Mapping the End: Aaron Ellrich’s Week 5

by Aaron Ellrich, VCU student

The final week began with a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. It had been years since the last time I visited the historic town! What made this trip unique is that I wasn’t there to walk the streets and poke around the various shops. Rather, I was there to learn about current archaeological excavations and conservation. Seeing two separate archaeological projects, these active sites addressed the changing landscape in and around the historic district. Later on, CWF’s Emily Williams delivered an informative lecture on archaeological conservation and laboratory procedures. For me, our trip to Colonial Williamsburg brought back a lot of old memories while simultaneously providing new ones!

Inside CWF’s conservation laboratory.

Inside CWF’s conservation laboratory.

 Tuesday was back at it in the field. With only a few days left of field school, Bridget (my unit partner) and I were worried about finishing up on time. This was due to disturbances found in the archaeological record—such as a feature in the northwest corner (found last Friday) as well as extensive mole activity (aka bioturbation) along the southwest side of our unit! Since every feature has to be excavated separately, we finished excavating the northern half of feature 49 on Tuesday and, after changing context, moved to the mole run—which came with a surprise!

Bone handle found inside the mole hole!

Bone handle found inside the mole hole!

After completing our unit and profiling the east wall, the entire team (including field school students and interns) worked together in order to complete project FF-20. All the units in our area received a fresh scrape so that mapping, done by the interns the following week, could be completed. With all the field school students accustomed to what needed to be done, the last two days I worked the screens, completed the summary reports on the units Bridget and I excavated, and aced my ceramics test! The only drawback for my final week at Ferry Farm was that I was unable to throw my stone across the Rappahannock River, like George. In the end, the 2013 field school season taught me a lot about archaeology beyond the classroom. Final thanks to: the George Washington Foundation, Mary Washington University, Bernard, Laura, Dave, Eric, Ashley, all the professionals who took the time to express their knowledge to us, and all the 2013 interns who helped us along the way. I had a wonderful and enlightening experience!

Final group picture! The stone throw—I almost made it across!

Final group picture! The stone throw—I almost made it across!

“Wigging” Out after Week Four! Aaron Ellrich’s Week 4

by Aaron Ellrich, VCU student

Week four stared off with my unit partner, Bridget Polk, reassigned to work at the opposite end of our project area, FF-20. Alone with my shovel and bucket, I spent all day Monday digging through the 20th century context where I unearthed two wig curlers! Excited over my finds and pestering an intern (Ryan) who had yet to find a single wig curler, my celebration was short-lived as I reached the top of a 20th century utility trench. Starting the utility trench the following day, I have to admit it was by far the toughest day I had had yet! The trench consisted of densely packed rocks with little cultural material. With my muscles strained and drained, I looked forward to Wednesday’s D.C. trip.

The heat and humidity at the National Zoo turned my experience into a real safari! The mist machines and indoor areas provided the only respite from the summer sun.

The heat and humidity at the National Zoo turned my experience into a real safari! The mist machines and indoor areas provided the only respite from the summer sun.

For Dr. Means, commuter-mode took over as he led us field school students around the D.C. metro area. Beginning with the National Zoo, everyone split up in order to catch a glimpse of their favorite furry friends. For me, the big cats were a “roar”—with the reptiles slithering their way into second place! Around noon we all met at the front entrance, speed-walked to the metro station, and shot off down the tube to meet with D.C. archaeologist Dr. Ruth Trocolli. Here, Dr. Trocolli presented an informative lecture on GIS applications and archaeology. For me, this lecture was significant because it provided me with a working picture on GIS applications, why GIS is becoming more popular in archaeological research, and how GIS systems elucidate research agendas by avoiding potential problems before breaking ground.

 

All signs “point” to more curlers!

All signs “point” to more curlers!

Midway into Thursday, my unit partner was back in action. Together, we worked our way through the Antebellum layer and, to our excitement, uncovered two more wig curlers! I’d like to think that the projectile point I found earlier “pointed” the way to these curlers…but, all in all, the addition of these two curlers made a total of four curlers for week four! Doing my best not to “wig out” in front of the rest of the field school students, Friday was a continuation into the Antebellum layer. So far I’ve found a total of seven wig curlers—and I still have the Colonial layer in my unit to go! Fingers crossed!

“Feature Friday”: Ashley, Bridget, and I sitting in front of a bisected feature found in our unit on Friday. What was inside…a bunch of rocks!

“Feature Friday”: Ashley, Bridget, and I sitting in front of a bisected feature found in our unit on Friday. What was inside…a bunch of rocks!

Are there more wig curlers lying in wait? Aaron Ellrich’s Week 3

by Aaron Ellrich, VCU student

Inside Mt. Vernon’s archaeology lab. I’m at the center of the photo checking out prehistoric items (such as projectile points and pottery sherds) found in and around Mt. Vernon.

Inside Mt. Vernon’s archaeology lab. I’m at the center of the photo checking out prehistoric items (such as projectile points and pottery sherds) found in and around Mt. Vernon.

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!

Scrub a dub dub in a tub! In the lab washing artifacts recovered during 2012 excavations at Ferry Farm.

Scrub a dub dub in a tub! In the lab washing artifacts recovered during 2012 excavations at Ferry Farm.

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!

The rain strikes again! All of us filling out summary reports while cardboard-George extends a helping hand.

The rain strikes again! All of us filling out summary reports while cardboard-George extends a helping hand.

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!

Bridget and I squaring off our second unit. The unit to the left was our first one, which contained the three wig curlers!

Bridget and I squaring off our second unit. The unit to the left was our first one, which contained the three wig curlers!

 

The Colonial Period was Not Far Off: Aaron Ehrlich’s Week 2

by Aaron Ehrlich, VCU student

Week two stared off with rain suspending Monday’s excavation. Unlike the relief I usually get when classes are cancelled due to natural forces, I was a bit upset about putting up my trowel for the day. My unit partner (Bridget) and I were somewhere in the Antebellum layer and we just knew the Colonial Period was not far off. Of course the moment we (field school students) returned to our apartments for the day, the rains stopped! Anticipating a call or email for us to return to the site and resume excavation (which never came….the site was too muddy), I took the opportunity to relax, work on some independent research, and think about our next day at Montpelier.

Director of Archaeology, Dr. Matthew Reeves (far left), explains the direction of Montpelier’s archaeology project.

Director of Archaeology, Dr. Matthew Reeves (far left), explains the direction of Montpelier’s archaeology project.

Our Montpelier visit included a tour of James Madison’s house, learning about past and present archaeological excavation (they have their own field school students!), and concluding at the archaeology lab where Curator of Archaeology Collections Kimberly A. Trickett allowed us to rummage through their collections. For me, this was my third trip to Montpelier—and certainly not my last! The staff here is warm, welcoming, and willing to answer any questions. I know this for a fact, since I’m working on a project that involves 3D scanning prehistoric projectile points found at Montpelier. So far my collaboration with the archaeology staff at Montpelier has been awesome, and their patience and generosity stands as a beacon for openness and inclusiveness.

Day three was back in the dirt with yet another wig curler (making that two) coming from our unit! Up above us, the entire day, storm clouds provoked us. Encircling the region, the rains held off and we were able to work through the day until lightning caused us to close up shop around 3 o’clock.

The screening areas were busy on the 4th of July! You can just see me, in the center, conducting public archaeology.

The screening areas were busy on the 4th of July! You can just see me, in the center, conducting public archaeology.

Peoples, re-enactors, vendors—Ferry Farm was booming with hundreds of people for the 4th of July! Following the previous day’s footsteps, fireworks erupted in our unit when another wig curler (making that three!) came up out of the ground! With excellent coordination between supervisors, interns, and field school students, the public became well acquainted with Ferry Farm’s wig curlers—which made it all the more exciting to show visitors the real thing with our artifact bag! Even though the 4th of July was a volunteer day for field school students, the digging commenced and the crowd provided us the opportunity to conduct some intense public archaeology.

Friday was by far the most productive day in our unit. Bridget and I finally made our way through the Antebellum layer and into Colonial Period. We knew we were nearing the Colonial Period when we began to see “mottling” in the soil, which basically means we could see “spotting” of the next soil layer showing through. By this time the abundance of artifacts found during our exhaustive push through the Antebellum layer slowed down. Without much material culture coming up in the Colonial Period, we continued working our way down to the point where we hit subsoil. Our last few wheelbarrows have produced no artifacts, therefore—with the combination of subsoil—our unit is closed (which fulfills our goal stated in last week’s blog). All we have left for our unit is about a half an hour’s worth of cleanup, yet we won’t be able to close our unit until Wednesday because Monday’s our trip to Mt. Vernon and Tuesday’s our lab day!

A picture of me holding the wig curler found in our unit on the 4th of July.

A picture of me holding the wig curler found in our unit on the 4th of July.

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!