Lizzie O’Meara – Archaeology: Can you dig it?

The week of May 21st, 2018 marked my first week of field school with the University of Mary Washington. While the thought of getting to experience actual real world archaeology was an exciting one, I could not help but feel slightly intimidated by the 5 weeks that laid ahead of us on that first Monday morning. Once we had settled into our accommodations at Stratford Hall Plantation, we explored the grounds that we would call home for the next month. Our class has been given the opportunity to work with the plantation’s collection of artifacts twice a week, which allows us to gain more experience with the greater scope of archaeological work. The other three days of the week will be spent in the field with archaeologists from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, excavating nearby contact period Native American sites.

On our first day in the field, we began with the task of digging shovel test pits, or STPs, which all archaeologists must complete in order to get an idea of the distribution of artifacts across a wide area. This process allows us to determine where we may want to investigate further through digging a unit, usually measuring 5×5 feet. When digging an STP, once you hit the lowest level of soil, called subsoil, you stop digging. It is fairly easy to tell when you have hit the subsoil based on the difference in color and consistency of the dirt. However, being the untrained amateur that I am, my first STP went down about a foot deeper than it needed to. That being said, mistakes like those are the essence of field school. We are out here in order to learn the correct way to do things, and sometimes that means having to sift through an extra foot of dirt in order to learn from that mistake.

Speaking of sifting, that brings me to my favorite part of field school so far: screening for artifacts. When we are out digging, we carry these screens with us in order to sort through the dirt that we pull up from the ground. This allows us to catch all the artifacts that may be located in our STP or unit. If we did not do this, what would be the point of digging these holes in the first place? I have been learning so much from Dr. Lauren McMillan and Dr. Julie King, who have been helping us to identify the various artifacts that have come from the site.

After we finished our shovel test pit survey, we opened up 5x5ft. test units. My favorite artifacts that we have recovered from our unit were small green and red trade beads, pictured below among fragments of red clay and white clay pipes. Due to their small size, they nearly slipped right through the screen, making them an extra special find.

As mentioned before, our class has been given the opportunity to do lab work for Stratford Hall Plantation. The work that we have been doing consists of cataloging and cleaning their collection of artifacts excavated from a site located on the property called the Oval Site. Among the various artifacts are ceramics, glass, pipe fragments, and lithics, which are the byproducts left behind from stone tool making. Through doing this work, we are learning the processes that go into the side of archaeology that sometimes goes unnoticed. Without this work, there would be no hope for gaining a larger interpretation of the sites that we excavate.

I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to take all of the methodology that I have learned in the classroom and see it applied in a real world situation. I hope to continue expanding my knowledge over the next month, and I look forward to all of the exciting discoveries we are sure to uncover in the field.

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