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.