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!