Daphne Ahalt: Fabulous Finds – Discovering Artifacts in the Archaeological Lab, Part One

Fall classes have started and I’m back in the Archaeology Lab learning and working with the artifacts that were recently excavated during Field School (see other blog posts by Joey Savino and myself for more about our experiences). Since returning, I have had the opportunity to explore artifacts recently excavated by UMW students. When I say revisit, what I really mean is sort and clean. I have brushed the dirt from numerous nails, animal bones and a couple of rocks – yep, rocks; and I have given dozens of shards of glass a good washing, while a couple dozen sherds of ceramics of various sizes and types received not just one bath, but a second – with a good brushing of the edges. Lesson learned, Professor McMillan.

The process may not sound the least bit exciting, but I have found that the opposite is actually true. As I clean each artifact, I reveal the details of an object that were previously obscured by dirt. What I thought was one thing often turns out to be another, and sometimes that thing is more interesting or exciting than originally thought! So, over the course of the semester I will be writing about the artifacts that I find most interesting, enlightening or just plain cool. I’ll start with an artifact that I think is all three.

Excavated Sticking Tommy. Photo by: Author

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the lab diligently cleaning a very large bag of metal objects that had been pulled from a unit. The layer I was working on is from a large midden associated with a Union Army encampment from 1862 in Stafford County, Virginia. The master context for this layer includes many military related items, such as bayonets, clothing materials, including eagle buttons, and several different types of ordinance. I came upon a blob of metal and dirt on top of a short and sharpened metal spike – it looked like an overgrown lollipop.

I began to brush the sides of the metal blob and soon realized that my effort was having little effect, so I decided to try brushing the blob’s slightly flattened top. Dirt immediately flew everywhere. I kept brushing as the dust continued to fly from the blob creating a brown, Pigpen-style cloud around me. Partly to save my eyes from the dust cloud, and partly out of pure curiosity, I traded my toothbrush for a pick. Ever so gently, I placed the tip of the pick into the top-center of the blob where I had been brushing. To my surprise, the dirt began to flake away in neat, thin layers. As the layers of dirt slowly peeled away, I began to see that under the blob there was an iron rim that encircled a small, tubular void.

With my interest piqued, I began to gently pick the dirt out from the void. As I picked at the soil in the void, the compacted dirt on the sides of the blob began to fall away. Suddenly the object took on a very recognizable form. Handing it to classmate and field school peer, Erin Fox, she immediately confirmed what I was thinking – it is a candle holder! But on a nail? Determined to see as much as I could, I continued to brush and pick until I was nervous that I would damage the artifact.

Examining the candle holder left me with more questions than answers. First, why is this candleholder perched on what appears to be a purposefully sharp spike? Next, what in the heck was this strange little candle holder used for exactly – its odd form must have had a specific purpose. There is a band of corrosion that wraps around the face of the candle socket that refuses to budge; it looks like a worm encased in dirt. What in the heck is that? Research mode kicked in, I had to know the answers. After more than a few fruitless searches, I finally stumbled upon a few websites that showed some promise.

Miner’s Sticking Tommy; Photo courtesy of Amazon

The first was for a historic 1850’s Vermont dairy farm. The page contains a picture of an object that looks very similar to the artifact I discovered in the lab. The title reads “Colonial Sticking Tommy” and the caption explains that the “little sticking Tommy wasn’t used in hard rock mining like most. It is a much earlier, utilitarian, and once popular candlestick used for in-home lighting during American colonial days up and through the Civil War.” Hmmm, interesting. The artifact in the lab was found on an 1840’s plantation that was documented to have had a Union Army Officer’s camp perched on it during the Civil War. The caption continues to note that the object has “two cast-iron spikes at a 90-degree angle to each other. It could be vertically stuck into a railing, post or table or it could be horizontally stuck into a wall or timber posts and thus provide lighting whenever and wherever desired.” Well, that explains the “nail” part. Could that also be the explanation for the worm-like corrosion on the side of the one in the lab? Did the horizontal spike get “stuck” forcefully one-too-many times into a wall or tree and bent beyond repair? Even without the horizontal spike the candle holder could be used vertically stuck into a table or the top of a fence post. Did the bent spike prevent the user from pushing the Tommy into the surface of the wood without poking themselves, rendering it useless and thrown into the midden where it was found during excavation? More questions, more searching.

The next link I investigated sent me to a website produced by Martha’s Vineyard Museum, titled Laura Jernegan: Girl on a Whaleship, which “tells the story of Laura Jernegan,… a 6 year old girl from Edgartown, Massachusetts set out on a three year whaling voyage with her father, mother, brother and the ship’s crew to the whaling grounds of the Pacific Ocean” in 1868. Found in the Artifact Catalog on the site, the picture’s caption describes a Sticking Tommy as “an iron candle holder that was used by sailors to ‘stick’ into wooden posts or flat surfaces below decks to provide them with a little extra light.” It goes on to say, however, that “because of their shape, they were sometimes used as impromptu weapons during brawls.” Ouch. But I have a consistent identification and a relatively similar artifact date; that’s enough information to get me headed in the right direction as I continue to research.

A Civil War Era “Stuck” Tommy; Photo courtesy of Ebay

The third link led me to an Ebay page selling a candle spike; not the best place to look for information, but I was curious so I clicked. Another visual match and a new search term! The item description read, in part, “original Civil War era miners metal candle holder with double direction spike. a very versatile[sic] utilitarian necessity for early lighting when and where it was needed. It measures 4 5/8”h x 3 5/8”d x 1 1/8”w and is in all original condition having authentic age character, surface and patina.” This made me curious as to the size of the artifact found in the midden in comparison to this and the others I had just seen, so I measured it with a caliper.

The Sticking Tommy found in the midden is only 2 ¼” high and is 1 5/8” at its widest point (including the “worm”). So, it would seem it is not only broken horizontally – since I have no way of measuring the artifact’s depth (horizontal spike) as above, just the width – but the vertical spike must have also broken. The Sticking Tommy in the lab is only half as tall as the one noted above, and it appears that someone has filed the vertical spike down to a sharp point so it could be re-used. Or maybe it’s some kind of make-shift Sticking Tommy, used in a pinch and then tossed aside. Either way, based on the information in the unit’s Excavation Context Records, and the small amount of information I have gathered so far, I surmise that the owner, whomever that was, finally wearied of the broken and battered candleholder and tossed it into the midden sometime near or during the Civil War.  As to who, we may never know; but we now have an idea as to what. I believe we have found a Sticking Tommy, a 19th century object used for convenient, portable lighting by persons along the east coast – and maybe for fighting.  Pretty cool, and enlightening, don’t you think? Going to have to research that fighting story some more. I’ll let you know if I find anything.

Bowl and “worm” on Excavated Sticking Tommy.
Photo by: Author

DLA

 

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Joey Savino: The Ex Situ Series. Volume 1: “Foundations”

In this series, Joey will be exploring his ideas, thoughts, feelings, and experiences in archaeology from the field to the lab, and ultimately to a final research project focused on the Sherwood Forest Plantation site.
-LKM

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There’s something special about Virginia clay.  There’s a special magic in it.  It has a certain soft give, yet firms up if you push too hard.  It’s got a scent, appropriately earthy, all musk and damp and slightly tangy sweet.  It’s also earthy in the sense of raw, sleeping potential, something ready to be worked and put to form.  But the real magic is the color.  Virginia clay is a complex red.  It can be a somber brownish red or a vibrant garish red.  Sometimes it’s a medley of the two, or of others, or some shade in between.  But damned if it doesn’t stain everything it touches.  It seeps into your clothes, your tools, colors your skin, fills your nostrils and your brain, inviting you down to feel its coolness.  Its touch, a lingering sense in the back of your mind and on the back of your tongue, a flavor you can’t quite recreate, a sensation you can’t quite place.  Virginia clay is a subtle color.  It starts slow, where you only see some of it here or there, then suddenly it’s all there is, all you can see, whether in the ground or in the skin.  It’s strange to think, that in this land so stained in mind, of Union blue and Rebel grey, of forgotten native and colonial white, of enslaved and silenced black, of countless multitudes crossing these grounds, whether in travail, train car, hold, or hearse, singular or across generations, that each may have been stained by the same clay, by that magical Virginia red.  Each carried something of it away.  All may have had that same, shared sense, that taste they could never quite place, that almost spicy sweet.  But each, I suppose, would be stained somewhat different.  There’s a magic in that, too.  Beyond the stains that color the skin, there’s a certain something that stains the soul.  It builds up slow, seeps in by layers, until it’s all there is, all you can see, all you can taste.  It colors everything, and is stubborn against removal.  Maybe that’s part of the magic.  Virginia clay has a sticking power, a staining power.  At least, that’s been the magic to me.

JDS

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My Summer in Archaeology- Daphne Ahalt

This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the third season of UMW Center for Historic Preservation’s Archaeology Field School at Sherwood Forest Plantation in Stafford County; it was the most amazing learning experience I have ever had! Working under the instruction of incoming Professor Lauren McMillan (you’re going to love her!) and with an amazing group of fellow students, I learned much more than proper excavation methods and recording procedures.

Measuring unit depth using the engineer’s scale was one of the first things I learned, followed by a quick lesson in how archaeology is not for wimps – schnitting sounds easy enough until you have a rude meeting with a layer, or ten, of Virginia clay. I must admit, though, learning how to recognize the differences in strata, and placing the artifacts found in each layer into context is fascinating, and well worth every layer of red muck. Together, the strata and artifacts slowly revealed the story of past landscapes, people and events, and sometimes a wonderful surprise or two!

Each artifact I pulled from the ground was a mini-lesson and soon I could distinguish between different types of ceramics and glass, their patterns and tpq dates. Learning how to use the transit to measure distance, how to do a plan drawing, recording the stratigraphy of units, taking proper photos – every day I learned something new as we uncovered, layer by layer, the physical evidence of the plantation’s occupants and changing landscape over the past 175 yrs.

It wasn’t “all work and no play”, however. Day trips to Historic Jamestowne, Montpelier, and Chatham Manor to see other archaeological sites and artifact labs were not just fun, they gave me the opportunity to compare archaeological methods and findings, and to examine the similarities and differences in the lives of slaves, soldiers, and the plantation owners. (But it was mostly fun!)

I think one of the best things about this summer’s field school was the extraordinary people I was privileged to meet and work with. From a day with prominent women of Fredericksburg’s Historic Preservation community, to the outstanding volunteers who came to work with the most amazing UMW student crew, all those we met on our trips, and of course, those who came to visit the site, including President Paino, members of the National Park Service, and UMW HISP professors and staff – current and retired. The people I had the honor of working with, and learning from, made the experience unforgettable, and made every morning of bailing water from the site worth it!

Backfilling was bittersweet – I didn’t want the excavation to stop, but the adventure didn’t end when the digging did.  Volunteering in the lab with Joey as we help Professor McMillan get the lab –  and the artifacts, site records and maps in it – organized has given me a sneak-peek at the administrative and collection processes that take place after the dirty fun has stopped. And getting to touch all the artifacts as we clean them…well, all I can say is: Best. Summer. Ever!

DLA

 

 

 

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Welcome to the UMW Archaeology Lab website- An Introduction

Hello World! Welcome to the UMW Archaeology Laboratory blog! We are so excited to revamp this website and tell you what we are up to!

This summer has been a busy one of changes and transitions. Professor Doug Sanford retired at the end of the 2016-2017 academic year. Dr. Sanford was in the Department of Historic Preservation for over 25 years. While I know students, faculty, and staff will miss him (and he us), I think he is looking forward to retirement and spending some quality time with his wife, boat, and fishing pole! You can see what Professor Sanford is up to here.

I (Lauren McMillan) was hired as Doug’s replacement and hit the ground running this summer. I have been an adjunct professor in the summers since May 2015, directing the Sherwood Forest Plantation research project. We held our third archaeological field school (HISP 467) at SFP this summer and uncovered many interesting finds, made some new discoveries about the 1840s plantation landscape, and had a grand time doing it! With me this summer were six field school students, two student field assistants, two student volunteers, and several other visitors and volunteers throughout the eight week season.

In the coming months, you will hear from several of the students who spent their summer with me. They will discuss their experiences excavating, processing artifacts in the laboratory, and conducting analytical class projects using these materials. This space will also be used by students to discuss other aspects of archaeology, collections management, historic preservation, internships, and independent research projects they are working on

But, first some background on some of the archaeology projects at UMW right now:

 

Sherwood Forest Plantation:

Sherwood Forest Plantation (44ST615) was built in the 1840s and is located approximately five miles outside of the City of Fredericksburg in Stafford County. We started this project in 2015 with two main goals: reconstruct and understand the antebellum landscape and explore the lives of those who lived and labored (both in bondage and free) on the plantation. We have been conducting a shovel test pit survey across the property during the school year as class projects and test unit excavations in the summer based on historical research, oral history accounts, and the STP survey results.

Last year, we began investigating a large, shallow, stratified, intact feature in the yard between two standing antebellum buildings (a brick kitchen/laundry slave quarter and a frame duplex quarter) located in the plantation’s curtilage. Originally, we had thought this area was either a naturally low spot used for refuse disposal or a purposefully dug trash pit filled in around 1860. However, the feature itself is less than a foot deep- not really big enough to be a true trash pit. This year, we were able to define and delineate the edges of this approximately 20ft. x 30ft. feature. This feature has roughly straight edges with the same orientation as the 1840s buildings. The orientation of the feature, combined with evidence of several planting holes identified in the final mixed clay layer (right before subsoil), has led to the new interpretation of this feature as a large, somewhat sunken, garden associated with the kitchen and duplex quarter. The analysis of the 2015 and 2016 artifacts indicate that this feature was filled in rather quickly and purposefully in the middle of the 19th century. We are all very excited about this new development, as we had previously thought much of the antebellum landscape within the curtilage had been destroyed in the mid-19th century and again during an early 20th century landscaping episode.

 

Visitors and Field Trips:

We had many visitors to the site this summer. Many preservation professionals in the Fredericksburg area visited us, from organizations including Dovetail CRG, the City of Fredericksburg, Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc., the Fredericksburg Area Museum, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Stafford County Historical Commission, and the George Washington Foundation. From further afield, the archaeological field school from Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest spent an afternoon with us! We were very happy to host Jack, Eric, and all of their students and staff.

The UMW archaeological field project also hosted a week long Archeological Society of Virginia field school. This was the second year that we opened up the project to ASV volunteers and certification students. The ASV Archaeological Technician Certification Program is an amazing way for people who have not received a formal academic education in anthropology, archaeology, or historic preservation to gain formal (and intensive!) training in archaeology under the guidance of professional archaeologists across the state. This is the second year that UMW has joined other institutions, such as the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, James Madison University, Mount Vernon, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in providing training to certification students.

We also had a very special visit by UMW’s own President Paino! We were so excited to host President T-Pain on one of the hottest days of the year. Students were able to discuss their research projects based on the 2015 and 2016 excavations, show the president what we found this year, and illustrate how fun and hands on archaeology and historic preservation are!

 

The UMW field school visited several other archaeological sites. We spent a day exploring the museums and archaeological excavations at Jamestown Rediscovery. Several staff members, including Dave Givens, Merry Outlaw, and MWC alumna Jamie May gave us all great tours of the site and collections.

We headed out west to James Madison’s Montpelier estate. There, archaeologists Matt Reeves, Terry Brock, and Mary Furlong Minkoff gave us tours of the ongoing archaeological field work exploring the lives of those held in bondage on the plantation. We also got a behind the scenes look at the archaeology laboratory, and a special tour of the Confederate Civil War encampments on the property.

Barbara Heath from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville opened up her field project at Coan Hall to us. We excavated on the 17th-century plantation site for two days and stayed overnight with the UTK field school and crew. This trip allowed UMW students to meet and work with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as professionals, from various institutions, gave them the opportunity to excavate on a different kind of site (plowzone), and learn about 17th-century material culture and the history of one of the earliest European settlements on the Northern Neck of Virginia. Also, Dr. Sanford made a guest appearance at Coan Hall!

 

Laboratory Collections:

As the archaeology lab is transitioning under new supervision, we are slowly, but surely, rearranging and rehousing our collections making room for new projects. Students have been helping me with this task this summer and the archaeology lab aides will continue into the Fall and Spring semesters. You will hear from these students in the coming weeks discussing the challenges (and joys!) of collection’s management. I think this summer has been eye opening to several students- most people do not think about what happens to the artifacts and accompanying paperwork after the fieldwork is complete. These students are getting a taste of why the old adage “one day in the field equals four days in the lab” just isn’t quite enough.

Another goal this coming year is to enter all of the collections generated by past UMW/MWC archaeological projects within Fredericksburg into VCRIS. This will be a collaborative project with the City of Fredericksburg. Once the Fredericksburg sites are entered into the statewide system, we will start to move onto other municipalities.  Look for future posts about this project, which will be a student internship.

 

Nomini Plantation:

Courtesy of VDHR

A new project to UMW is the analysis of Nomini Plantation (44WM12), a 17th-century archaeological site in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Nomini was excavated in the 1970s by ASV volunteers. While the original excavator, Vivienne Mitchell, wrote several artifact specific articles on the site, the collection was never fully processed or analyzed and no report was written. In 2012, Brad Hatch and I began the process of analyzing this collection by first cataloging all of the clay tobacco pipes, ceramics, and faunal materials. We have been able to piece together context information and determine layers and phases of the site, despite the fact that three different excavation and recording techniques were used. We phased the site through ceramic cross mends, mean ceramic dating, tobacco pipe stem dating, and careful readings of the field paperwork. Since our initial work, Esther Rimer used the table glass from Nomini in her thesis research.

Photo by Hatch. Courtesy of VDHR.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, one UMW student aid and a hired lab technician will be working on this project through a DHR Threatened Sites Grant. They will digitize all of the original field paperwork, create GIS maps of the site, and integrate all of the catalogs created by Hatch, Rimer, and myself into a single streamlined catalog through our new Access-based cataloging system. They will also catalog the bottle glass and metals. All of this work in the UMW Archaeology Lab will be used to write a report on the collection that will be submitted to the DHR.

Students in the Artifact Analysis (HISP 491) and Laboratory Methods in Archaeology (HISP 462) classes will also be using this collection for various class projects throughout the Fall semester. So- keep an eye out for student blog posts focused on the Nomini Plantation site.

Photo by McMillan. Courtesy of VDHR.

This project stems from several other collections based projects on 17th-century archaeological sites on the Northern Neck of Virginia initiated by Dr. Barbara Heath at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. These projects have included the John Hallowes site (44WM6) and Coan Hall (44NB11). The ultimate goal of this Nomini Plantation project is to place the catalog, report, and digitized records into the Colonial Encounters database. The Nomini Plantation analysis project brings UMW into a multi-institutional collaborative project focused on open sourced access to archaeological data. The Colonial Encounters project specifically focuses on “old” and previously underused collections on both sides of the Potomac River and was initiated by Dr. Julia King at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

 

 

Future Directions:

Now that I have given you an introduction to our new UMW Archaeology Laboratory website, please stay tuned. I am going to pop in every now and again, but mostly this will be a place for students to write about their projects and research.

LKM

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T-Pain Visited the Archaeological Field School!

Check it out! President T-Pain visited the UMW Historic Preservation’s Archaeological Field School earlier this month! We were very happy to host President Paino, show him all the great artifacts we have been finding, and share with him our interpretations of this 1840s plantation!

Paino Visits Archaeological Field Project in Stafford

 

 

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