At the Top of the Antebellum Layer: Olivia McCarty’s Week 1

by Olivia McCarty, VCU student

Now that I am done with my first week of field school I can safely say that I am looking forward to many more weeks of the same, though I would appreciate it if these afternoon storms would stop cutting our days short. The excitement I had on day one has not diminished as each day I get to unearth and discover different artifacts then the day before. This week has taught me a number of important techniques from how to systematically dig and excavate a unit carefully, to the smaller trade secrets of always leaving your metal dustpan in the shade so you don’t scorch your hand the next time you try and pick it up. Field school has already done a great job of giving me a better understanding of what archaeology real is, and what it means to be an archaeologist.

A view of the stone corner markers that show where George Washington's childhood house stood. The house foundation was rediscovered during the 2007 excavation at Ferry Farm

A view of the stone corner markers that show where George Washington’s childhood house stood. The house foundation was rediscovered during the 2007 excavation at Ferry Farm

We started our first day of field school with a tour of the Ferry Farm grounds given to us by our field school TA Ashley McCuistion. It is important to be knowledgeable about the history of a site before you dig so you know what to look for when digging. For example this area was not only George Washington’s Childhood home but was also a place of American Indian habitation more then 10,000 years ago and more recently was a Union camp during the Civil War, so we can expect to find many different artifacts from different periods when excavating this site.  After our tour we quickly got down to business and gathered the tools we needed for excavation; a trowel, dustpan, shovel, wheelbarrow, and bucket, and started to assign units.

My partner’s Vivian Hite, Francesca Chesler, and I got a unit with the grid coordinates of N595 E565. We then began to survey our plot by measuring out the elevations of our unit, doing a Munsell soil test to determine the color the soil was, and then feeling our soil to determine what it was made up of. I asked Ferry Farm intern Allen Huber a lot of questions during the first day, as I continually wanted to make sure I was doing everything right.  After taking the measurements, we grabbed our shovels and started to remove the topsoil. I was pretty excited to have a tool in my hand by this point and dug a little too deep at first, but was assured it was okay. With the wheelbarrow filled high we journeyed onto the screens where we dumped our dirt. Here is where I discovered that to be a good archaeologist you have to bag any artifact that you find and that includes the 21st century plastic we found in our topsoil layer too. Soon after it was the end of the day and we worked on putting our tools away and cleaning up our site and covering it well, already excited about coming back to work on our unit the next day.

Cleaning a tooth in the lab with a toothbrush

Cleaning a tooth in the lab with a toothbrush

However when we showed up on day two we were told that our group was headed to the lab. At first I was concerned that this was because of my exuberant shovel digging from the day before and that I would never be allowed to work in the field again, but later on in the day it was learned that each group has to work in the lab for a day because for every hour spent in the field two to three hours has to be spent in the lab recording, labeling and washing all the artifacts. So lab work is a very important process for archaeology because it helps to preserve our finds and allow more research to be done. My group worked on washing and labeling the artifacts. It was really fun to see and handle all the different artifacts found at the site. Washing was probably the harder of the two tasks because the different categories of artifacts require different washing techniques. Being in the lab really helped me to understand more of the preservation process.

On day three it was out in the field again and my group and I tried to catch up with the other groups as we finished with our topsoil and worked on our 20th century layer. It was nice being out in the sunny field again and as we screened more of our dirt I felt like I was looking at the artifacts with a more discerning eye after seeing what was in the lab the day before. We had troubles early on keeping our unit smooth but we eventually worked out a system by asking other groups what they did. Our time in the field was cut short because of a fierce storm that was rolling in, and clean up was a whole lot faster passed as everyone was trying to cover the units before the rain came.

We took a field trip on day four to Wakefield, which is George Washington’s birthplace. Our group was lucky enough to get a tour of the area by Amy Muraca, who showed us the Washington landscape, ancestral cemetery, the colonial revival house there, and even took us around their lab department that holds many interesting artifacts from the colonial times. It was a relaxing and informative day that also held a lunch at the beach where I surprisingly enough found some type of animal’s tibia and where many of my other classmates spotted shark’s teeth along the coast.

Me proudly holding my annular sherd.

Me proudly holding my annular sherd.

By day five we were back in the field once again and my group was more determined then ever to reach the antebellum layer and get out of the twentieth century, especially after we heard that one of the other groups had just found a wig curler that day. We could tell we were getting closer and closer to the antebellum layer as Vivian found a Rockingham shard and I found a sherd of annular ware, both pottery types date from the late 18th century to early 19th century.  We finally reached our goal in the afternoon and were at the top of the antebellum layer with no time to spare as we took the official picture of our site just a couple of minutes before thunder could be heard.

Overall this week of field school has allowed me to actually put to practice the different techniques I learned throughout class and I am very much excited to start the antebellum layer this coming week!

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