my fellow classmates were properly initiated.

The only problem with the Indiana Jones movies is that, although Dr. Jones is indeed an archaeologist, no actual archaeology occurs during the course of the movie! Whips and guns and tanks replace measuring tapes and trowels and sifters. We did spot a shovel in the film, though, during the tank battle sequence. But seriously, could you create a blockbuster action-adventure film compiling hours of footage of tired, sweaty, dirty people digging square holes? I think not. (Except in the case of the movie “Holes”, which is, really, a completely different beast.)

An example of soil stratigraphy, viewed in cross-section. As we dig down vertically, we encounter various remains, features, and unique soils that have built up over time from bottom to top, like a layer cake.

Of course, if you happen to be Indiana Jones, then your stratigraphy looks like this: chock-full of crumbling earth and Holy Grails. XD

I, however, still stand firmly by what my New Testament Archaeology prof once told us regarding Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and the like: If it gets people interested in archaeology, then it’s good in my book.


Days 5, 6, and 7: In the Land of Square Holes. . .

“I am not dying for six college credits!!”

. . . My sentiments exactly. I went to visit my best friend last weekend, and we saw “Thor” in theaters. I won’t spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet–and I highly recommend it–but there’s a college student who utters this line in one of the opening scenes of the movie. I got a good laugh out of that, since I’m getting six credits for this hard labor they call “field school”. c:

On to business. . .the past days of field school have already taught me one thing about archaeology: just when you think the excavation process is going to settle into some kind of monotonous routine, a new technique or situation will immediately arise to shake things up. Take last Friday, when we had finished digging the first levels of our 4×3 m unit in its entirety. You’re looking at a great big grid of square holes in the ground, riddled with features and soil color changes and in situ artifacts. You’ve managed to uncover a unique perspective on the history of your site, a perspective which was never achieved previously and will be impossible to reproduce or imitate for later generations. Furthermore, you’re about to backfill and bury the fruits of your back-breaking labor beneath an enormous pile of sifted dirt. So what’s a poor archaeologist to do?

On Friday, we learned what is involved in the process of “finishing” the excavation of a plot and preparing the site for feature excavation, where people take trowels to your nicely polished postholes and (with any luck) uncover some nice, shiny artifacts. The site is preserved for posterity by use of photography: First, the entire area is clean-troweled. We all line up across the width of the unit and move backwards, clipping root hairs and scraping off as many miniscule loose pieces of dirt as possible into dustpans (think of it as raking yourself into a corner on shag carpet). Once you’ve “swept” an area, there’s no going back; the site must be conspicuously clean to ensure clarity in the photographs.

Second, the ground is misted with water to make the contrast between soil color and feature color really pop on camera. Then some brave soul climbs up a ladder (or a tree XD) and photographs each 1×1 m unit individually, with a sign board placed in the photo to record the site and unit numbers. Back in the lab, after the conclusion of the season’s excavations, these photographs will be pieced together to form a mosaic of the site for further analysis. With this record, anyone can see exactly what we’re seeing now.

Since the sun deviously causes shadows, we had to outsmart it and string a makeshift canopy between tree limbs to create uniform shade across each unit during the photographs (to my great amusement). Alternately, here you see a group of people trying (and failing) to hoist a circus tent. XD

On another note, here's a glimpse of our excavation units and various tools.

Archaeology is by nature a destructive science: as we disturb each layer of soil, we’re simultaneously destroying years of accumulated history–and sometimes it’s the only evidence for how people lived or the only surviving remains they left behind. Thus, as archaeologists, we have a responsibility to record our findings in detail and by using a variety of methods. No matter how much fun it is to note the change in soil color from dark reddish brown to reddish brown or sift mindlessly through mound upon mound of dirt, it’s how we turn unwritten history into living images.

Yesterday, we expanded our 4×3 into a 4×4, still chasing the pattern of postholes. My partner and I uncovered the entirety of another posthole, complete with charcoal, bone fragments, and potsherds. One of the graduate students excavated the various features across the unit, discovering more beads and bone fragments along the way.

Once the 4×4 was complete, four of us broke fresh ground further north, behind the stand of trees visible in the above photos. There’s a bit of confusing stratigraphy (soil layers) here; an earlier shovel test suggests that the Catawba artifacts are down deep, beneath at least 20 cm of plowed and eroded topsoil. My unit is packed with enough pesky roots that it could have housed the Tree of Life from the Lion King, the finds are fewer and farther in between than at the previous units, and an angry nest of ants and their larvae is inhabiting the unit next door, but we did manage to uncover a sizeable chunk of rum bottle glass (arrgh!) and a pretty sherd of Staffordshire painted slip pottery, which the Catawbas would have traded with the English to get. (Now all we need is a matching tea cup!) Pretty pottery makes the entire process worth it, apparently.

Rain has been in the forecast all day today–after a two-hour delay this morning, we reached the site around 10. We broke for lunch at 1 under a light drizzle, but by 1:30, we were scrambling to pack up our equipment and take to the hills in the ensuing downpour. Don’t you just love playing in the mud? I sure do. Heh. At any rate, 4 hours on-site is highly preferable to 9.5. Plus, we had cake for someone’s birthday. Not a bad day, all things considered.