Mount Vernon, Rainy Mornings and Features Galore! Francesca Chesler’s Week 3

by Francesca Chesler, VCU student

The Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon. There were a lot of visitors on this day!

The Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon. There were a lot of visitors on this day!

Week 3 began with a class field trip to Mount Vernon, where George Washington lived after the death of his brother, Lawrence Washington in the 1750s. We began the field trip with a visit to the lab, where many important artifacts, including a teapot, numerous ceramics and and glass bottles were on display. We also visited a part of the lab where restoration to a window pane was taking place, something that piqued my interest as I have learned over the course of field school that I am very interested not only in field archaeology, but the preservation and conservation of artifacts as well. After visiting the lab, we had the opportunity to see how archaeology is conducted at Mount Vernon. I was surprised that excavation units were double the size of units at Ferry Farm; a 10’ x 10’ unit seems like a very daunting task! Nevertheless, the archaeologists at Mount Vernon were very knowledgeable and hardworking.

Archaeologist at Mount Vernon explaining how she excavates around the numerous utility pipes on the property.

Archaeologist at Mount Vernon explaining how she excavates around the numerous utility pipes on the property.

We concluded our visit with a tour of the mansion, which was extremely crowded with visitors. The vast amount of people inside the house made it difficult to hear the various tour guides. Luckily, I visited the site last year along with many elementary school field trips and still remembered a lot of what the tour guides had said in previous years. In addition to touring the mansion, we walked around his

large property which had gardens, the tombs of George and Martha Washington, various animals and their stalls and a large museum which depicted the life of George Washington, and even mentioned his boyhood home at Ferry Farm! This was my favorite field trip to date, and I am very interested in volunteering or even working at Mount Vernon in the future, as it is very close to my parents house in Fairfax county.

Tuesday started with further excavations to the colonial layer. We learned the hard way that the antebellum layer yielded more artifacts. As we began shoveling into the colonial layer, more problems

with our utility trench came to light. Because there were 2 to 3 people working in the unit at the same time, there was not a lot of space to spread out and the eastern wall of the trench began to crumble from the pressure. We spent the rest of the week fixing the trench, as it also needed to be deeper than originally planned.

On Wednesday, Mara Katkins gave us a lecture on different types of ceramics and glass in addition to a large packet of information with notes on her lecture. I learned that my knowledge on ceramics and glass, especially the different types of stoneware is virtually non­existent! I am very anxious for our quiz on ceramics, and will try my best to visit the lab at Ferry Farm again to learn more about the many different types of ceramics and glass.

The rest of the week was very humid and rainy, and we spent many mornings inside doing paperwork. While less exciting than being in the field, paperwork is an important process in the archaeological record and needs to be completed eventually. We completed unit summaries of the previous field school, FF 18, and I learned a lot in the process. The forms we fill out this year are nearly identical, but many people had difficulty identifying the soil type and I saw a lot of “silty clay sandy loam” on forms which seems redundant as loam is a synonym for clay; nevertheless we were instructed to fill out the unit summary forms using their paperwork and profile drawings.

Paperwork on a rainy morning.

Paperwork on a rainy morning.

On Friday, we returned to our unit and worked on reaching the subsoil layer and fixing the 20th century trench. As the soil began to turn into a reddish clay, and less artifacts were found, we realized that we were approaching the subsoil layer. However, there was a mysterious dark stain with flecks of charcoal which was different from the rest of the unit in both artifacts in color. This was later identified as Feature 47, and we were told that excavation would eventually stop as we were no longer finding artifacts and did not want to disturb this feature, which was determined not to be a shovel test pit. My goals for the fourth week include finishing this current unit and starting a new one, and I would still like to find a wig curler!

Feature 47, full of charcoal and shaped like a giraffe!

Feature 47, full of charcoal and shaped like a giraffe!

 

 

 

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Week 2: More Rain, Montpelier, and Public Archaeology on America’s Birthday

by Bernard K. Means, VCU/Virtual Curation Laboratory

The VCU field crew on the morning of July 4, 2013.

The VCU field crew on the morning of July 4, 2013.

Week 2 got off to an inauspicious start. Half an hour after excavations began, a storm moved in quickly and the site had to be covered in short work. Fieldwork was cancelled for the day. On Tuesday, we made our way over to Montpelier to meet with Director of Archaeology Dr. Matt Reeves, Field Director Mark Trickett, and Laboratory Director Kim Trickett for a tour of the restored mansion of James Madison, the field excavations, and their public laboratory. As I’ve written about that elsewhere, I won’t burden the reader with a review of that excellent field trip here.

Dr. Matt Reeves, far left, discusses the active excavations at James Madison's Montpelier.

Dr. Matt Reeves, far right, discusses the active excavations at James Madison’s Montpelier.

Wednesday, the field school students made great progress excavating through their twentieth century layer, and most were into the antebellum layer, when the day ended a couple of hours early–yet another summer storm came through the area, and the threat of lightning in particular led to an end for the day. Probably just as well, as the VCU field school students would need to rest up and prepare for a big day, the July 4 celebration at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Vivian Hite suitably prepared herself for Munselling soil on July 4.

Vivian Hite prepared herself for Munselling soil on July 4.

For the VCU field school students, July 4 was an  official university recognized holiday, so I asked if any of them were willing to volunteer as part of the open excavation that would take place that day.  I let them know that the day would be very intense, as hundreds if not thousands of visitors would come to see archaeologists at work, after the visitors were done with the other activities, including reenactors representing different periods and peoples in American History.

A dugout canoe from the Patawomeck

A dugout canoe from the Patawomeck

Blacksmiths hard at work.

Blacksmiths hard at work.

I was not surprised that all of the students enthusiastically volunteered to work on July 4. As several expressed, they could not think of a better place and day to excavate where the first president of the U.S. spent his childhood–learning the many lessons that would steer him through the rocky first years of our nation, following the fiercely fought battle for independence.

Visitors help Vivian and Francesca with screening

Visitors help Vivian and Francesca with screening.

Vivian talks to young members of the public.

Vivian talks to young members of the public.

Not only could members of the public help with screening, they could also walk up very close to where the VCU students were excavating.  The unit being excavated by Vivian, Francesca, and Olivia in particular received a great deal of attention from visitors. All three of them mastered very well the test of interacting with the public and presenting their findings, as did the entire VCU crew.  The casual visitor or seasoned archaeological professional would have no idea that this was only their second week of learning archaeological methods and procedures.

Aaron finds a wig hair curler.

Aaron finds a wig hair curler.

More screening with the public!

More screening with the public!

Some of the reenactors also came over to see the proceedings, and kindly posed with our students.

Ashley, Lauren, and Mariana pose with Civil War reenactors.

Ashley, Lauren, and Mariana pose with Civil War reenactors.

Although July 4 was an exhausting–and rewarding–day, the VCU field school students were ready and anxious to get in a full day of excavating on July 5, the end of their second week.

Ruth and Stephanie screening soil.

Ruth and Stephanie screening soil.

Lauren and Marianna describe their findings.

Lauren and Mariana describe their findings.

Because this was a Friday, the time after lunch was taken up with unit summary presentations.  Each team of VCU students, as well as the George Washington Foundation interns, gives a short overview of that week’s excavations, including significant findings, excavation progress, and what direction they will be heading when they reopen their unit for Week 3. This practice, of course, helps provide the students with a broader perspective and an understanding of where their unit fits into the overall archaeological investigations.

Bridget and Aaron discuss their unit's findings.  They've recovered three wig hair curlers here.

Bridget and Aaron discuss their unit’s findings. They’ve recovered three wig hair curlers here.

Allen with a thimble.

Allen with a thimble.

In addition to supervising the VCU field school students, Ashley and Allen have been excavating a unit–this thimble was one of their findings on the last day of the work week.

Ashley measures out a 20th century trench that crosses over the excavation area.

Ashley measures out a 20th century trench that crosses over the excavation area.

Week 3 will begin with a field trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and the completion of the first units begun by the VCU field school students as they approach and finish the Colonial occupation layer.

Lauren with a shark's tooth that she found.

Lauren with a shark’s tooth that she found.

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A Field School 4th: Excavating at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

by Bernard K. Means, VCU/Virtual Curation Laboratory

All, I injured my blogging wrist today, so this blog of the VCU students working on the July 4th holiday–and doing a spectacular job–is simply going to be a collage of images.