Adventures in the Field: Week 3

Adventures in the Field: Archaeology at Historic Bath, NC is a series of posts about Lauren’s experiences as a TA at East Carolina University’s summer 2009 archaeology field school in Bath, NC.  This is post # 3.

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By Lauren McMillan

Week 3: 6/1/09-6/5/09

This week started off as usual on Monday; we continued working inside the cellar and started bisecting the entrance.  The reason archaeologists bisect a feature like this, and in fact, all features, is so that we can get a good profile view of the fill.  This profile can help us understand deposition and how the feature was made.  For example, if the feature was filled in one episode, that tells us it was done quickly and most likely deliberately, whereas, if we can see multiple fill layers, this would tell us something very different; these multiple fill episodes could show that the hole was left open and used as a trash pit for years (and the artifacts that come out could tell us which layers date to what years), or if we can see mostly natural deposits, then the hole was abandoned and allowed to fill in by itself.

On Tuesday and Wednesday I took a group of students out on a satellite project to Edenton, NC. Edenton is another one of those beautiful small historic towns on the water I’ve come to love in North Carolina.  Founded in 1712, Edenton was the first colonial capital of North Carolina and hosted the first Tea Party in 1774 lead by fifty of the town ladies (the town’s symbol is a teapot).  This is definitely one place you want to visit if you love architecture and historic downtowns (I believe this will be the subject of a later “Preservacation” post).

Edenton site clearing with circle of trees and visitors. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Edenton site clearing with circle of trees and visitors. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

This was basically a Phase II investigation of an 18th century site located just outside of the town (for the protection of the site, I will not say exactly where).  A few months back the owner of the property contacted Dr. Ewen asking for more information on artifacts he had been finding (he’s actually been collecting, and doing a little digging, for about 20 years).  Dr. Ewen, Dawn and I went out and checked it out before field school and determined based on the artifacts, site location and documents that this was most likely a mid to late 18th century house site.  We decided then that more investigation was needed to determine integrity and the boundaries of the site and I would be heading the two day project during field school.  Dr. Ewen wanted to know these details so that it could become someone’s thesis project in the future.

Well, on Tuesday two field school students (Ash and Robert), another graduate student (Jonathan) and I took the hour and a half trip up in the morning.  The site is located in a clearing just inside a wooded area of the property.  The site had been plowed since the 19th century until 25 years ago when it was allowed to grow over.  In the middle of the clearing, there is a circle of trees, which immediately piqued my interest; if there was an intact cellar, that’s where it would be.  Trees love to grow in the soft soil of features.  We established a grid with the Total Station (a laser transit that can be hooked up to a data collector), which proved to more difficult than I had anticipated because the clearing wasn’t a perfect rectangle and didn’t line up with true North.  Luckily, the others are more tech savvy than I am; I prefer a shovel to technology any day.

Jonathan pushing the Ground Penetrating Radar. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Jonathan pushing the Ground Penetrating Radar. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Once we had a grid, we ran the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) over the clearing and into parts of the woods.  The objective of this is to locate any anomalies that could indicate intact foundations of a building.  Our GPR is relatively new, and has a screen that shows a live feed, in addition to storing the information to make a map later.  While Jonathan and Ash did this, Robert and I worked on mapping in the circle of trees and exposed brick rubble and fragments with the Total Station.  That pretty much took up the rest of the day, and when we got back to school that afternoon we transferred all the data from the GRP and the TS into GIS and made a map of the site.  As you can see, there were quite a few anomalies present (as represented by the red lines), but a few stuck out.

Me holding the stadia rod (idiot stick). Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Me holding the stadia rod (idiot stick). Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

GPR map with trees and brick fragments. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

GPR map with trees and brick fragments. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

The GPR data suggest three possible intact foundations, so we decided to conduct a judgmental survey on Wednesday to look for any sub-surface remains.  We placed several shovel test pits (STPs) along the red lines, and had mostly positives.  In the STPs that did not have in situ brick and mortar, there was rubble, and one failed to reach subsoil, suggesting a deep feature, such as a cellar.  The information from the STPs supported most of what we saw from the GPR map, that there appears to be two buildings made of brick.  The artifact density was rather low, but the ceramics found, redwares, tin glazed and white salt glazed, and the hand wrought nails are good indicators of 18th century occupation.  The “coolest” artifact found was a bone utensil handle with iron in it.  I will be writing up the full report later and returning the artifacts to the owner, who hopes, with the addition of the stuff he has collected, to make a display for the Edenton Visitor’s Center.  This is a good example of public education and outreach by archaeologists.  Hopefully ECU will continue to have a working relationship with the folks in Edenton, and this site will make a very good Master’s thesis.  Overall, despite the over abundance of ticks and mosquitoes, this was a fun two day survey with interesting results.

Two in situ bricks. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Two in situ bricks. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Robert with his glory find: bone handle!

Robert with his glory find: bone handle! Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Well, back to Bath.  When I got back to the site on Thursday, I was greeted by a fully bisected entrance and much deeper units in the cellar.  If you look carefully at the steps of the entrance, you will see that the steps appear to be short, like one would have to tip toe down.  I do not think this was a way to keep thieves and pirates out, nor do I think it’s because people in the 18th century were shorter with smaller feet.  I’ve been thinking on these stairs a lot, and I think that there would have been wooden extenders, and there even appears to be slots in the wall every other step.  This is something that will have to be further explored.  The profile of the entrance fill seems to coincide with the cellar fill, with one filling episode, like they decided one day the building was no longer needed, and pushed it in on itself.

Bisected cellar entrance. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Bisected cellar entrance. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Slots for wooden stairs. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Slots for wooden stairs. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Well, other than the normal ceramics, animal bones, wine bottle glass and pipe stems, nothing new came out of the cellar this week.  Join us next week for more adventures from Bath.

Adventures in the Field: Week 2

Adventures in the Field: Archaeology at Historic Bath, NC is a series of posts about Lauren’s experiences as a TA at East Carolina University’s summer 2009 archaeology field school in Bath, NC.  This is post #2.

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By Lauren McMillan

Week 2: 5/25 – 5/29/2009

We had yet another short week because of Memorial Day, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t accomplish a lot and learn new and exciting things about our site.  As I have previously stated, we found the third corner to the mid 18th century merchant’s warehouse cellar last week telling us the building was 15’x15’.  We cleaned it up for photographs on Tuesday and when we did this, part of the builder’s trench was revealed along the west wall; and later that day, in another unit, more of the builder’s trench appeared beside the north wall.  A builder’s trench can help date the construction of a building, because it is where the builders stood to lay in the foundation, brick in this case, and would be immediately filled in once the foundation was complete; if the archaeology gods are on our side, maybe the builders left a temporally diagnostic artifact in there like a coin (yeah right), a ceramic sherd or a pipe stem.  We will be excavating the trench separately in the future.

Ash cleaning up the unit around the southwest corner. Photograph courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Ash cleaning up the unit around the southwest corner. Photograph courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

The most exciting discovery of the week peeked out at us late Tuesday afternoon.  Two students were flattening an old unit down 0.25’ as an arbitrary cleaning layer, because we thought this unit was almost done, and came upon an in situ brick on the outside of the western wall, near the northwest corner of the cellar.  I became overly excited, and kicked one of them out and started digging myself, (of course I said it was because this was a very delicate process, which, it was) and soon a corner revealed itself.  Now, we were down deep enough, on the 18th century ground level, and beneath the disturbance from the late 19th/early 20th century building that used to stand there, to know that this wasn’t an intrusive.  After I did my little happy dance, I hypothesized that this was the bulkhead entrance to the cellar (Thanks again to Ferry Farm for showing me what one looks like archaeologically).  While Dr. Ewen would not outright agree with me, he didn’t dismiss me either.  I told him the dirt was talking to us, telling us we had found the entrance, which would give us more confidence in our interpretation of a merchant’s warehouse, since this would mean the building was facing Main St. and would have easy access to the town’s port; he told me it was just murmuring right now.

Jen and Dee find the possible entrance on Tuesday. Photograph courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Jen and Dee find the possible entrance on Tuesday. Photograph courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Dawn, my fellow TA, and I actually got down and dirty this week. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Taylor.

Dawn, my fellow TA, and I actually got down and dirty this week. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Taylor.

Well, by the end of the week, the dirt was screaming at us.  We found both corners of the feature, which is about 6’ in length and about 4’ from the cellar’s west wall.  We cleaned the feature up, defined its upper most limits, and could see there are more bricks below into the next layer. On Friday, the whole feature, builder’s trench and all, was mapped in, and let me tell you, that is a very complicated map.  We also probed the interior of the feature (between the western limits of it and the wall), and it hit something a few inches below the surface on the western side of it, and it went down a few more inches in the middle and then even deeper near the wall, suggesting stairs going down!  We will be bisecting the feature next week, but I am very confident at this point it is an entrance into the cellar.

In other parts of the site, we opened up two new units, the first this season.  These two units will come down right inside the cellar, and should be chocked full of neat artifacts, but for now, we’re still in the upper layers.  We did find a feature associated with the late 19th/early 20th century house that once stood there.  We’re not sure what it is yet.  At first, we assumed it was a pier to the house, because it lined up with one found last season, but our brick feature is larger, not completely square, is “hollow” and has some charcoal in it, so another idea floating around is a chimney hearth, or a planter (to put plants in…).  That’s something that we will figure out later; for now, we recorded it and took it out.

ECU Field School - Lauren 6

19th/20th century brick feature and auger hole from ECU field school. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Taylor.

On a side note, have any of you other archaeologists ever noticed that there is one person who is lucky in the field?  I ask because we have one student, Jen, who has found something within minutes to hours of being in there.  She was in the unit that found the third corner, we moved her to clean up an old unit, she found the entrance corner, we moved her to help excavate one of the new units, she found an intact bottle neck, moved her again, she found the 20th century feature in the other new unit.  And another side note, isn’t it an awesome feeling when you know someone has learned something from you?  I did a presentation last semester on stratigraphy and the Harris Matrix, and showed how an STP that cuts a layer postdates that layer.  Well, we came down on an old auger hole this week, and one of the people who was in that class with me, turns and says “hey, it’s just like in your presentation, so we know that hole is younger than this layer.”  At least I know one person listened to that boring lecture…

Anyway, that about wraps it up for this week, catch ya later!

Adventures in the Field: Archaeology at Historic Bath, NC

Adventures in the Field: Archaeology at Historic Bath, NC is a series of posts about Lauren’s experiences as a TA at East Carolina University’s summer 2009 archaeology field school in Bath, NC.  This is post #1.

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By Lauren McMillan

Week One: 5/20 – 5/22/2009

So, I was asked by Kaitlin, and bugged by Brad, to write a weekly entry on my experiences while excavating this summer, and just FYI, this will be a pretty long first post.  For those of you who don’t know, I’m a 2008  UMW Historic Preservation alumni and am currently working on my Masters in Anthropology with a concentration on Historical Archaeology at East Carolina University.  For the next five weeks I will be working as one of the two Teaching Assistants at ECU’s historical archaeology field school in Bath, NC under the direction of Dr. Charles Ewen.  I’d like to first give you a brief background on the town and the site before getting into the field work.

Bath Town, as it was once known, was settled by Europeans in the 1690s and later became North Carolina’s first town in 1705.  Bath was home to many important men and events in NC’s colonial history.  John Lawson, Bath’s founder and author of A New Voyage to Carolina (which is still in print), made his home in town.  Lawson became the first casualty in the Tuscarora Indian War (1711-1715), while on an exploration trip.  North Carolina’s most infamous figure, the pirate Blackbeard, made his home and married his fourteenth wife in Bath,  right before Virginia’s Spotswood chased him down and had him beheaded (one of many reasons NC still hates us – did you all know that North Carolina feels this great rivalry with Virginia?)  It is even said that Edward Teach (Blackbeard’s “real” name) was actually from Bath.  Bath was also home to the first port, shipyard and library in North Carolina, and can still claim the oldest church in the state, St. Thomas, built in 1734.

St. Thomas Church, the oldest church in North Carolina, constructed 1734. Photograph by Brad Hatch.

St. Thomas Church, the oldest church in North Carolina, constructed 1734. Photograph courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Overall, Bath is an interesting place for all you history buffs and pres dorks like myself; there are a few state owned historic houses to tour, in addition to a beautiful view of the water.  To me, the most exciting things about Bath is that all of the streets and most of the lots are almost exactly the same as they were in the 18th century, as seen on the 1769 Sauthier map.  The town literally has no stop lights, just two corner flashing lights.  And for you archaeology nerds out there, Stan South dug a cellar the size of the one we are currently excavating in just three short days in 1960.  This is one of the sites that helped him create his mean ceramic dating formula and his site pattern types.

1769 Sauthier Map - Beaufort Community College

1769 Sauthier Map – Beaufort Community College

As one of the few ports in North Carolina, Bath became an important site of commercial activity in the 18th century.  We are lucky that many of the town records have survived, and we knew before we started digging two years ago that a communal merchant warehouse was located on the lot we are currently investigating; in fact, there are court records showing that two merchants were constantly fighting one another over space and merchandise.  I can easily imagine arguments breaking out over space in this building, since we just found a third corner this week, and now know that the building was 15’x15’; not a very big space for all the merchants in one of the few ports of entry in the state to share.

Site with happy field school students and intern house in the background. Photograph courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Site with happy field school students and intern house in the background. Photograph courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

While ECU and Dr. Ewen have had a long and happy relationship with Bath, this is only the third year at this particular site, which is currently called the Intern House, because of the building standing right on part of our cellar.  The past two years, the ’07 field season with ECU students and the ’08 season with Summer Ventures (a high school governor school program which lasts for about two weeks), have revealed a good portion of the mid 18th century cellar.  The ceramics are dating the site from about the 1720s (white salt-glazed stoneware) to the 1770s (pearlware), which corresponds to the historical documentation.  Of course, the majority of what has been found are boring ol’ bricks and mortar, but as Noel Hume says, “While bricks are not the most collectible of artifacts, they are among the most common relics of early American domesticity.”

Now onto the ’09 season; we have a total of 14 people out on the site this summer, six Anthropology undergraduates, two recent anthro graduates, one Public History graduate student, two anthro grad students, two grad teaching assistants and the professor. Our first week out in the field was a short one, just three days, but we were able to accomplish quite a bit.  We got all the backfill from last summer out, which was a lot! The cellar goes down about six feet from the top surface, and there was a lot of dirt down there.  When we were finally able to pull all the tarp off the site and see it in its full glory; I was very joyous.

We uncovered most of the north cellar wall and some of the east wall (isn’t it nice when buildings line up with the cardinal directions?)  Halfway through Friday we were finally able to open up two units from last year.  It was in one of these units (60N40E) that we found one of the most important pieces of this puzzle we call archaeology; the southwest corner!  This is the third corner uncovered, telling us that the building was 15’x15’.  This is interesting, because there was a law in place in the 18th century that within one year of purchasing land in Bath, a building of at least 15’x15’ had to be built; this was to prevent land speculation and to encourage immigration.  This corner was found at the very end of the day, right as we were about to pack up, as is always the case, so I know all the students are excited about starting up next week to see what else the dirt will reveal.

Well, that was about it for this week.  We should get a lot more done next week, even though it too is a short one.  Stay tuned to find out more about Bath, NC!

Preservacation: Stratford Hall and the Various Meanings of Historic Sites

Preservacation is a series of essays by Brad Hatch about the preservation related adventures, issues, and sites that he and Lauren have encountered on their travels.  This is #3 in the series.

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By Brad Hatch

This posting has taken me a little longer to write than usual because I’ve been busy the past week. In addition to going to Williamsburg for commencement on the 17th, Lauren and I stayed at Stratford Hall that weekend for our anniversary. We met at Stratford 3 years ago and have gone there for every anniversary since. This annual ritual has inspired me to write about this place that has played such a large role in my life. Rather than giving you a review of what to do and critiquing the site, however, I wanted to reflect on what this one place means to me, and by doing so, hopefully get at the deeper and more nuanced meanings of this and other historic sites.

For those of you who don’t know, Stratford Hall is the birthplace of Robert E. Lee as well as the home of brotherly signers of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful H-plan Georgian brick house built in 1738 along the cliffs of the Potomac near Montross, Virginia. At its height the plantation boasted 7,000 acres of land, a landing for ships, a grist mill, and numerous slaves. Like many plantations it was a small, self-contained town of sorts. The Lees lost the home after 1810 and it went through the hands of private owners until 1929. It was in this year that May Lanier created a ladies’ association that raised enough money, $240,000, to purchase the house and 1,100 acres as a memorial to Robert E. Lee. The Robert E. Lee Memorial Association still owns Stratford and it, like many historic houses, stands as an example of the late 19th and early 20th century preservation movement among wealthy women.

That’s enough of facts though. Facts are handy to a point, but we supply the meaning (to paraphrase Second Mate Stubb in Moby Dick). It’s meaning that interests me, though I will only give one of the countless meanings for this place. Stratford has been like a mother to me through these past several years. To start with, it has played a pivotal role in shaping my career as an archaeologist. It was here in the summer of 2005 that I took my first supervisory role in archaeology as the UMW field school assistant. I have worked on this site (the Oval Site) longer than any other, three years. It has become a part of me. I know the site backward and forward, the feel of the soil, the way the breeze cooled us off on hot June days, the sounds of the countryside.  It was as if the place and I could converse, we knew one another so well. Things seemed clearer on that site than any other. It almost had a youthful innocence about it.

In constructing my own meaning of Stratford Hall, however, it is the people that are most important. In the years that I worked there I met several important people in my life. Not least among these was Lauren, whom I found my second summer there. Up until this meeting Stratford was already tied to some important friendships. Actually, most of the people I really continue to keep up with from Mary Washington were at the first field school in 2005, including Andrew, who will be going to the University of Tennessee’s Ph.D. program with me, Irene, and Erin. The four of us continue to keep in touch and it seems that we formed a bond that summer that won’t soon be broken. With the exception of my childhood friend, Patrick, and Lauren, I would say that those three know me the best. We shared so many things on the plantation from evenings spent on the pond fishing, to afternoons spent wandering the beach looking for sharks’ teeth, to nights spent watching fireflies dance on fields beneath a starlit sky. These images are burned into my memory, but not because of their own beauty. It is the people that I spent these times with that made them special. Without the people there is no meaning for me.

Coming back to Stratford now is bittersweet in a way. It’s like going back to a point in my life that I want to capture and put away. Visiting this place allows me to do that. I can savor all of those memories as they come rushing back to me with the taste of a Northern Neck Ginger Ale, the tug of a Bass on my fishing line, or the sight of the mansion with a full field of hay in the foreground. To me Stratford represents a simpler time, a more innocent time (if there ever was such a time). It reminds me to live and to enjoy all things beautiful, for they are fleeting. I know that I can never go back to the same plantation that lives in my mind, but I don’t need to. My experience on my mother’s sandy shores and fertile fields has provided me with more than I could ever repay to her in a thousand lifetimes. This is what Stratford Hall means to me. This is only my interpretation though. As we go to sites like this we should be mindful of the people who have lived and toiled on these places. The entirety of the human experience exists on such small pieces of the planet. Historic sites are places where people have been born and died, thousands of loves have been won and lost, people have literally given their whole beings to these places. And, they’ve lived, oh, how we have lived. Think on this the next time you visit another site and it will change how you experience it.

It's the people, not the place. Photo courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

It's the people, not the place. Photo courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Preservacation: The Aurora Fossil Museum

Preservacation is a series of essays by Brad Hatch about the preservation related adventures, issues, and sites that he and Lauren have encountered on their travels.  This is #2 in the series.

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By Brad Hatch

As archaeologists know, we are time and again plagued by several oft repeated questions from the public. Among these are: Have you found any gold? Aren’t you hot out here? Do you dig dinosaurs? Well, I’ve never found any gold, it is hot, especially around late July or early August, and I don’t dig dinosaurs. Actually, come to think of it, I do kind of dig dinosaurs, but not professionally, and they’re not usually dinosaurs. I’ve always had an interest in old things, and often times, the older the better. Like many archaeologists, especially the elderly ones, I’m a collector of old stuff. From antique wooden fishing lures, to coins, to fossils, I have a fascination with things that were around long before I was. Fossil collecting, however, didn’t find me until I started doing archaeology.

Working at Stratford Hall Plantation in the summers as Doug’s field school assistant got me into the habit of doing two things: fishing every evening and combing the beach for fossil shark teeth. Many people don’t realize that much of the tidewater region of Virginia was a shallow sea millions of years ago teeming with ancient marine life. Fewer people realize that the erosion of the cliffs at Stratford above the Potomac River has exposed the geologic formation that is full of the remains of these ancient creatures. As these fossils erode out of the cliff the river brings them to the beach at Stratford where they wait to be found. While there are all kinds of fossils to be recovered there, the main type that people collect are sharks’ teeth, due to their abundance (a shark can lose up to 35,000 teeth in a lifetime), ease of recognition, and natural beauty.

Fossilized whale skeleton. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Fossilized whale skeleton. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren inside the reconstructed Megalodon jaw. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren inside the reconstructed Megalodon jaw. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

This past winter Lauren (another archaeologist turned fossil collector by the Stratford Hall field school) told me about a fossil hunting trip she took to Aurora, North Carolina with some of her friends from Eastern Carolina University. Soon after, she and I were on the road to go visit. Aurora, like most of the rest of eastern North Carolina, is pretty much away from everything. This isolation, coupled with a unique geology that includes a rich phosphate formation, makes it the perfect place for the PCS phosphate mine, one of the largest in the world. The town itself has one street with a few buildings, two of which house the Aurora Fossil Museum. The fossil museum was opened in 1978 as a cooperative effort between the local government, PCS, and area collectors. Since then it has grown to encompass two buildings which house fossils that represent millions of years of life on earth found on most of the continents. Naturally, its exhibits tend to focus on the geologic history of North Carolina, particularly the Pungo River area where Aurora is located.

The PCS phosphate mine. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The PCS phosphate mine. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Me in the real Megalodon jaw. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Me in the real Megalodon jaw. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

The museum experience starts with an introductory film made by PCS about the geologic formations they mine and some of the ancient history of the area. In general, it’s a pretty good overview of the geology and what the mine does, but it has a propaganda feel to it and looks like it was made prior to 1978. The majority of the exhibits consist of certain fossils and the information about the animals they are from in terms of size, diet, etc. In some ways this makes for dry reading, but there really isn’t too much you can say about 15 million year old bones. Interestingly, they have a whole section in the back of the museum about Native Americans. This sort of exhibit is actually a pet peeve of mine because it lumps Indians in with animals, as if they’re more a part of the natural world. These kinds of exhibits in natural history museums serve to perpetuate the myth that Native Americans were somehow closer to nature and by extension less cultural (or less human?) than Europeans. Having said this, however, they did try to incorporate the fossil theme into this exhibit by showing tools, such as scrapers and axes from the area made out of fossils, which are actually pretty unique artifacts.

A stratigraphy diagram in the Native American section of the museum. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

A stratigraphy diagram in the Native American section of the museum. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Native American artifacts. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Native American artifacts. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Getting down to it though, the real draw of the museum is the pile of mining spoil they have out front for visitors to search through. This spoil contains all kinds of fossils from coral, to bone, to shark teeth, to coprolites (fossilized poo). The chances of finding big fossils, however, are slim since most of the spoil is picked through by the mine workers before it arrives in town. With a little patience, though, and a sharp eye you can find a bunch of cool things, and even if you don’t you can always go to the gift shop and buy some (they also sell Native American artifacts, but I wouldn’t recommend buying them, it’s pretty unethical). While Lauren and I were there we spent about an hour or so combing through the pile out front, and a smaller one behind it, and found two Ziploc bags full of shark teeth, stingray teeth, bone, and a few coprolites. The best find of the day was a piece of a Megalodon tooth, which can be as big as a dinner plate (these sharks could grow larger than a school bus). Afterward, we rode through the PCS mine, which was a very unnerving experience. It’s unbelievable what these large scale pit mines do to the landscape, and one can only imagine the environmental impact. I won’t get into those issues here, but I will say that at least they are trying to give back to the community through the fossil museum, as well as allowing fossil hunts within the mine.

Lauren on top of the spoil pile with her bag of fossils. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Lauren on top of the soil pile with her bag of fossils. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

A sample of shark teeth I found. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

A sample of shark teeth I found. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Fragment of a Megalodon tooth I found. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Fragment of a Megalodon tooth I found. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

So, many of you are probably wondering what this has to do with preservation. To be honest, I’m not completely sure, but I think the museum experience and history raises important preservation-related questions. First of all, it shows how a community can cooperate with industry to at least gain something out of a bad situation. Despite the mine’s affect on the environment, the town of Aurora has taken advantage of it and used it to attract people from near and far (supposedly, it is packed during the summer with fossil hunters) for better or worse. Secondly, it raises questions concerning the environment, how can it not with huge open pit mines all over the place?

Thirdly, it makes me wonder, as an archaeologist, if paleontological collecting is ethically dubious. Archaeologists discourage collecting artifacts, it destroys context, which is crucial to our interpretations. Do paleontologists feel the same way about this? I’ve never heard from any one way or the other and am very interested to know if they have similar views to archaeologists. Finally, and most interesting to me, it raises the question of the design of natural history museums. Specifically, should Native Americans be included in them and what sort of stereotypes does this inclusion perpetuate? These are all important questions we, as preservationists, need to think about and address. The Aurora Fossil Museum, in addition to being a fun place to visit, acts as an important place to get people (especially preservationists) thinking about the role of industrial propaganda, the proliferation of stereotypes, and environmental conservation in a museum setting.

Preservation and Prevention: Natural Disasters

By Kristin Landau

Copan Ruinas, Honduras 

 

Here in Central America we’re at the tail end of the dry season. The April 30 zenith sun passage is approaching (when the sun passes directly overhead and casts no shadow at noon) and it’s difficult not to squint outside even while donning a pair of dark sunglasses. The beautiful greenery that characterizes Honduras for most of the year now appears burnt and crispy. The air is thick with dust and some days the mountains are hidden by haze. Until the wet season approaches – around the third week of May – it will only become hotter, dustier and drier. 

 

It is also that time of year when local farmers burn residual, dead crops to prepare their fields for planting in mid-May, a practice in performed in the Copan Valley since ancient times and at least for the last 1500 years. The field across from the lab where I work has been set afire the last few days, and entire mountainsides in western Honduras are black with ash. As dusk falls one can see bright orange fires burning high up in the mountains. There are two stelae (pl., tall standing, inscribed stone monuments) in the Valley placed by the 12th Ruler of Copan, in AD 652. Standing roughly east-west of each other, creating a line oriented nine degrees north, and spanning the expanse of Copan’s Principal Group of ruins, these stelae are said to mark or glorify the start date for field burning: standing at Stela 10, one can witness the sun setting  directly behind Stela 12. This ‘alignment’ occurs on April 12 and September 1, the former date indicating the start of this burning period.  

Morley's map of Stela 10-12

Morley's map of Stelae 10-12. Morley, 1946.

Leaving aside this ritual cycle codified in stone and other such romanticized interpretations of antiquity however, we are left with the practical implication of dry, dusty and intensely sunny conditions: fires. In the US and other more developed countries, fire prevention and educational propaganda are basic; I remember learning how to dial 911 before I was old enough to answer telephone calls at home. Firefighting is respected employment or revered volunteerism. As far as I know, town lines are drawn and school districts delineated according to the nearest fire department. Fire prevention is law and town planning and zoning are governed by it.

 

In Honduras and other poor countries, this is a very, very far off (and sometimes irrelevant) ideal. When one’s infant is dying of dehydration and there is no water supply to the urban downtown a few times every week, fire prevention does not rank high, and poor planning and nonexistent infrastructure makes it impossible. Walking to a café earlier today for my morning coffee and work session, I noticed black smoke in the air and people running down the hill. A wood workshop had just caught on fire and the fire had started to spread to two stores adjacent, a house overlooking the workshop, and another residence nearby.

 

There are no firefighters in Copan, there are no fire hydrants, and I’ve never seen even a garden hose. A few surrounding businesses did have fire extinguishers (likely bought in San Pedro, a city three hours to the northeast) and these were quickly donated. I have been in this workshop before and it is covered in sawdust. There are a few woodworking machines with chairs and workstations covered by corrugated metal roofs; the floor is a bed of sawdust and there are larger piles here and there. The two storefronts and neighboring houses are also made of wood; branches of a tall tree located in the workshop connected the wooden roof beams and walls of the houses.  

View of the fire: Straight ahead is the workshop, to the left is one the storefronts.

View of the fire: Straight ahead is the workshop, to the left is one the storefronts.

When I arrived, families who owned the two storefronts were running all of their products (mostly plastics, displayed on wooden shelving) across to the other side of the street. The huge buckets that they sold were used to collect water. Town residents and perhaps friends of people affected ran up the hill with an empty bucket, filled it at someone’s home, ran back down to the fire, threw the water on, and repeated. If the town hadn’t any water this morning, I imagine the entire block could have burned to the ground. As the tall tree went up in flames and the adjacent house began to catch, other people ran up to the second story and sprayed the roof with fire extinguishing chemicals and punched out burning roof tiles. At this point I could feel the heat from the fire and the direct sunlight, two mototaxis blocked the road to prevent traffic, and around 100 people had gathered. A single (female) police officer was at the scene and helped about as much as I did (i.e., not at all).

Plasticware from the stores.

Plasticware from the stores.

After about 20 minutes of throwing buckets of water on the fire and using the extinguishers, and I imagine after all the sawdust burnt, the fire calmed down: the corner roof of the house had burnt, the storefronts were untouched and completely evacuated of all items, and the workshop was still smoldering yet dripping wet. As with all such disasters and big events in Copan, it was the community and teamwork that had put the fire out and saved the day – and lives. Despite the accelerated rate of urbanization in downtown Copan due in large part to the tens of thousands of foreign tourists who visit every year, this small, slow town always manages to hold its own. The same sense of community and sameness the US and New York City felt after 9/11, I think Copan residents feel on a smaller scale and more regular basis. Within every disaster here, emerges and strengthens something beautiful.

The sole police officer.

The sole police officer.

This is not the only recent fire however and a historic structure in the city of Comayagua suffered a much worse fate. See this article here. Comayagua is a colonial city and national monument – once the capital of Honduras – located in the central western part of the country. The building affected was constructed over nearly 200 years (1545-1737), and included the Episcopal Palace of Comayagua, the only museum of colonial art, a church, a chapel, and a library of ecclesiastical literature. It was used at one time as a high school and then was converted to the first university in Honduras, and until recently housed over 400 years of Honduran history (in comparison, the US as a country has only 233 years of history). After the fire, only the exterior walls still exist. The local fire department was not equipped to handle this, and if it were not for firefighters from nearby Siguatepeque, La Paz, Tegucigalpa and the US military base in Palmerola, the fire would have certainly spread. The bishop of Comayagua as well as the priests and monks who used to live in the building have lost everything, and are out of house and home. Although according to the article 90% of the materials and museum artifacts were rescued, the director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History tells a more nuanced story.

 

Although stationed in Comayagua due to the fire, he was able to come to Copan for a recent conference on 3D Archaeology. Standing at the podium in front of the 70 or so conference attendees, speaking slowly and fighting tears, he told us that almost all of the 16th century archives – nearly 85% – stored in the Museo had been destroyed. Many of the objects and pieces on display had been taken out, but no one thought of the archives, he said. There are no duplicates of these archives, no copies, no other records, and no inventory of them. They include documents from the Spanish conquest, the first presidency of Honduras, and marriage and baptism certificates of modern citizens. The history and cultural patrimony of Honduras and Central America have been lost and world heritage sacrificed.

 

In addition to this incredible loss, there are other on-going concerns. The historic structure itself is lost and obviously no longer open to tourism. Not only is there no money or plans to reconstruct the building, the city of Comayagua will feel a loss in tourism revenue. Many of the rescued objects were, according to the article, moved to the “custody of neighbors”; although a registry of the missing pieces has been made, I question who these neighbors are and if the objects are safe or will “se pierden” (lose themselves). Events like these also make me think about the protection of history and who is responsible. It was determined that a short circuit in the chapel caused the fire, and due to wind and dry conditions it spread to the rest of the building. Should there have been copies of this archive? Yes. Were there personnel, a photocopier, and the money and foresight to do this? No. Since the archives document world history and the colonial period especially, should UNESCO and/or the Spanish have been involved in their protection? Probably.

 

What is most unfortunate about this tragedy is that this happens all over the world (in other poor countries and war zones) and I just can’t imagine such a structural change in historic preservation on an international scale occurring any time soon.

 

Photographs courtesy of Kristin Landau.

Lubaantun Ruins, Belize

Photographs from Kristin’s trip to Belize in August.  

One of her modes of transportation in Central America. On the way to Punta Gorda.

One of her modes of transportation in Central America. On the way to Punta Gorda.

 And now for the archaeology fans (click for larger version): 

Lubaatun, Mayan ruins in Belize

Lubaantun, Mayan ruins in Belize Lubaantun Ruins Mayan ruins

Lubaantun Ruins

Lubaantun Ruins

Ruins at Lubaantun

Ruins at Lubaantun

To read about the ruins, try this website or this website, or leave a comment for Kristin. She also has many more photographs.

all photographs courtesy of Kristin Landau.

 

Playing Archaeologist

Each year our office hosts an Earth Day event for the public, hoping to encourage military and civilian families to come learn about what we do in cultural resources.  This year we hosted an open dig at an old homesite on Fort Bragg.  All nine of us in the office are invited to take part, even us three non-archaeologists.  (We are the architectural historians and the oral historian.)

 

I am not an archaeologist by training, but with a little help my knowledge of archaeology did return and I had a good handle on what I was doing.  I remember plow scars, and the A horizon vs. E horizon, anomalies, using the line level, digging in 10 cm increments, units are divided into quadrants, those sorts of archaeological terms.  I’m not sure I could recall all of the theoretical, analytical ideas, but I’ll save that for another day.  I did remember how to sketch anomalies or artifacts onto the quadrant maps and I had a lesson on transit-use and filled out unit-level forms.  For those few days, it was like archaeology class!

 

However, any archaeologist will tell you, as they told me, that shoveling (digging) and tossing the dirt to the screen requires a rhythm.  Your triceps will be sore after that first day of screening. Your hands will get calluses.  And here in North Carolina, you will find ticks.  That’s how it goes.  They fall from trees, I learned.  I wore a hat for the first two days and then got over my tick related fears, but still used tons of bug spray. Bring on the DEET! Once you find that first tick, the shock wears away and you understand that they can easily be removed without much trauma to yourself.

 

Dirt poses the most problem.  I obliviously walked in front of the dirt being tossed into the screen because I walked in front rather than behind it.  Had we rehearsed that moment, it wouldn’t have been as perfect.  I may as well have been the screen.  On another time, everyone left me, the non-archaeologist alone in my own unit since all I had to do was dig and really, it’s not that hard, especially when nothing is turning up in the quadrant.  We were digging in a very rooty area since we were on an old homesite in the longleaf pine forest.  As my shovel encountered a root, I figured I could just cut it with an extra pull up on the shovel.  Instead of breaking the root as intended, the root acted as a slingshot, flinging the dirt on the shovel up in the air and catapulting all over me.  Dirt managed to land down my pants, my shirt, on my head, everywhere.  It was terribly uncomfortable!  Since we had a porta-potty out there in the woods, I could shake off in there.  But due to the heat roasting the interior, I think I would have been better off just shaking out my clothes further in the woods.   My coworkers, all seasoned archaeologists, laughed at my story, agreeing that it happens to everyone (mostly newbies like myself.) 

 

Playing archaeologist for a few days provided an excellent change of pace. Typically, I’m always doing the same project in the same place, and it’s very rare that I am given a chance to take a working break for a few days and participate on another project.  Public outreach days are some of my favorite days because it gives me an opportunity to use other preservation skills and to interact with the public, even if it is just explaining my job.   Some families came to watch the dig, college kids, a boy scout troop (those young eyes excel at surface collecting!), and other folks just saw our signs and followed them 2 miles down dirt roads, back into the woods. 

 

Aside from encouraging the kids to help me screen (I always say “sift” for some reason), I always enjoyed the quiet time in the woods.  I see the attractions that might lure potential archaeologists: we sit by our units, hang our lunches on trees, wear clothes covered in dirt, sometimes play music, talk while we work, occasionally find something neat, and generally have a good time.  Since I didn’t spend too many days in the field, I could overlook the fact that this, too, would eventually become monotonous and lab work is always more time than field work.  By nature, I could not be an archaeologist, but it is extremely interesting and valuable.  Overall, I understand why my archaeologist friends are drawn to the discipline.

 

My favorite lesson in archaeology was how it can teach us about buildings.  I love the combination of everything: historic research, maps, chimney piles, road beds: all of these give you clues as to where a site would be.  An anomaly in the soil could mean that there was an eave above without a gutter.  Or perhaps the structure burned.  It is a strong, encouraging reminder of the inter-connectivity of our respective preservation-anthropological related fields.  Our most important lesson to keep in mind is how much we can work together to solve mysteries of the past and to bring outsiders from one field to another, enhancing the power of cultural resources everywhere.