Shannon Bremer- One Man’s Trash…

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Well, that can certainly be said for archaeologists who spend endless days digging at archaeological sites looking for the things that were left behind by people of the past. But there is a lot more to archaeology that just digging. Beyond the field, there are important steps archaeologists must take both before and after digging. In our Archaeology Lab Methods Class, my classmates and I have had the opportunity to learn the necessary steps and events that happen before the dig can begin as well as what happens once the dig has been completed and artifacts have made their way back to the lab for processing and analysis.

Before a dig can begin, we learned that it’s important to create a research design. This includes your project goals, questions the project is meant to answer, background research, data collection, analysis, interpretations, and publication of the project’s findings. Once project goals and background research are completed, archaeologists can begin excavations. According to our textbook Archaeological Lab Methods: An Introduction by Mark Sutton and Brooke Arkush, there are two types of excavations: small-scale and large-scale (Sutton and Arkush 2014:14). Small-scale excavations are usually several shovel test pits (STPs) which are used to determine if an area is a site or not, while large-scale excavations generally occur after testing when an area has been determined as a possible site (Sutton and Arkush 2014:14-15).

While there is some important work accomplished in the field, such as the discovery of artifacts, various features, and building foundations, some of the most crucial work occurs in the lab. For every day of field work, three to seven days are usually spent in the lab washing, cataloging, labeling, rebagging, and analyzing artifacts found during excavations. When processing artifacts, it is very important to include the field context with the artifacts at all times. The field context includes the horizontal and vertical provenience information which helps identify where the artifact came from in relation to the site. In the words of Silas Hurry, Laboratory Director and Curator of Collections at Historic St. Mary’s City, artifacts without their locational information “are what they were when originally discarded, trash,” because the provenience information tells us everything we need to know about the context in which an artifact was found in relation to the site as well as other artifacts found there (Hurry nd:1).

For a class activity, half of the class learned how to both wet brush and dry brush artifacts, while the other half began learning how to catalog artifacts; we then switched the next class period so that we could experience both parts of lab work. Not only were these activities a hands-on way to better understand how time consuming and important processing artifacts can be, we also were able to help our lab at UMW make further progress in cataloging artifacts from Sherwood Forest, the site of the 2015-2017 field school. Just as other labs around the United States, such as Historic St. Mary’s City, the lab at the University of Mary Washington processes artifacts in a similar fashion. Artifacts are cleaned, labeled, and rebagged according to their unit, level, and artifact group. This method of bagging and labeling keeps the artifacts organized so that if they need to be pulled out for examination, analysis, or photography they are easy to locate. The process of cataloging the artifacts helps archaeologists better understand the site since it allows us to create important distribution analyses based on artifact type and other types of studies, such as site function analysis and site dating. For that reason, sometimes the laboratory work done after digs is even more important and insightful than the dig itself. I guess there’s a lot you can learn from another man’s trash!


Works Cited

Hurry, Silas
n.d. After the Dig. Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland. <>

Sutton, Mark and Brooke Arkush
2014 Archaeological Lab Methods: An Introduction. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, IA.


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Spring 2019 Elective- Worlds Collide: Virginia 1619

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Abigail Phelps-If at First You Don’t Succeed: Type, Type Again!

An archaeological lab can be a fascinating place to work. Much of my time in lab has been spent taking heaps of dirty, unidentified artifacts from an excavation and making them clean, labeled, and carefully stored. In the midst of all the glass sherds and metal flakes are intricate pipe stems, beautiful porcelain, and complete pairs of scissors. These are interesting pieces to handle, and make processing the less exciting objects bearable.

But then there’s cataloging.

Cataloging artifacts is crucial to their usefulness and existence in a lab. Categorizing and officially recording all artifacts in a consistent and exhaustive list allows them to be studied, compared, and accounted for. Putting objects into the catalog, while tedious, can still be interesting when it comes to small finds or other unique pieces, but it becomes rather challenging when it comes to more common rubble.

A pile of plaster, perhaps?

This is precisely what I came across last week, and I had no idea where to begin! I briefly supposed I could catalog all fifty-some pieces under one entry as “plaster”, but that would not be very helpful. When cataloging artifacts, we want to be as precise and descriptive as possible so that each artifact is easier to locate and research. It would seem that “white, crumbly building material” would suffice for a description, but there is much more to plaster than what meets the untrained eye!

When an archaeologist is confronted with any number of artifacts, one of the best ways to sort and describe them is through a process called typology. Much like a tree diagram, typology splits artifacts into smaller and smaller groups until a pile of architectural debris becomes small sets of useful information.

When it came to plaster, the first type I sorted them into was whitewash, plaster, and whitewash and plaster. As you can see in the picture below, plaster is made with a thick, rough layer, and covered in a thinner coat of whitewash that is visible on the walls it covers. There are often a few more layers in between, but they’re trickier to clearly identify.

The next type is lath marks vs no lath marks. Lath is the term used for thin strips of wood that serves as the base for a plaster wall. While plaster is still wet, it is shoved through the lath, which anchors it in place. Though wooden lath itself doesn’t survive in the archaeological record, its imprint in the plaster does. Most larger pieces of plaster in the pile had lath marks on it, either in the form of wood graining, or a sharp right angle where the plaster molded over the edge of some lath.

After lath marks, the next visual distinction is (purposeful) scratches in the plaster. These scratches are often done to help another coat of plaster stick to the previous layer. This can be kind of tricky to pick out, but if I saw a deep groove on any of the pieces, I set them aside.

As you may have noticed, while typology is a great method to make sense of a seemingly mundane group of artifacts, it’s not a perfect system. In order to make typology work, you have to choose a hierarchy of types. While this works pretty well for the major categories, like whitewash and plaster base, it’s more difficult to prioritize sub-categories, like lath and scratch marks. For example, I now have scratched pieces of plaster in four different categories: both lath-marked and non-lath-marked under the categories “plaster” and “plaster and whitewash”. A bit confusing, right?

Even with its disadvantages, though, typology got those pieces cataloged for me. Several dozen bits of seemingly identical plaster took on a whole new appearance in my eyes. Plaster “says” a lot more to me, now that I know what to look for. By forcing one to sort and categorize, typology gives information and detail to every artifact subjected to it. Cataloging may not be the most exciting part of lab work, but thanks to typology, it’s made a whole lot more sense.


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Olivia Larson- “Find Me a Village with a View”

In a land far, far away two genius professors joined forces to bring us the UMW 2018 Archaeological Field School; Dr. King of St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Dr. McMillan of the University of Mary Washington.

In all seriousness though, this research project was significant because of the collaboration that occurred with the Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia. Dr. King worked closely with leaders of the Rappahannock Indians, who shared significant oral histories and records to identify possible areas of excavation. Maps created by Captain John Smith during his explorations in the early 1600’s and GIS models created by Scott Strickland in the mid-2010’s were also used. After areas of interest were identified, we excavated and investigated several locations along both sides of the Rappahannock River to find sites associated with the tribe, from about 2,000 years ago to the present.


Unlike previous archaeological field schools that have been sponsored by the Center for Historic Preservation at Mary Washington, this particular project focused on pre-colonial, contact period, and colonial sites rather than solely historical sites. Additionally, we were afforded fabulous waterfront views. This was my second summer in the working on an archaeological site. Because I was a Teaching Assistant/Field Tech rather than a student this summer, I was on site longer and more often than the students. The students spent two days in a lab setting and the other three on site. The lab was set up at Stratford Hall, and the students would take a van to the site.

We conducted Phase I and II surveys this past summer, which mainly consisted of walking several miles a day digging about 800 shovel test pits (including a lot of empty holes!) and excavating select test units. Phase I is great for getting the “lay of the land.” The STPs are dug in 25-foot to 50-foot increments. This can show where there are higher and lower densities of artifacts and soil types distributed across the site. This is a very informative process, so many archaeologists chose to stop after this. Test units dug during Phase II allow for additional evaluation of the site.

In the summer of 2017, Sherwood Forest Plantation was in Phase III while I was a field school student there. Phase III includes digging test units and features. This is great, in that is allows for an in-depth analysis of a site. But, it also generates a lot of artifacts that have to be cleaned, cataloged, and stored. This, some believe, is creating a curation crisis in many archaeological laboratories which can no longer support the massive inflow of artifacts from Phase III projects.

In the 2017 Field School, I was a student; a student that was very spoiled. On-site we had shade (quite the luxury) and a port-a-john. We also had a bench and table to have lunch, and we stayed at one site that was near the university. This summer, we had to move around to various locations (along the river and Route 17) which had very little shade, no outhouses, and no benches. However, moving from site to site and working in more demanding environments taught me what it was like to experience archaeology for a boss rather than a professor; giving me a little taste of what it will be like in the real world after May. These types of projects that cover a lot of area also allow for a greater understanding and appreciation of the landscape of an area and contribute to studies of settlement patterns.

The education I received from this experience has already worked to my benefit at my current internship at Dovetail Cultural Group in Fredericksburg, where I am currently processing a multi-component site from New Jersey, which includes stone tools and debitage. The experience of working on several Native sites this summer has also re-affirmed my interest in pre-colonial archaeology. I would like to focus my attention on marginalized groups, whose story has often been left out of history.



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Guest Lecture on September 27, 2018

Please join the UMW Historic Preservation Department for a special Guest Lecture. On Thursday, September 27th, Dr. Julie King will be discussing her recent archaeological project investigating Rappahannock Indian History. She will be focusing on her collaborative efforts with the Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia.

The lecture will take place in Combs Hall 139 at 5:30pm

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Lizzie O’Meara- Field School 2018: A Retrospective

This summer, I had the opportunity to join the University of Mary Washington on my very first field school under the guidance of Dr. Lauren McMillan. We partnered up with St. Mary’s College of Maryland working on the Rappahannock Indigenous Cultural Landscapes project with Dr. Julie King. During the 5 weeks, we learned practical field methods that taught us all of the procedures and practices that are required in order to conduct a professional excavation. In addition, we were able to work with Stratford Hall Plantation, who provided our housing for the entirety of our field school, to catalogue and clean their collection of artifacts from previous years of field schools that had been conducted on the property.

During our time in the field, we went to three separate sites all located along the Rappahannock River that had artifacts spanning from the Archaic period to European contact. The main goal of the project was to create an understanding of the settlement patterns along the Rappahannock River before, during, and after European colonization.

Prior to this field school, I had never encountered prehistoric artifacts during my experiences in the lab. This made identifying objects in the field at the beginning of the 5 weeks quite a challenge because many of the prehistoric artifacts simply look like rocks. After the first week, however, it became much easier to tell an ordinary rock from a stone that had been modified by a human being. The majority of the prehistoric artifacts we found were flakes and shatter, which are both byproducts of stone tool making. We also found a few completed projectile points, which were able to give us a better understanding as to the date of the sites we were working with. Another common artifact that we were 

finding across all three sites were pieces of prehistoric pottery. Some fragments were very large and easy to identify, while others were much harder to distinguish amongst the other debris that we were sifting through our screens. At some of the sites, we encountered European artifacts mixed with historic period Native materials- an indication of cross-cultural contact and the exchange of goods.

Two days out of our week were spent at Stratford Hall Plantation in a make-shift lab that we had set up in their library. There were two stations: a washing station, and a cataloguing station. A few students at a time would be sent outside in order to wash the artifacts, while a few other students would stay in and catalogue those artifacts that had


already been washed. I had taken classes previously that had given me some experience with how to catalogue objects. However, at Stratford Hall Plantation, they used a different cataloguing system than the one at Mary Washington, and I had previously only worked with 17th and 19th-century artifacts; at Stratford Hall, we were identifying 18th-century materials. It took a week or so in order for me to adjust to the new software, but once we all got used to it, things progressed very quickly. In total, we were able to catalog over 1,400 artifacts for the Plantation.

While this experience was a lot of hard work, it was by far the best experience I have ever had while taking a course at UMW. Many inside jokes were made and funny moments were shared as we all endured the heat, bugs, and poison ivy that we encountered in the field. All of the girls shared a residence on the Plantation, which involved many movie nights and family dinners over the span of the 5 weeks.

The experiences and skills I gained over the course of field school are ones that I know will prove invaluable as I continue pursuing a career in archaeology. Being able to apply the skills that we were taught in the classroom to a real archaeological project exponentially helped me understand the reasons behind certain practices and how to run an organized project. I will carry these instrumental experiences with me as I move on to grad school and eventually into the real world of archaeology.

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Jessica Roberts – Past, Present, and A Shark’s tooth

Over the past five weeks, the UMW archaeology field school, under the direction of Professor McMillan, has been conducting Phase I and II survey work with Dr. Julia King and her crew from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. While we have dug up many interesting items over the past few weeks, I found something most intriguing while excavating my first unit along the Rappahannock River. We were digging test units at what was once a contact-period Virginia Indian village. The artifact that spiked my interest was a halved shark’s tooth, maybe from an ancient Megalodon, due to its size. It is half the size of my hand and was broken by an unknown cause. As for the other half of the tooth, we did not find it in the unit. Some hypotheses as to why this shark’s tooth was discarded is that it could have been damaged if used for hunting, fishing, or protection purposes.

Photo by Scott Strickland, courtesy of SMCM

We may never know the true usage of this shark’s tooth. However, one thing that should be noted is what was also found with the shark’s tooth. Along with the shark’s tooth, we found red clay pipe fragments, many Native clay ceramic fragments and pieces of European wares. On some of these red clay pipe fragments there were small dotted markings on the bowls of the pipes. Using the Law of Association, I can assume that the shark’s tooth may have had a purpose related to the red clay pipes with the dotted marks. One interpretation is that this shark’s tooth may have been used as a decorative tool for the pipes, as evident by them both being found in the same context and based on pipe examples pound elsewhere in this region. This again is just one possible use, so it is still open for interpretation.

Another hypothesis for this damaged shark’s tooth is that it was more than just a tool for the Virginia Indians who possessed it. First thing that should be mentioned is how the shark’s tooth made it to this site. It was not likely that this tooth was found along the Rappahannock River near site that this Indian group lived at. No, most likely this tooth came from further up the Rappahannock River or from Westmoreland County along the Potomac River; this is the closest location where an abundance of shark’s teeth wash-up on the shores from the cliffs. It is possible that this was obtained through trade with Virginia Indians living near the Potomac River, or someone brought it with them after visiting the Potomac River. My point in mentioning this is that it seems like a lot of trouble and effort to get this shark’s tooth for tool purposes alone. We found tons of flakes and shatter at the site that give evidence that there were other tools being used and made already. So why would the Virginia Indians go through all the effort to get a more fragile object for just a basic tool?

One possible answer is in the present, drawing on the concept of Uniformitarianism. You can see people today scouring the beaches in Westmoreland County and all along the Potomac River. These people, like myself, are looking for sharks’ teeth. We don’t look for them for logical or basic tool purposes, but because they are so fascinating. I believe the Virginia Indians were just like us. Fascinated by the teeth and whose mouths they came from. Like us today, there may have been Indians who were amazed by sharks’ teeth and collecting these teeth just as a hobby. The shark’s tooth found in this unit could have been a great story telling device, or maybe from somebody’s private collection, in addition to possible tool use. It’s hard to say, but to be honest, I like this interpretation more, because it shows that no matter how much the times change, human curiosity and the desire to collect what fascinates us is something that will never die, unlike the sharks these teeth came from.


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Delaney Resweber – Schnitting isn’t a Baked Good (although I wish it was)

In the wise words of Dr. McMillan, what separates an archaeologist and a random guy digging holes is the process of diggings and documenting the units properly in order to make interpretations about the site; “our interpretations are only as good as our data” and if the unit is dug incorrectly, the data will be bad. Archaeologists dig two main types of holes, Shovel Test Pits (STPs) and Test Units. The focus of this blog post is on test units. Test units are usually done after STPs and are placed based off the results of STPs where an archaeologists hypothesize a site is located.

Last week, I started (and completed!) a test unit with my field partner, Lilly Salamone. To lay in the unit, we need to place four nails in the shape of a square on the ground. Each nail should be exactly five feet away from each other. Luckily, two grid nails had already been placed earlier using a transit and we could use their location to place the last two nails. To do this, we set up a math problem (yuck!) using the Pythagorean Theorem to figure out what our diagonal measurement of the square will be so we can correctly measure out the square. To spare you all from the math, the diagonal measurement of the triangle should be 7.07 feet. Using two measuring tapes we carefully measure the diagonal for the third point, once we find the place 5 and 7.07 meet, we drive a nail into it to mark it and repeat the process for the fourth and final point. Once that is completed we tightly string the unit to give us boundaries to dig.  Now, we can start doing the fun stuff: digging!

Once the top soil is cleared, Professor McMillan had us practice “schnitting” which is an important technique (and not what I hoped was a pastry break), where the archaeologist lightly grazes the soil to evenly dig the unit and keep it level throughout. This is honestly kind of difficult, especially if the soil is bad (luckily we had the “best” soil, a sandy Tidewater soil that cuts like “butta”) but gets easier with practice. While schnitting, we began cleaning the walls and making them straight and clean. Professor McMillan had us do this with a spade to get the big portions done and then we went through and trimmed the roots with scissors and cleaned the wall with our trowel. After schnitting to subsoil, we carefully trowel the unit to fully reveal the subsoil and any features present on the unit’s floor. Eventually, you will have to get out of the unit to finish troweling because you can’t leave footprints inside the unit so you have to reach out and scrap the remaining parts of the floor clean. We had to be careful because sometimes we left what Professor McMillan calls “mouse poops” inside the unit, which are tiny pieces of dirt and the unit should be perfectly cleaned. Once the floor is cleaned we take pictures to document and score the features inside the unit. Scoring is essentially outlining your feature. Our unit had some features, all of which were plowscars and root stains. Overall, I think it was a fun experience and I think it was exciting to see the progression of the unit as we dug it. My favorite part about this unit is the lack of poison ivy and how easy it was to dig the soil. We mostly had quartz and quartzite flakes and shatter in our artifact assemblage but we also had a few pieces of ceramics, including Native American pottery and a piece of Staffordshire slipware which is odd for a Native American site but could’ve been the product of trade or an intrusive artifact from a different group of people who occupied the site at a different date.

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Archer Long – Thriving and Striving at Stratford Hall

Signing up for field school this summer has led to many amazing opportunities. One of the biggest surprises was the opportunity to stay at Stratford Hall Plantation. Stratford Hall, built in 1738, is best known as the birth place of Robert E. Lee and home to the brotherly signers of the Declaration of Independence. While staying on the plantation we have been given the chance to live in the renovated barn that is located right down the road from the Great House. Having the opportunity to roam the plantation at night is incredible and it really shows a different side to Stratford that not many get to see, one of an eerie beauty. While at Stratford for our five weeks, we have been given the chance to process and analyze artifacts in a remote lab that the Department of Historic Preservation has set up on site. Archaeologists from MWC/UMW excavated various sites at Stratford for over twenty years and they now have a backlog of artifacts that need to be cleaned and cataloged. Two days a week we head to our lab to get to work on the artifacts.

The first step of lab-work is washing artifacts. Washing artifacts can mean either using a dry toothbrush to scrub dirt off bone, metal, or other delicate materials or using a wet toothbrush to scrub most other types of artifacts, such as glass, rock, and ceramic. Cleaning artifacts can be very fun; but, it can also be very tedious. Getting to see the dirt wash off and reveal the glaze of a ceramic is exhilarating; however, cleaning a pipe can be stressful because you don’t want to damage the artifact. Having only a little bit of lab experience, I found learning how to catalog artifacts to be interesting and complicated. I had volunteered in the Mary Washington lab on campus in the past and cleaned many artifacts but, this was the first-time cataloging. Cataloging is our way of keeping track of the different artifacts we find, by labeling the data we can look back at any time and see all of the information needed. It also allows us to look at the “big picture” and see everything found on the site. It is a tedious task because you must be sure to correctly input the information so as not to falsely label the artifact. You must be able to identify an artifact, note anything special about it, weigh it, and record a variety of other inputs, such as manufacturing date, which provides a TPQ. When cataloging you are given the chance to learn so much about an artifact: what it is and what it was used for. The many artifacts we get to handle are so fascinating and many are things I never had the chance to handle before.

One of the first artifacts I had the pleasure of cataloging was a projectile point. Projectile points are one of my favorite artifacts to find because they are all so uniquely different. When cataloging a point, you must weight it and take several different measures, but you must also identify what type it is. The base of the point can help to identify it and tell us a rough estimate of when it was made based on known chronologies. Over time the size and shape of projectile points changed, the more recent points tend to be smaller as they went from being used to hunt megafauna to small woodland creatures. The point I had the chance to identify was likely a Guilford Lanceolate point, which would have been made about 6000-5000 years ago (MAC Lab). Having learned so much in such a brief time really excites me for the future and all the other things I will get the chance to find and explore.

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Lilly Salamone – This first week of field school was a ton of fun!

I had some experience volunteering in the UMW archaeology laboratory beforehand, but I was excited to expand it by working in the field. I did not really know what to expect, as the only experience with archaeology I had before was a handful of classes at Mary Washington, documentaries, and a few visits to Mount Vernon in elementary school.

On Tuesday, we arrived at the site and I had my first experience with field work. We were sent into a field full of very tall grass (some of it was past my chest!) to dig small shovel test pits, about one foot by one foot wide and deep along a grid. The grid-based sampling via the test pits and the pattern of artifacts it would reveal, would help indicate the patterns of settlement and occupation by the Native Americans who lived there. Although my partner, Lizzie, and I were initially unsure what we were looking for, by the end of the day we had gotten pretty good at identifying the small ceramic sherds and the little flakes of quartz shatter. We also got much better at digging the test pits, as our first one was about one foot one foot deeper than it needed to be. I also made the mistake of wearing a white shirt, which ended up VERY dirty.

Wednesday and Thursday we began to dig at different location on the same site, which is located in a small section of woods nearer to the river. This time we dug test units which were five feet by five feet, although still just about a foot deep. My group ended up discovering what Mr. Strickland and Dr. McMillan hypothesized was an unplowed surface midden, which is the layering of trash what was tossed in an unburied heap on the ground. We found some interesting stuff in the test unit, including two metal knives, oyster shells, a ton of Native American ceramics, and a piece of German Westerwald pottery. I found a piece of European gun flint which had chips taken out of it, suggesting someone tried to turn it into a tool.

On Friday, we had our first day of lab work. We also cleaned the van, earning ourselves headaches from the smell of the cleaning product. The lab work was familiar to be due to my prior experience volunteering in the archaeology lab, especially as I was assigned to clean the artifacts outside. The artifacts we found in the field tended towards lithics and Native American pottery, with only a handful of Europeans goods. The artifacts we are cleaning in the lab come from Stratford Hall Plantation, and are mostly Europeans ceramics of several different types and glazes, with many, many small fragments of aqua window glass. Next week, I will learn how to catalog artifacts, which will be new.

It was not all fun and games however. I discovered several different puddles by the highly scientific method of stepping in them, just about ten minutes after my shoes had finally dried out; I got a bad sunburn on my arm because I failed to put on sunscreen after lunch; and Wednesday I was extremely sore from the first day of digging. Delaney, another field school student, even found a tick on my shirt but luckily I have not found any on my skin.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the first week. I am looking forward to the rest of field school and I think I have finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up!

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