Adventures in the Field: Week 6

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 # 6.

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By Lauren McMillan

Week 6: 6/22/09 – 6/26/09

The last week of field school is always bittersweet; you’re excited about what has been accomplished and about the experiences you have had, but also sad it’s over.  You’re sad you didn’t loose all that weight you thought you would digging and you’re not very happy with the strange tan lines that have appeared over the last six weeks, but happy about the friends you’ve made, the stories you’ll have to tell and the fact that you are now qualified to be a shovel bum.  Or, at least that’s how I felt as a student, but as a TA (and I’m sure Dawn feels this way a billion times more than I do) you’re a little nervous about what’s next: analysis, interpretations and general deep thought.  However, I’ll leave those particular deep thoughts to Dawn and her thesis and tell you about our last week in Bath.

All of Monday and half of Tuesday were devoted to finishing the last bit of the cellar and the builder’s trench.  We finally came down onto the sandy occupation layer in the cellar and were expecting all sorts of neat, possibly whole, artifacts from when the building was in use.  We were sorely disappointed; the artifact density almost completely dropped off under the fill layer.  We did find a few nicely dated pieces of ceramics, such as Staffordshire slip-wares, and thank the archaeology gods, no whiteware or even pearlware!  One of the biggest surprises was a half a cask, or barrel, hoop.  We weren’t exactly excited to find this on Tuesday, as we were trying to finish because Wednesday was our last day, and it was a half day at that.  But, Ash pulled through for us, and got the whole thing out pretty quickly.  The cask hoop was a nice way to finish up the season though, because it helps support the interpretation of a merchant’s storehouse.  It would be in this type of container that merchandise, such as lead shot or naval stores, would be shipped to and from England.

Half of a cask hoop on the cellar floor. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Half of a cask hoop on the cellar floor. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

At the end of Tuesday Robert brought out the laser scanner again (I mentioned in week 4 he scanned in the Palmer-Marsh cemetery to create a 3D image of it).  This time, he scanned in the excavated cellar.  It was quite funny at the time, because two students and I were making a section map of the stairs, the old fashion way, when the technology-mobile pulled up and somewhat one upped my line level and pencil. Again, I’ll defer to Robert in explaining how this works.

Laser scanner. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Laser scanner. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

You saw how long it took you to make just a profile of the stairs, well in roughly the same time I made a 3D map of the entire cellar with an error budget (average error) of 1mm. So I essentially collected all the data on the size of the cellar, bricks, mortar, etc. and it can all be verified, measured, manipulated, rastered, and rendered into a hard surface easily within a computer, and that data is much easier to store and preserve than even acid free paper (a damaged hard drive can still store data). So if Dawn or anyone at a later time wanted to import the cellar data into GIS they can and view any aspect of it they wish, and they can get measurements in any unit they want. Heck if you were bored you could change the unit to parsecs and see how infinitesimally small our site is.

Measuring and drawing the stairs the old fashioned way. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Measuring and drawing the stairs the old fashioned way. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

I have not seen the results of the scanner, but I’ll believe it when I see it.  I’m not sure how well it would have been able to pick up the depth differences of the slots for the wooden steps; when I asked the professor out there helping Robert, he told me that he didn’t think the scanner would get it. So, we still would have had to hand draw it.  It was a John Henry story, minus me dying in the end.

Cellar with laser scanner prisms and measuring the old way in the background.  I almost became a Luddite. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Cellar with laser scanner prisms and measuring the old way in the background. I almost became a Luddite. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Cellar from the roof of the Intern House. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Cellar from the roof of the Intern House. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

On Wednesday we did our final cleaning, drawing and took the site photos.  I must say, from the roof of the Intern House, the cellar looked pretty awesome.  Promptly after lunch, it was filled in by a backhoe, which, in itself, was cool to watch.  We backfill the site for a variety of reasons; people always ask why we don’t leave it open for the public to see.  To me, the most important is for the preservation and integrity of the cellar itself.  Secondly, it’s kind of dangerous to have a big hole in the ground on public property.  Lastly, for future research; we did not dig the whole cellar, because some of it is under the Intern House.  Also, what’s left there can be excavated and a restudy can be conducted when there are new techniques, technologies or simply fresh research questions to ask.

Cellar being filled in with a backhoe. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Cellar being filled in with a backhoe. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

ECU Bath Field School 2009. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

ECU Bath Field School 2009. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

This finished up the 2009 Bath field school.  It was a fun six weeks in which we all learned, not just about the past and dirt archaeology, but about what’s next in the field, the technologies, and of course, a little bit about ourselves.

Since this was a somewhat short post, I’ll go ahead and tell you all about what Dawn and I did the rest of the week.  We skipped out during the filling of the cellar and headed back to campus to put all the equipment away and as soon as this was done, we hit the road.  We went to Town Creek Indian Mound, near Charlotte, NC, to dig and camp for a few days.  Town Creek is a Mississippian influenced Pee Dee site, dating from around 1100-1500AD and is the eastern most Mississippian mound in the country.  Basically, it was an awesome experience, and my first prehistoric excavation.  We were part of a volunteer group under professors from UNC Chapel Hill, and one of our ECU professor’s, whose work has revolved around the village at Town Creek.  The purpose of this investigation was to find the outer palisade, and we did.  As far as artifacts, we found a Clovis point, the oldest artifact ever found there, and more lithics than I thought possible.

Town Creek archaeological site with the mound in the background. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Town Creek archaeological site with the mound in the background. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Dawn and me working?! I guess we’ll dig if we’re not being paid. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Dawn and me working?! I guess we’ll dig if we’re not being paid. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Palisade postholes. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Palisade postholes. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Well, this is my last Adventures in the Field post.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and possibly even learned something.  I know I’ve had fun writing these, and thinking critically about what I do and what I’ve learned.  Thanks for reading!

Adventures in the Field: Week 5

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 # 5.

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By Lauren McMillan

Week 5: 6/15/09 – 6/19/09

This was our last full week in the field, and while we did run into a few hurdles, we did eventually jump them and got a lot accomplished.  We continued with the same old stuff in the cellar, and are almost there!  One more day, and it should be finished.  Some of our most interesting finds this week were two different porcelain tea cup bases.  These delicate pieces of ceramic would have been imported from China at quite some cost.  These artifacts will be important in the analysis and interpretation of the site, because they appear to be the only “high status” items that we have found, and represent costly signaling.  The fact that someone in Bath was able to engage in such conspicuous consumerism should be an interesting talking point in Dawn’s thesis.

Partially excavated builder's trench. Note the uneven shovel marks on the left. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Partially excavated builder’s trench. Note the uneven shovel marks on the left. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

We started and nearly completed my second favorite part of the site, behind the entrance stairs; the builder’s trench.  This feature should give us a good construction date of the building.  The reason I like it so much is that I can feel a personal connection to the people who once stood in it.  As it is being excavated, you can see that a straight line was not dug out nearly three hundred years ago, instead, you can see shovel divots.  I find it so fascinating that you can literally see where the men put their shovels into the dirt to dig that trench that they later stood in to lay the bricks.  What is even more exciting is that we have found a large concentration of pipe stems in the trench.  I can just imagine the bricklayers standing there, smoking their pipes, and as they break or get clogged, discarding the stems into the trench.  The stems are basically the 18th century cigarette butt.

Ohm Mapper in action. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Ohm Mapper in action. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Robert continued to work on his geospatial thesis work down at the Palmer-Marsh cemetery.  He ran the ground penetrating radar over the whole site early in the week, and then on Thursday, brought out a new piece of equipment, the Ohm Mapper.  This thing looks like whoever is using it has a long tail dragging behind them.  I will defer to a short paragraph Robert wrote explaining it.

Resistivity is not new to archaeology, but the system employed by the Ohm Mapper is. Instead of the usual method of systematically probing the surface to send a current through it, the Ohm Mapper uses what is essentially an electric induction method which means that all you need to do is walk along survey transects dragging it, no need to take few steps probe and repeat. This makes the process much more efficient and less destructive than a larger array (usually mounted on a truck) is. The only problem with this is that it is really designed for detecting inconsistencies in soil at a minimum the size of a grave shaft, and at depths far greater than we would ever conceive of looking. So we have to adjust the array and see how it works, we follow a set of guidelines that Geometrics makes (the manufacturer) but it’s still an effort of trial and error.

Well, it sounds cool, and I hope he finds something there. But I think I’ll stick with my shovel and trowel for now.

High heel shoe marks on the site! Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

High heel shoe marks on the site! Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Now, as for the few hurdles we had to jump; we were flooded in more ways than one.  It was a media circus all week.  We were visited by the Washington Daily News and the Greenville Daily Reflector.  The most “exciting” of the reporters was from the local ABC station.  She walked up our three hundred year old cellar stairs, and left high heel shoe holes in the site! (For those of you who don’t know, these are both very big no no’s.)  I can’t believe how right Noel Hume was.  The other fun thing happened on Thursday; we got poured on during lunch.  By the time that we got back, the cellar was a swimming pool and the builder’s trench was a moat.  It was not fun cleaning that out.  But, that’s part of being an archaeologist; being a jack-of-all trades (and master of some?) and rolling with the punches.

Dawn sucking up the water with shop vac. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Dawn sucking up the water with shop vac. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

The site moat. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

The site moat. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

We will be finishing up next week.  The rest of the cellar needs to be excavated (about half a foot in two units) and then we will be cleaning up and photographing.  Thanks for reading!

Adventures in the Field: Week 4

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 # 4.

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By Lauren McMillan

Week 4: 6/8/09 – 6/12/09

Week four was defined not by new archaeological discoveries on the site, but by new methodological and interpretive breakthroughs. We got down almost to the bottom of the stairs this week, which is very exciting.  Also, we have been informed that there are steps similar to ours in the Palmer-Marsh House, a 1750s house located on the other side of town.  The stairs leading down into the basement kitchen of the house have wide brick steps with short wooden risers, whereas, ours would have had a short brick part and a long wooden step.  The wood would have most likely been used to prevent slipping on wet brick.  The Palmer-Marsh House has one of the three known 18th century cellars in Bath, which includes ours and one that Stan South dug in the 1960s in the yard of the P-M House.  In fact, Dawn, the other TA, is comparing our cellar to South’s in an effort to determine socio-economic status of the citizens of Bath.  One of her goals is to see how connected Bath was to the rest of the world in the 18th century; if the town was on the end of the world, or was highly involved in the trade and consumerism of the colonial period.

Sue excavating the stairs. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Sue excavating the stairs. Courtesy of Lauren McMillan.

Palmer-Marsh house. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Palmer-Marsh house. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Stan South's cellar excavated in the 1960s. Credit: Historic Bath (click to be redirected to site).

Stan South’s cellar excavated in the 1960s. Credit: Historic Bath (click to be redirected to site).

We are almost to the bottom of the cellar, and will most likely be done by next week. Now that we have a large portion of the cellar wall exposed, it appears that the foundation of the building was in Flemish bond; and as all you good preservationists know, that’s the fanciest bond.  So, one of the questions I am asking, is why would a communal warehouse be constructed in a way that would require the most bricks, or even with bricks at all?  Why not make a generic post-in ground or sill set building?  My initial thoughts on this are that because it is right on Front Street, right in front of the first port in North Carolina and that most of the visitors to Bath were merchants, this was a way of advertising to the rest of the world that Bath was a cool place to live.  Bath was a fairly new town when the building was constructed in the 1720s, and the community would have wanted to encourage immigration and one of the best ways to do that was to show that the town had the money to burn on bricks.  My second, and completely ludicrous idea, goes along with the story that Blackbeard’s men came and settled in Bath after his beheading in 1718 and brought all their money and loot with them.  They invested in the warehouse and put in a secret passage to their buried treasure in the cellar.  I hope we find it soon; my student loans are stacking up…

Our artifact density has started to pick up within the cellar, especially tobacco pipe stems and bowls.  This is particularly interesting to me, because my thesis is on pipe stem dating methods, and I’m hoping to include this site in my data.  I’ll give you a brief history and idea of how pipe stem dating works.  Basically, it all started in Colonial Williamsburg in the 1950s, as most things in historical archaeology do.  Archaeologist J. C. Harrington noted that imported English white clay tobacco pipe stem fragments change over time in a measurable manner, following the basic trend of decreasing bore (the hole where one would suck smoke through) diameter from the 17th century into the late 18th century.  He tested this idea by measuring fragments from the 17th and 18th century using drill bits in 1/64th inch steps, from 9/64th inch to 4/64th inch.  With the data he collected, Harrington came up with five time periods based on relative percentages of sizes (see Harrington Histogram).

Harrington's pipe stem periods. From Harrington 1954: “Dating Stem Fragments of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Clay Tobacco Pipes.” Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia 9(1):10-14.

Harrington’s pipe stem periods. From Harrington 1954: “Dating Stem Fragments of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Clay Tobacco Pipes.” Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia 9(1):10-14.

About ten years later in 1962 Lewis Binford expanded on Harrington’s histogram and applied a linear regression formula to the relative percentages.  The Binford regression formula, Y=1931.85-38.26X, is a fairly simple idea.  He calculated out the expected date at which the bore diameter would reach zero, 1931.85, and the interval between the means of the Harrington time periods, 38.26.  With these numbers, one would plug in X, the mean diameter for the sample being used, to calculate Y, the date trying to be determined, or the mean of the data sample.  This formula is used by all colonial archaeologists to help date their sites.  There are currently two other formula methods; Hanson’s ten linear formulas and the Heighton and Deagan curvilinear formula.  I won’t expand on these right now, other than to say that they are loosely based on Binford’s, are much more confusing and are rarely used.  The goal of my thesis is to determine which of these methods, if any, are the most accurate and reliable.  As a post-modern archaeologist, I hope to show that applying formulas and predictive models to people in different and wide geographic areas is ridiculous and useless.

Measuring pipe stems. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Measuring pipe stems. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Well, the last thing that happened this week was on Friday, when I was up at Stratford visiting UMW’s field school.  Robert, a field school and graduate student, is doing his thesis on geospatial technologies and their usefulness to archaeology.  One of the sites that he is using is the Palmer-Marsh cemetery, and he was out there most of the week setting up a grid and making a map, getting ready for his data collecting.  He is trying to locate unmarked graves in the cemetery using all sorts of fancy gadgets.  On Friday Robert brought out the laser scanner and scanned in all the grave markers and ground surface to create a 3D image of the site.  This will help in determining any subsurface remains by looking at the change in surface levels and will be combined with later surveys he will be performing, such as GPR and resistivity.

Palmer-Marsh cemetery. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Palmer-Marsh cemetery. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Well, that about wraps things up for this week. We should have the cellar completed next week and will hopefully start excavating the builder’s trench. Robert will also be bringing out other geospatial tools, so more on that later.

Me, Stan South, and Brad at South's poetry reading. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

Me, Stan South, and Brad at South’s poetry reading. Courtesy of Brad Hatch.

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.