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!

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