A Wonderful First Week: Francesca Chesler’s Week 1

by Francesca Chesler, VCU student

On our first day of field school, Ashley gave us a brief tour of the grounds surrounding Ferry Farm. I learned that the main structure of the building used to be a boys home, with the hopes that the maladjusted boys would be inspired by George Washington to achieve great things and modify their behavior. We were also given a tour of the archaeological site; Olivia, Vivian and I were given a unit, with the context number 00159 and the coordinates N595 E565 to excavate.

General view of the site.

General view of the site.

This was my first time ever excavating a site, so the process made me feel very nervous. I learned how to record the elevation of units, with the middle being 0 for the topsoil layer. We also used the Munsell Soil color chart to determine the color of the topsoil, which was dark brown. The three of us then used shovels to remove the topsoil, a difficult and arduous process. My favorite part of the day was screening; we found lots of onions, plastic debris and quartz rocks. At the end of the day, we helped the interns cover the site with black tarp and concrete, and put all the materials in the surveyors shed.

My day in the lab, I spent a lot of time cutting out tiny labels and putting them on artifacts!

My day in the lab, I spent a lot of time cutting out tiny labels and putting them on artifacts!

On the second day, we were assigned to the lab. While I was a little disappointed that we couldn’t be in the field, my time in the lab was well spent. I spent the first half of the day labeling artifacts with an intern, we used a special glue and distilled water for the labels, and recorded the process in a log when we were done. After lunch, I learned how to clean artifacts. The most difficult artifacts to clean were bones and oyster shells, because it was difficult to get the dirt off without destroying the artifact.

After spending a day in the lab, I was very excited to be in the field again! Compared to the other units, ours was still topsoil! We worked hard to remove the final layer of topsoil and start digging into the 20th century layer. The most difficult part of this process was making sure the unit we were excavating was even, as the south east corner was a lot deeper than the other parts initially. Vivian and Olivia came up with the idea to all trowel our soil in one direction, East to West to even the unit up. This process greatly improved the physical aesthetics of our unit, and we began to see lighter colored soil, dark yellow brown with bright orange spots. Through screening we discovered brick fragments, a sherd, a nail dating to the 20th century, polyester fabric and aluminum fragments. The day ended early due to extreme wind and rain, but I am really excited to get back into the field and excavate again. My goal is to reach the Antebellum layer by next week!

On Thursday, we went on a field trip to the birthplace of George Washington and experienced the “cynical” but humorous version of the tour. I learned that the kitchen and the house were reconstructions built in the 1930s, which were not historically accurate but looked aesthetically pleasing to the architects of the time. We also saw the memorial burial site of Augustine Washington and his family, which was separated from the re-constructed house and kitchen. We had lunch on the Potomac River, and Olivia found a tibia on the beach! We also saw lots of shark teeth, crabs and oyster shells. We ended the day in the collections building, with Professor Means showing us 3D printed artifacts and got to tour the storage room containing a large amount of George Washington busts, paintings, photographs from the early 20th century and historic maps as recent as the 1960s.

Friday was definitely my favorite day of field school so far. I enjoyed listening to every ones presentations, and I learned that one group even found a wig curler! While our presentation was brief, I think we did a great job explaining our goals and what we had excavated so far.  On this day, I found a lot of artifacts including brick and charcoal fragments. In addition to this, Olivia found a Rockingham ceramic sherd. Vivian, Olivia and I worked very hard to finish off our 20th century layer, and right before we finished the day early because of storms, we finally reached the antebellum layer! I cannot wait to begin excavating our unit on Monday. I hope that I will find some ceramic artifacts and faunal remains.

This is the Rockingham ceramic sherd Olivia found.

This is the Rockingham ceramic sherd Olivia found.

Overall, I had a wonderful first week at field school! I think that I need to improve my excavation techniques, but that can only be done through hard work and practice. I am excited for the next four weeks of field school, and all the things I am going to learn!

Right before the last day of Week 1 ended, we reached the antebellum layer!

Right before the last day of Week 1 ended, we reached the antebellum layer!

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With Plenty of Sun and Dirt: Aaron Ellrich’s Week 1

by Aaron Ellrich, VCU student

Day 1: Me standing in front of my unit ready to learn and get dirty!

Day 1: Me standing in front of my unit ready to learn and get dirty!

With plenty of sun and dirt, the first week of my 2013 field school at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is now history—though not something to be excavated, yet. Before leaving for field school I discussed what was to be expected with VCU professors Dr. Bernard K. Means and Dr. Matthew C. Pawlowicz. In short, both professors had similar things to say. The most common thread both professors told me was that field school will teach me the fundamental skills on how to properly conduct archaeology, that it requires a lot of hard work, and expect extensive hours under the sun. However, what really stuck with me on my drive up I95 was that both professors informed me how field school is a crucial moment for those interested in becoming a professional archaeologist, like myself, due to the factors mentioned above. Nevertheless, for me—like my supervisor Ashley McCuistion—I quickly fell in love with archaeology!

Day 3: Bridget and I working our unit through the Antebellum level. The sun was intense that day! In the middle of excavating our unit, a storm neared! Yet, with teamwork and good direction from our supervisors, we were able to cover up the site before rain swept in over Fredericksburg.

Day 3: Bridget and I working our unit through the Antebellum level. The sun was intense that day! In the middle of excavating our unit, a storm neared! Yet, with teamwork and good direction from our supervisors, we were able to cover up the site before rain swept in over Fredericksburg.

While the rest of the team (more like family now) systematically excavated their designated units, me and my unit partner, Bridget Polk, worked our way through the topsoil, past 20th century context, and are currently working in the Antebellum layer.  The goal is to reach the Colonial Period where George Washington lived during his adolescence, but—as we’ve learned in archaeology classes and are freshly reminded by our supervisors—we have to take our time because each layer, no matter the context, is equally important.

Day four provided a temporary break from the sun. Organized in advance, our field school took a trip to George Washington’s Birthplace. Though my mind was on the dig while Dr. Means drove us up Route 3, the moment we arrived at the Visitors Center I relinquished all thoughts on excavation as I stepped out of the car and looked out across the massive Potomac River.  Living in Richmond, Virginia as an undergraduate student with a tight budget and little time to travel, the still-waters of the Potomac were quite the opposite of the city’s hustle-and-bustle, loud noises, and rapids along the James. The view was meditative—if only for a second as we moved into the Visitors Center to meet with Amy Maraca of the National Parks Service (NPS).

Day 4: Amy Muraca of NPS discussing the area’s history and previous archaeological excavations in and around the landscape. Who knew five minutes into our talk a deer (a doe to be exact) would come running out of the forest right behind cameraman Dr. Bernard K. Means.

Day 4: Amy Muraca of NPS discussing the area’s history and previous archaeological excavations in and around the landscape. Who knew five minutes into our talk a deer (a doe to be exact) would come running out of the forest right behind cameraman Dr. Bernard K. Means.

The visit developed over the day as we moved from discussing differences between Colonial Revival and scientific investigations through systematic excavation. After a relaxing lunch along the beach, where Oliva found a bone (not human!), we moved into the NPS lab were Amy discussed current projects, showed us their primary collections facility, and—while the rest of us field school students looked on in smiles—Dr. Means and Ashley presented Amy with some 3D printed replicas from VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory.

Day 5: Me and Bridget showing off our partial wig curler for the camera. Though it’s not about finding “cool” stuff for the archaeologist, sometimes you just can’t hold back your excitement, grin wide, and give a thumb’s up!

Day 5: Me and Bridget showing off our partial wig curler for the camera. Though it’s not about finding “cool” stuff for the archaeologist, sometimes you just can’t hold back your excitement, grin wide, and give a thumb’s up!

Day five was back to excavating layers with our own layers of sunscreen! Me and Bridget were “shovel ready” as some say, and our progress throughout the day (and week) brought forth information and artifacts that will led to further understanding what went on before George, during George’s stay, through the famous Battle of Fredericksburg, and into the 20th century. Around 12:45, and with a partially full-belly (for me, it’s best not to overeat when conducting intense work), we all did our unit-by-unit weekly discussion. This is a time where we all get together and see what’s going on around the site, to understand the whole of the project, and to see where everyone’s at. For our unit, me and Bridget were the first field school students to find the popular wig curler! Aside from our discovery—which included much more—our plan for next week is completely excavate the Antebellum level and move into the Colonial Period. So…stay tuned-in until next week’s blog!

Week One: Out with a Bang (or, at Least, a Rumble)

by Bernard K. Means VCU/Virtual Curation Laboratory

Cannons boom during the December 2012 reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Cannons boom and soldiers line up to cross the Rappahannock River during the December 2012 reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The field week ended a little early on Friday, to the booming sound of thunder and dark, ominous clouds on the horizon–reminiscent not only of this past Wednesday, and the mad scramble to cover the site as strong winds blew and heavy rain fell, but, also, of when this site was contested land during the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought a little over 150 years ago today. The storm ended up skirting to the north of Fredericksburg on June 28, 2013, but, as the site was already covered, the field school students were sent home to reflect on their first week–and write short missives that will grace this blog site early next week.

Olivia with her ceramic find.

Olivia with her ceramic find.

When I arrived on site, I was greeted by Olivia McCarty, who had uncovered a fragment of a dipped ware vessel, also called by some annular ware. As noted on the Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland web site, these ceramics can date from the late 18th through the 19th centuries.

Excavating at Ferry Farm.

Excavating at Ferry Farm.

The students were all busy at work across the site, and all seemed to be weathering the hot and slightly humid temperatures well.

Bridget and Aaron with their wig hair curler fragment.

Bridget and Aaron with their wig hair curler fragment.

I next went over to the screening area, and helped Bridget Polk and Aaron Ellrich work through their excavated soil.  While I was there, they recovered a wig hair curler, the first found in 2013 by VCU field school students. I continued screening while they broke for lunch and found a fragment of an American Indian vessel. I showed this vessel fragments to all the students when they returned from lunch, as the brown coloring can make it difficult to see these ceramic vessel fragments if one has an inexperienced eye.

Bernard K. Means holds a fragment of American Indian ceramics, as well as a quartz flake.

Bernard K. Means holds a fragment of American Indian ceramics.

The surface of the ceramic was eroded but it was clearly tempered with crushed quartz.

Closeup of ceramic vessel fragment and flake,

Closeup of ceramic vessel fragment and a flake.

Following lunch, each team of excavators–including the interns and the VCU field school students–gave an overview of their work that week on their test unit(s).  This is something that happens every Friday, and is designed to ensure that everyone understands what is happening throughout the site, what is being found, and why particular units are being excavated.

Cate and Courtney B. excavating the rock-filled pit.

Cate and Courtney B. excavating the rock-filled pit.

The site tours began with Courtney Bowles and Cate Davis discussing a rock -filled pit that they have been excavating.  Vertically placed rocks and other clues indicated that this pit was filled rapidly. Next, we listed to Catie D. and Courtney W., followed by Ashley McCuistion and Allen Huber. Ashley and Allen are excavating their own unit, when they are not directly supervising the VCU field school students.

Ashley and Allen stand over their unit.

Ashley and Allen stand over their unit.

Bridget and Aaron discussed their excavations, including the finding of the wig hair curler fragment, a white salt-glazed sherd, and the American Indian ceramic vessel fragment.

Aaron and Bridget excavating their unit.

Aaron and Bridget excavating their unit.

Lauren Volkers and Mariana Zechini have been excavating a unit that contained a shovel test pit (STP) excavated during a 1990s archaeological survey of Ferry Farm.  They had just completed removing the soil from the backfilled STP, which provided them with a view of the internal stratigraphy of the rest of their unit.

Mariana takes notes while Lauren provides her with measurements.

Mariana takes notes while Lauren provides her with measurements.

Next, we all went over to the unit being excavated by Francesca Chesler, Vivian Hite, and Olivia McCarty. They were out of the late 19th and 20th century layers and just getting into the antebellum layers.

Francesca, Vivian, and Olivia discuss their findings with assistant field director Eric Larsen.

Francesca  and Olivia discuss their findings with assistant field director Eric Larsen.

The last unit being excavated by the VCU field school is that by Stephanie King and Ruth Martin.  They also are just getting into the antebellum layers.

Stephanie and Ruth discuss their unit with Ashley and field director Laura Galke.

Stephanie and Ruth discuss their unit with Ashley and field director Laura Galke.

Further details of the first week of VCU’s field school at Ferry Farm will be provided by the students themselves, so keep an eye on this blog!

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Where George Washington Slept First!

by Bernard K. Means, VCU/Virtual Curation Laboratory

Field school students anxiously waiting to travel to the birthplace of George Washington.

Field school students anxiously waiting to travel to the birthplace of George Washington.

On Thursday, June 27, the field school students and I met to travel to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, where George Washington was born and lived the first three years of his life.  There is an obvious connection to where the students are currently digging at Ferry Farm, where George spent most of his childhood. Assistant field director of Ferry Farm, Dr. Eric Larsen, and VCU field supervisor Ashley McCuistion joined in the excursion.

Amy Murca meets us in the visitors center.

Amy Muraca meets us in the visitors center.

After a drive through the scenic Northern Neck of Virginia countryside for just shy of an hour, our small caravan of three vehicles arrived at the Birthplace. We were met there by the National Park Service’s Amy Muraca.  Amy is the archaeologist for the Birthplace National Monument, as well as being in charge of the archaeological collections from this important site.

Amy Muraca orients the field school in the visitors center.

Amy Muraca orients the field school in the visitors center.

Amy was kind enough to give the field school a tour of the landscape associated with George Washington as a very young child, as well as other people that lived before–some well before–and after George Washington.  We began our orientation to the site in the visitors center, which has a small display of artifacts recovered from throughout this national park.

Amy Muraca discusses the complicated nature of commemoration and interpretation at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

Amy Muraca discusses the complicated nature of commemoration and interpretation at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

As Amy took us around the park, she showed us various elements of the landscape and discussed the complicated nature of interpreting the archaeological record.  Archaeological investigations of varying quality have taken place on this property throughout the 20th century, including work leading up to the bicentennial commemoration of George Washington’s birth that took place in 1932.

Commemorative flag in the collections of the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

Commemorative flag in the collections of the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

Some of the archaeological work in the first half  of the 20th century focused on uncovering foundations in a time while historical archaeology was in its infancy. There was even a fair amount of work conducted by the Civilian Conservation Corps from the mid-1930s until the beginning of World War II.  Amy and her team are working to digitize the earlier archaeological work to better understand the 18th century landscape, and how it was interpreted in the 20th century.

Map of 1930s excavations.

Map of 1930s excavations.

Ashley and I had both traveled to this national park in the past, as part of our work with the Virtual Curation Laboratory. We scanned two wine bottle seals–one with the initials “AW” for Augustine Washington, George’s father–as well as a smoking pipe from the 19th century.  We were able to present Amy with plastic replicas of these objects, printed from the digital models we generated at this site.

Ashley presents Amy with printed replicas of artifacts recovered at the park.

Ashley presents Amy with printed replicas of artifacts recovered at the park.

Ashley holding the actual (left) and replica (right) wine bottle seals with the "AW" initials.

Ashley holding the actual (left) and replica (right) wine bottle seals with the “AW” initials.

At lunchtime, we contemplated the landscape that young George and his family might have enjoyed.

Where's Nevil Shute?

Where’s Nevil Shute?

Of course, even at lunch some students could not resist practicing their archaeological skills.  Olivia found this small mammal’s bone while walking about.

Olivia with her discovery.

Olivia with her discovery.

We at VCU and the George Washington Foundation want to extend our thanks to Amy Muraca and the National Park Service for the tour of the landscape associated with a very young George Washington, and of the important collections recovered from this park.

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Sturm und Drang: An Exciting End to Day 3 of the Ferry Farm field school

by Bernard K. Means, VCU professor

Ashley and Allen excavating a unit.

Ashley and Allen excavating a unit.

I arrived on site in the early afternoon, having just returned from Somerset County, Pennsylvania, where I had given a lecture the night before on the Monongahela at the Somerset Historical Center–in an instance of foreshadowing, I should note that the lecture was interrupted by violent winds and heavy rain pelting the roof, as well as the occasional power outages. After checking in with site director Laura Galke and assistant field director Eric Larsen (and distributing sorbet bars to the crew on the hot and humid afternoon), I spoke with Ashley McCuistion and Allen Huber, who together are helping supervise the VCU field school students, and excavating their own unit as time allows. All the students are making great progress and I went to the three teams to look at their work.

Linda and Aaron excavating their unit.

Bridget and Aaron excavating their unit.

Lauren and Mariana excavated their unit.

Lauren and Mariana excavating their unit.

Stephanie and Ruth excavating their unit.

Stephanie and Ruth excavating their unit.

Francesca, Olivia, and Vivian excavating their unit.

Francesca, Olivia, and Vivian excavating their unit.

The day came to a quick and abrupt end.

Laura Galke watches as storm clouds roll into the area.

Laura Galke watches as storm clouds roll into the area.

Luckily, the field school students and interns worked with Laura and Eric to quickly cover the site and protect it from the heavy rains and strong winds–which I brought from southwestern Pennsylvania. Ashley, Allen, and I returned to the site after the heavy rains ended, and the site looked ready for the next day of excavations!

Sturm und Drang at Ferry Farm.

Sturm und Drang at Ferry Farm.

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Day 1 of the VCU Field School at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

by Dr. Bernard K. Means, VCU/Virtual Curation Laboratory

Today was the first day of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) field school at George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We started the day with a tour of the site and its surrounding landscape, under the direction of Ashley McCuistion.  Ashley is still an undergraduate at VCU, but she proved herself very adept at fieldwork at the 2012 field school, and her managerial and leadership abilities have been evident through her work at the Virtual Curation Laboratory. Thus, I am not surprised at how well she was able to introduce her fellow classmates to the wonders of fieldwork.  After the tour, the field school students were introduced to field director Laura Galke and assistant field director Dr. Eric Larsen. Ashley was joined after the tour by fellow VCU student Allen Huber, who also took the 2012 field school and has been an instrumental part of the Virtual Curation Laboratory.  Ashley and Allen began instructed the new VCU students in basic field procedures, and helped them lay out their first units.  The students then went to Laura and Eric to obtain context numbers, and the rest of the day was spent by them excavating their first layers of the first units.  The nine students were divided up to excavate four units, arranged in a checkerboard pattern.

All in all, an great start to what hopefully will be another spectacular field season.  The 2013 VCU field school students all showed a positive spirit and work diligently throughout the day.

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