by Aaron Ellrich, VCU student
From baby George at Wakefield to adolescent George at Ferry Farm, the beginning of week three brought us to George Washington’s final resting place, Mt. Vernon. Before paying our respects to the nation’s first president, Dr. Esther White took us around Mt. Vernon’s archaeology lab and repository. Bringing out some of Mt. Vernon’s exceptional archeological material—from prehistoric times and into the 20th century—Dr. White explained past and present archaeological work done on Mt. Vernon’s property. The day was rich, with our tour of the house, museum, gift shops, and (most importantly) our discussion about the type of archeology being conduced on site with archaeologists Eleanor Breen and Karen Price. For me, this archaeological discussion was critical. For instance, we found out that much of the archaeological work at Mt. Vernon is not necessarily research driven but compliance archaeology, and—contrary to the 5’x5’ unit we excavate at Ferry Farm—Mt. Vernon archaeologists were excavating 10’x10’ units!
Tuesday, Bridget and I were in the lab learning how to properly wash and label artifacts recovered from excavation. Unlike the physical work received in the field, lab work came with pruned fingers (from washing artifacts), a nice squishy seat, and (along with cool AC) a day’s break from the penetrating sun. However, this does not mean the two of us were kicked back sipping mojitos while the rest of the field school students baked in the sun. For me, I discovered that labeling artifacts requires patience and precision. Visually taxing, I also learned that labeling artifacts—by gluing on the tiniest sliver of paper (which has the artifact number)—is not necessarily my forte. In the lab, the trowel and shovel is abandoned, only to be replaced by toothbrush and tweezers. Nevertheless this work is part of archaeology as a whole, which makes it equally important as fieldwork.
Wednesday was a significant day for field school students. From 8:30 to noon we were given a ceramics and glass lecture by Mara Kaktins. The lecture was intense, sort of like a “crash course” in understanding ceramic and glass production, technique, style, seriation, horizon vs. traditional, handmade vs. machine-made…my mind was blown like a glass bottle and left with a pontil scar! With an entire folder of notes covered in the lecture, as well as two PowerPoint’s, we were sent back into the field at 12:00 to continue excavation. For Bridget and I, the latter half of the day was a success: we finally hit subsoil and completed our first unit!
Thursday came with rain! Unable to excavate until the rains ceased, we were shown how to properly fill out “summary reports”. For all of us, this was a time to learn the paperwork side of the trade, which is arguably the most important component (and harked about across the discipline) of archaeology—the material record. Not long into our neck-breaking pencil-work, Field Director Laura Galke rounded up the troops and delivered an excellent lecture on small finds at Ferry Farm. Before heading back out into the field after the rains cleared up, Laura’s talk left us with a better understanding of the meaning behind personal items (or “small finds”) found at Ferry Farm, such as buttons, wig curlers, and tambour hooks. On Friday, morning rains cleared up and Bridget and I began our next unit! As of now, we’re past the topsoil layer and penetrating into the 20th century context. Are there more wig curlers lying in wait? We pulled up three from our last unit and I’m shooting for more!