I was able to actually do something with what I’ve learned: Stephanie King’s Week 5

by Stephanie King, VCU student

This week, we went to Colonial Williamsburg to see how archaeologists approach excavation within the historic town. We spoke with a few people, including VCU alumni Crystal Castleberry, who filled us in on what they were looking for and what challenges they faced. Apart from strange methods used in the past (especially an extraordinarily large system of criss-crossing trenches), the soil layers in Williamsburg are incredibly thick and rife with 19th and 20th century disturbances.

Touring the Bray School site with Crystal Castleberry as guide.

Touring the Bray School site with Crystal Castleberry as guide.

After enjoying the many distractions of the Colonial shopping center (Scottish imports!) and lunch at the Cheese Shop, we went to the Rockefeller Library and toured the historic preservation laboratory.

Emily Williams in the Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

Emily Williams in the Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

X-ray of a conserved metal object.

X-ray of a conserved metal object.

Returning to Ferry Farm, we realized that we were all fairly close to done with our second units. Everyone wrapped up their units by Thursday, and we learned how to profile the excavated walls on the eastern side of the site. Technically, some of the units are not “closed” because features are present — we closed our final contexts for the year to leave those features in situ so their relation to one another can be thought over. Because a few of these features resemble plant molds, there may be evidence that the back yard of the Washington home was purposely gardened to create a welcoming facade. Best leave the features there so they can be excavated carefully without the pressure of a few-days left of field school.

Field school party!

Field school party!

The send-off for field school was delightful fun. Our mentors were gifted good tidings of wine and chocolates, students received their own party favors, and we watched a slideshow of photos from the past five weeks. And Sharknado. Archaeology is serious business. And so, naturally, a vast majority of us came to the last day of field school entirely covered in temporary tattoos.

Throwing stones across the Rappahannock.

Throwing stones across the Rappahannock.

Sadly, I didn’t find a single wig curler (not a one!), but I certainly would not mind stopping by to help further at Ferry Farm. It feels wonderful to know that I was able to actually do something with what I’ve learned over the past few years. Hopefully, I can used what I’ve learned from the past few weeks to do something more.

Making fantastic progress: Stephanie King’s Week 4

by Stephanie King, VCU alumnus

Our warmest week yet! And also my busiest. My partner Olivia and I started our new unit and blew through the topsoil layer while still making decent progress on the 20th century. We didn’t find anything terribly exciting, save for a dilapidated plastic horse/camel/cow toy.

Bones and teeth in the lab.

Bones and teeth in the lab.

On Tuesday, my former partner Ruth joined me in Ferry Farm’s lab to clean and label artifacts (mostly brick and mortar with a few ceramic sherds, glass, teeth, and small bones). I decided then that lab work was nice, but only about once a week or so. While cleaning artifacts in an air-conditioned lab has its perks, there’s something more satisfying about pulling those artifacts out of the soil yourself. It is easy to forget, however, that different facilities have different methods for cleaning artifacts depending on their needs.

Amethyst in dinosaur bone.

Amethyst in dinosaur bone.

Our trip to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday was my favorite of our field trips so far. I had never taken the commuter train before, and the trip to the middle of D.C. was really quite easy from there. We stopped at the National Zoo, just because, and I finally got a decent hat. From there, we met with Ruth Tricolli, the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO, or “Shippo”) out of D.C. She gave a presentation outlining the importance of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications in archaeology, such as mapping the precise locations of identified sites and determining the Area of Potential Effects (APE) of large-scale construction projects or excavation. She also shared information about opportunities in the field, which is particularly important given why most of us are in field school. The rest of our trip was spent at the National Museum of Natural History, where I pretty much wandered off and looked at the Smithsonian’s rock and mineral collection and mammalian skeletal collection for a few hours.

Scarlet macaw

Scarlet macaw

Olivia and I spent the last two days of the week identifying and excavating a 20th-century utility trench that spans our unit. The final trench ended up being a good foot wide and a few feet deep, and gave up few exciting artifacts, a minor disappointment to my partner — the unit just north of us had plenty to offer out of its trench, 20th century or not. By Friday, we were able to just start our Antebellum (now on either side of the trench), which had plenty to offer from the get-go. We ended Friday by finding a fair sized piece of Chinese imported porcelain with a floral decoration. We are making fantastic progress, and I’m confident we’ll see the bottom of this unit before the school ends.

Porcelain vessel fragment!

Porcelain vessel fragment!

A point beyond human occupation: Stephanie King’s Week 3

by Stephanie King, VCU student

This week was particularly busy for us between a visit to Washington’s Mount Vernon and two hefty lectures. On Monday, the Field School convened at Mount Vernon, home to George Washington from 1754 until his death in 1799. While there, we met with Dr. Esther White, the director of historic preservation at Mount Vernon. She had a layout of choice pieces from various archaeology projects, namely the South Grove Midden (colloquially, a “trash” pit). She also gave us a tour of the preservation room, where elements of the house are re-created or restored. Specific details about element construction are analyzed here, down to the color of the paint during Washington’s occupation. She then gave us a look into the facility used for artifact storage, where we revisited the pressing issue of the space and resources required for archaeological collections to be maintained.

Dr. Esther White discusses restoration efforts.

Dr. Esther White discusses restoration efforts.

Of course, we toured the household as well, and spent a good bit of time alongside of the archaeological dig currently taking place outside of the kitchen (located outdoors to save the house from the inevitable kitchen fire). We took time to visit the museums inside of the visitors’ center, too, and Washington’s tomb.

On Wednesday, we were treated to a loaded ceramics lecture from Mara Kaktins, a specialist with the George Washington Foundation. We were given a series of pamphlets that will help us better understand what we are finding in the field and where assorted items fit in Ferry Farm’s history. Mara also introduced us to some basic techniques in identifying glass, namely the differences between hand-blown and machine-molded forms, and what different shaped bottles may have been used for.

Laura Galke gave a short talk on Thursday, discussing the relevance of “small finds” artifacts and the portrayal of Mary Washington (George’s mother) in 19th and 20th century writings. How Mary was interpreted in the 1800s differed drastically from more modern writings that claim she was anywhere from “querulous” to “crusty”. Part of the importance of Ferry Farm is in understanding the relationship between Mary and her children, especially after Augustine’s death when finances became a challenge. Small finds are very important, as they may clue us into how Mary Washington appreciated gentile society but was mindful of the lifestyle’s expense.

A possible scraping tool.

A possible scraping tool.

On Friday, dig-partners were exchanged and my new partner Olivia and I closed the original unit at the southeastern end of the excavation. As we were at the bottom of our Colonial layer, most of the artifacts were lithic flakes and the like (though we did find a possible scraping tool). Once the number of possible artifacts became almost nonexistent, we felt that we had reached subsoil, or a point beyond human occupation. We will be moving to the unit directly east of our original in the coming week.

Closing out the unit.

Closing out the unit.

A Wide Array of Materials: Stephanie King’s Week 2

by Stephanie King, VCU student

This week had an unexciting start, with rain putting an early end to Monday’s dig. Tuesday had the class at Montpelier, the home to James Madison and his wife Dolly, who was also very capable in her husband’s political and social arenas.

 

Pagoda at Montpelier

Pagoda at Montpelier

The tour of the grounds was largely self-guided, with a brief walk-through of the Madison mansion provided after an equally short introductory video. When the Madisons were present, additions were added to the house as the family grew and the Madisons’ political and social careers advanced. The massive structure that stands today is the result of efforts to restore the home to when James and Dolly were retired, and is still largely a work-in-progress as materials from the home are reacquired or reconstructed. Parts of the home were lavishly decorated according to Dolly’s acute tastes in modern style. Unfortunately, taking photos inside the home was prohibited.

We managed to catch the archaeology crew at Montpelier in their first week of field school. Dr. Matthew Reeves, the director of archaeology at Montpelier, was glad to give us a site tour and invited us to explore the collections inside of the archaeology lab. Professor Means also took the opportunity to use his digital microscope to look at floral remains recovered from flotation analyses. However, the day was cut short (again) due to steady rain.

Tin-glazed earthenware (left) and Chinese porcelain (right)

Tin-glazed earthenware (left) and Chinese porcelain (right)

 

Wednesday was pretty ordinary as far as field school goes, and one of our first full field days. Our unit produced a wide array of materials, from metal pieces and tin-glazed whiteware to a luminous piece of quartz. Some of my favorites for the day included a small fragment of Chinese-imported ceramic and another that resembled Staffordshire slipware, with brown marbling on a light-yellow paste. Judging by these pieces and many others, we are still firmly in our Antebellum layer.

Abolitionist Senator Henry Wilson and two Union soldiers

Abolitionist Senator Henry Wilson and two Union soldiers

Independence Day was exceptionally busy at Ferry Farm. With expositions from the Patawomeck Indians, of Colonial costume and dance (even our own George Washington), and archaeological excavations, there was plenty to see and do and no shortage of people to talk to. Plenty of children and adults alike were excited to assist students in sifting excavated dirt, and many who came to the excavation were eager to learn about its importance. I am proud to have been able to teach even a few people about the efforts of the George Washington Foundation in recreating the historic landscape at Ferry Farm. As an exercise in public archaeology, we all did a fantastic job of relaying our goals to Ferry Farm’s visitors.

 

A fragment of crystalline quartz

A fragment of crystalline quartz

My partner and I reached (at least in part) the Colonial layer of our unit on Friday, although we are still finding pieces of whiteware that are not related to the era. The temporal shift was made apparent by the change in soil color and texture. My goal is to be solidly in the Colonial era by next Tuesday afternoon, after our trip to Mount Vernon on Monday, and to have more diagnostic artifacts that don’t lower the layer’s integrity.

 

A Long History of Occupations: Stephanie King’s Week 1

by Stephanie King, VCU student

Day 1: Orientation

Orientation at Ferry Farm introduced some and reacquainted others with the history of the area, particularly history directly related to the Washington occupation and a bit associated with Antebellum-era events. We learned that the site has a long history of occupations, dating as far back as 10,000 years, although it wasn’t occupied by the Washington family until Augustine Washington purchased the property in 1738. The entirety of the Washington occupation (1738-1754) is the major concern of the Ferry Farm excavations, but everything culturally relevant that is found is kept all the same.

We split up into groups to start our units. My dig-partner Ruth and I are situated directly north of a brick platform that was excavated by a previous group. Our student instructors Alan and Ashley demonstrated how to set the boundaries of our units (always into 5’x5’ blocks), and we made some headway on our topsoil layer.

Allen and Ashley demonstrate how to establish unit boundaries.

Day 2 – 3: Excavation!

My dig-partner Ruth and I finished our topsoil layer on our second day and found some non-plastic artifacts! Having reached the 20th century, we found bits of “utilitarian porcelain”, whiteware, wire and cut nails, glass (blue and green), and large chunks of a sodden shingle.

Rhenish German Stoneware (as identified by Ashley). Our first other-than-plastic find.

 

By our third day we started to find more significant ceramic wares, more brick (which is worrisome given the amount of brick in the unit just south of us), charcoal, and a few wrought nails. There were a few pieces of bone, but these pretty much fell away to nothing upon discovery. With the earth this saturated, the bone was more like rotted wood, and didn’t survive excavation. These were very likely faunal remains, and nothing to get too excited about.

Day 4: Wakefield

Naturally, we visited George Washington’s birthplace. Amy Muraca, our guide from the National Park Service, gave us a very thorough tour of the grounds and explained the archaeological processes that went into making Wakefield a memorial site. While there is a standing structure on the grounds, it is a representation of the original home that Washington was born in; the supposed outline of his home is laid in gravel to illustrate its location. We were also directed to the grave sites for the Washingtons, and took our lunch on a beach by the Potomac river (where I picked up many shells was given a faunal ulna).  We also were given a tour of the collections stored at Wakefield, where Ashley and Professor Means demonstrated 3-D printed archaeological artifacts that were scanned at the facility before our arrival.

Prof. Means and his digital microscope

 

Beach!