March 31, 2015: First Lab Experience
I must admit that prior to being informed that we should wear clothing appropriate for being outside, I did not expect to be doing anything in the field on the first day of class, and I was a little bit unsure of what we could do outside on our first day in class. We were told that we had a short amount of time to think up a way of doing a walking survey that would look into the concentration of artifacts within the area we were in (behind the library). On the suggestion of a classmate, we chose to divide the area based on natural boundaries and walk through those areas in a primarily linear path, instead of doing a basic linear walk through the entire area. The advantage of doing the survey that way was that we could determine quickly which areas had the highest or lowest concentration of artifacts.
I found that our little mini walking survey revealed a number of important things. First of all, it gave me a better sense of the amount of organization necessary to do archaeological fieldwork, especially with a group as large as ours. I think that the process of having two people make a large map while groups also drew out their own maps of their specific area was what saved us from complete chaos. Additionally, I was struck by the necessity of controlling the experiment just as one does in any other science. In this case, our class and my subgroup had to discuss our exact methods for counting and identifying the artifacts (in this case, mostly trash) we came across. We had to account for limitations and unexpected circumstances and conditions, in this case in the form of our area being covered in leaves, which often obscured the trash we were looking for. I realized that had we used different techniques or even changed how far apart we walked by even a little bit, our results could have potentially been significantly different. Also, I found the process of doing the survey while also casually hypothesizing on which areas would have the highest concentration of artifacts very interesting. In the end, I was surprised to find out that my group’s area (survey unit 2) had one of the highest overall counts of artifacts, especially because I don’t think it was the largest area. We identified a total of almost 75 objects, the vast majority of which were small pieces of plastic. We were able to offer a number of guesses or hypothesis for why that was the case, including the leaf cover catching a lot of the plastic and the location of our survey unit (near the parking lot) leading it to pick up a lot of the accidental littering that might occur when people are walking in and out of their cars.
While the walking survey was obviously much less exacting and planned as a survey would usually be, I found it an incredibly helpful introduction to the idea, and feel that I can extrapolate from that experience to imagine a bit better how a more elaborate walking survey could work.
April 7th, 2015: Trip to the Goodhue County Historical Society
This Tuesday, we visited the Goodhue County Historical Society’s museum, which has an exhibit on the archeology of the region and a number of interesting archeological finds from several “pre-settlement” (a slightly confusing and problematic term, but one that was used at the historical society) eras, as well as exhibits on more recent history associated with white settlers as well as Native Americans. I honestly hadn’t realized the full extent of history present the Red Wing area, or that the different eras have such significant differences in the people and material culture present. I was also surprised by the level of communication between Mississippian cultures that was evident in the material culture from some time periods, and that there was so much communication with Cahokia at times. It was a good reminder of the fact that while knowledge of “pre-settlement” cultures is limited in the academic world, knowledge is even more distorted and limited for those, like me, who don’t have much academic experience with this historical topic. The cultural impact of continued portrayals of Native American cultures as “primitive” or “uncivilized” is something that I find quite unfortunate and complicated. Even when discussing Cahokia, which he used as an example of the richness of the Native American cultures, James’s emphasis on the fact that Cahokia was a city-like settlement could be interpreted as his using mostly Western ideas of ideal development to frame discussions of Native American cultures and their development (with the idea that cities are automatically indicative of higher levels of culture). I particularly found the distinctions between pottery styles at different times to be fascinating to see in person. The choice that had been made (oftentimes by the people who donated pieces to the museum) to reconstruct some of the pottery raised a lot of interesting questions for me and the entire class about balancing the desire to see an object as it would have been used and to not do something so invasive and potentially damaging with an artifact. I was also struck by how important specific people (in this case Clark Dobbs and Ronald C Shirmer) can be to furthering and recording the archeology of an area, and how almost serendipitous discoveries and relationships can impact how archeology is recorded. At the same time, it was in some ways disheartening to hear about how many burial mounds and other sites had been destroyed by improperly-done archeology or construction projects. It brought home the fact that archaeology is a destructive science, and that we as a class could destroy historical evidence permanently if we do not correctly conduct our survey and dig. That’s a huge responsibility for anyone to have.
A number of the aspects of the visit that I found most interesting might not necessarily or exclusively be related to archaeology. Instead, they revealed a number of the challenges of running a historical society/museum for such a small area, with what I assume is a very limited budget. For example, I found the conversations with the current employees of the Historical Society quite illuminating in terms of trying to determine who they were and what led or motivated them to work there. I was quite surprised that all of them were quite young, and that none of them had been working there for long (I believe the person in charge of archives said that the executive director is the longest-serving current employee, and has been at the society for a little over a year). The worker who was there on a Minnesota Legacy grant was going to be leaving before the funding was used up because he is headed to law school in autumn. Retaining staff is an issue, as is figuring out how to best serve all of their intended populations.
Despite James’s insistence that he expects and wants the society to expand its archaeology exhibits, when I asked about what exhibits people are most interested in, he spoke about how most visitors want to hear about more recent history, especially that which is focused on their own, mostly white, ancestors. He also discussed the slightly complicated relationship the Goodhue Historical Society has with the Native American community on the Prairie Island Reservation, in part because of the complicated question of how to make sure they have some control over the presentation of their own history. In addition to Native American and other visitors, the historical society needs to consider how to best serve the researchers and academics who come to gather information from the archives or the many, often not catalogued, artifacts within their collection. I was able to have a very brief but interesting discussion with several of the employees about how they decide which artifacts or sections of the archives to catalogue and organize first, although those choices often seemed to be rather arbitrary.
After visiting the historical society, we briefly visited one probable burial mound and attempted to find the site of another set of mounds. However, the map that purported to show the location of the other mounds was rather useless, which served as a relatively humorous reminder of how archaeology often requires one to start with limited information and make do.
April 14th, 2015: Surveying the Agricultural Fields
Well, we certainly walked a lot! I think that this day gave me a much greater appreciation for the dedication necessary to conduct a field survey, and for how random ones finds can feel. My personal favorite find of the day was definitely a flyer ad for a cable company, complete with two gift cards attached. The fact that most of our finds would best be categorized as trash was a good reminder that most archeological finds are discards, and that for a variety of reasons, artifacts found are rarely an accurate representation of the objects most commonly used during a time period.
Other than that, I felt that the key part of this day was learning how to work together as a team, and figuring out how to divide up work to efficiently and accurately collect data.
April 21st, 2015: Photogrammetry and Continued Field Surveys
Just as last week we had a guest speaker (Mary) come to speak to us about geoarchaeology, this week we had guests (Sarah and Austin) come to discuss photogrammetry and the use of 3D modeling in archaeology. Sarah discussed the development of various imaging techniques used in archaeology and revealed that until recently, scaled drawings were commonly used for architecturally-focused archaeology because 3D techniques were too expensive. Now, however, it is possible to create sophisticated 3D models using a commercially available camera and free or inexpensive software, or create more basic models using an iPhone app.
One of the most interesting things Sarah discussed was the utility of 3D modeling, and the fact that she thinks it has become a bit of a fad. I believe she made a very valid and important point about how archeological techniques that seem “really cool” shouldn’t just be used because people think they’re fancy or shiny. She also made some interesting points about how the way grant funding is allocated influences the types of archaeology people chose to (or can) conduct.
After a practical outdoor demonstration by Sarah and Austin of how 3D modeling works in the field, we all departed to the Women’s League Cabin site. While one group went to complete the last bit of fieldwalking from the previous week, the rest of us went to the Cabin site proper to begin setting up for further intensive field surveys and possible future excavation. Some began clearing the brush, grass, and branches from the site, while others started laying out the beginnings of the grid we will use. I was part of the group creating a grid, which is roughly 50 by 30 meters, with blocks broken off at each 5 meters, creating a 5-by-5 grid that will likely form the basis for a more intensive survey.
Finally, I have to comment: it was really cold! And the hail (or was it snow? or rain?)! In any case, I was jealous of “traditional” archaeologists for a moment, with their summertime field seasons.
Excavation (for real, sort of) day 1:
This is the day I would define as our first day of serious excavation. After getting to the site, as a large group we gathered to discuss areas of interest where we might like to place trenches or test pits. In the context of the diagram/plans of the Women’s League Cabin, people were particularly interested in the corner near the chimney, the entryway, and the back South-East corner. We also attempted to determine the location of the cabin based on comparing an old photograph and the presence of several trees that may have been shown in the photo. Through this process, we formulated an initial hypothesis on roughly where the cabin’s foundation would be. Then, we split into several groups. One group went to complete the field survey in the open fields, one split into pairs to start doing an intensive collection and recording effort of our 5-by-5 meter squares, and one group was supposed to work with the plans we had of the cabin to determine the location of various points. We began by determining if the scale shown on the map was accurate by comparing it to the patio, and used the scale we found (converted into metric) to attempt to mark out the location of the corners of the cabin and other main points on the site. Quite rapidly, we made a number of confusing discoveries that indicated the plan was not entirely accurate: if the plan was correct, a giant tree would have existed within the cabin. Additionally, we found that the dimensions of the patio were not entirely in accordance with what was shown on the plan. Finally, we noted that the location and length of the path and the stairs depicted on the plan was not at all accurate. Personally, one of the most interesting things that we discovered was the large extent of the path to the South of the site, including the pathway to the pump (which is technically outside of our site). I found the extent of the pathway on that side quite interesting because of how far from the expected plan (which mentions a drive that appears to be nonexistent) it is, especially as I am not entirely clear on if the plan was made before or after the cabin was built. I think that any discrepancies between what the historical and archaeological records state are inherently fascinating, as they may reveal something of the process of the creation or modification of the site.
May 5th, 2015: No, really, we’re actually excavating this time (excavation day 2?)
Today was the day that the excavation got serious. As soon as we arrived at the site, we split into four groups. Three went to work on three different test pit sites: one on the west side of the patio, one near the front of where the cabin likely was, and one (my group) at the back of the cabin (the east side), near a back patio. To begin, we cleaned the area by removing dirt (and buckthorn, thanks to Alice) from the patio. Through doing this, we discovered that the patio had sections where it was two stones deep and others where it was one stone deep (possibly at the location of the back door), and it appeared to turn at some point as if it wrapped around the edge of the cabin, which would indicate the specific location of the north-east corner. Through this process, we found some artifacts on or near the surface in the area. Most of these artifacts were glass and bottle caps that we believe are from beer bottles, indicating that the site was used for partying at some point (as confirmed in documentary evidence).
Once we had a general sense of where the patio was, we set up a 1.5-by1.5 meter trench that straddled the one-stone deep portion of the patio. The location of our trench made initial excavation slightly difficult, as it contained two sizable buckthorn trees within it. However, by the end of the day we were able to remove those. Context 1 included all of the dirt above or level with the patio stones (which was theoretically deposited after the site was abandoned/destroyed. Within that context, we found even more glass and bottle-caps, including some glass that may have come from a window, a number of metal pieces of unidentifiable sources, many plastic bits (including part of what looked like a plastic utensil), charcoal, and a metal piece that might have been from a champagne bottle, among other artifacts.