Week 2 lab, 4/9/19
During our lab period this week we visited the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault, MN, where we were given a brief tour of the society’s museum area. The focus of our visit was largely on the prehistoric past of Rice County, including the geological history of the region (related to us partially by a three-dimensional map) and the history of the Indigenous groups native to this area of the Great Plains. The historical society’s artifact collection included stone tools from the ancient Archaic periods and the later Woodland period, as well as more complex objects produced by the Mississippian culture, which despite largely being local to its eponymous river did extend down the Cannon enough for its artifacts to be present in Rice County.
I was extremely interested in the recent prehistory of the Rice County area which was revealed by the various stone objects, bison bones, burial mounds etc. which I both saw and/or heard about during our tour of the Historical Society. Cahokia and its associated Mississippian culture has long fascinated me, but I’ve never lived in a region which actually fell within the city’s reach. Even though (or perhaps because!) the Cannon River area was boondocks-upon-boondocks to Cahokia, the notion that there exists in the place where I currently live the material history of a people/group of peoples about whom far too little is known is really exciting to me.
Week 3 lab, 4/16/19
This week, we went into the Lower Arb to survey an area via field walking so as to both uncover aspects of the Arb’s material culture and gain experience in the sort of surveying we’ll be doing later this term. Our group split into two sections of equal size supervised by, in addition to Alex and Elise, one member charged with mapping the areas each group was to walk and recording a list of all finds discovered. Each member of a group stood five meters apart along a line and walked for about thirty meters towards a bearing chosen beforehand, cataloging all artifacts visible within six feet of them on either side. Our half of the group, charged with walking a sloping, forested area on the side of a path, found a large amount of material in the small gullies which wound down from the trail. I personally counted 59 broken, rusted cans, two pieces of a house’s gutter system, and the top of a large, broken glass bottle.
I really enjoyed the experience of field walking. It’s satisfying to have a simple and clearly-defined task which nonetheless allows one to, in a sense, discover for the first time a series of artifacts which likely haven’t been thought of since they were dumped (it was also nice to meet my beautiful spider friend, Little Dude). Perhaps the most useful result of this lab, besides the experience I gained and the small but real amount of knowledge which could be provided by our finds, was that it gave me access to a new lens through which I could look at my surroundings, one that considers the vast amount of evidence for my life and the lives of everyone around me that’s present both in the spaces that I frequent and the oft-forgotten places at the margins of my life, places like forested slopes near roads.
Week 4 lab, 4/23/19
During our lab period this week we went to the site of the Waterford Mill to begin a preliminary survey of the area. Some members of our lab group worked to clear the ruins of underbrush and obstructions, while others established a grid for later surveys by field-walking. Still others, including myself, sketched maps of the Waterford Mill’s remaining visible features. Julianne Pyron and I filled out feature forms for the lower part of the mill structure, a quadrangle of stone and cement walls rising from the Cannon River, as well as the upper part, a larger depression whose three stone walls hold up the earth around the edges of the site. We created simple maps of both of these areas, photographed them thoroughly, and labeled various notable objects, including a large fallen tree, exposed pipes, and crumbled section of wall, in order to give context to later models of the site. In order to prepare for the creation of those models, we also marked preliminary locations for DGPS mapping on our sketches.
The process of beginning to properly prepare a site for archaeological examination gives one a clear lesson in the value of keen observation. Upon reflection this isn’t surprising, but in a classroom setting it’s easy to forget that an actual site is generally going to be cluttered and disorganized. Luckily, a team is twice as observant as a single person, so it wasn’t an incredibly difficult task to ensure that all of the important features of our features were recorded on our feature forms. Photographic evidence will likely help us find anything which we might have missed, and supplement my map, whose scale and detail suffered as a result of my inability to accurately figure either with a pencil.
Week 5 lab, 4/30/2019
Our lab period this week was spent setting up trench sites, surveying for items, and DGPS mapping at the Waterford Mill site. My task this Tuesday was to assist our TA, Elise, with the DGPS mapping of the areas which were selected as excavation sites. This meant that I took down notes on the points which were taken by the DGPS device (while also protecting it from rain), so the Wednesday lab group would know what the file names of the various readings in the DGPS system meant. The two trenches marked out on Tuesday, one in the garbage pit to the south of the ruined mill and one on the lip between the upper and lower portion of the surviving mill structure, had points taken at each of their four corners and in their centers in order for us to have as accurate as possible an idea of their location when it comes time for us to analyze the results of our work at the Waterford Mill.
The experience of being trusted (at least in part) with the safety of a very expensive piece of electronics made clear the odd dichotomy of the archaeologist’s environment: on the one hand, it’s important to be able to use modern technology so as to make the most out of field research, but on the other hand, modern technology tends to be both fragile and expensive, and “the field” is hardly the best place for items which possess both those qualities. That being said, the DGPS device is a remarkably easy-to-use means of quickly producing an accurate model of a site, even if having to hold an umbrella over it hurt my arm.
Week 6 lab, 5/7/2019
Our group spent this week’s lab period taking more points with the DGPS, excavating previously-selected trench sites, and locating a secondary mill building which photographic evidence indicated was a small distance southwest (upriver) of the larger structure whose remains we’d already found. I was a member of the group assigned to this third task, and as such I worked with Matthew and Claire to a. search for any remaining surface evidence of the outbuilding, b. clear the area of vegetation, and c. begin examining the suspected secondary site more closely. This first step didn’t take long, as we found a stone-lined depression in the ground after a short walk which seemed to be the remains of a wall. The second step was more labor-intensive, as we worked to clear the thick vegetation that had grown in and around the pit, but it was completed in a short enough amount of time that we spent the second half or so of the lab with trowels, searching for artifacts while attempting to get an idea of the precise layout of the crumbling, buried wall.
I thoroughly enjoyed this lab period. For one thing, it feels excellent to reveal an archaeological site by tearing vegetation out of the earth with your hands, though I did go overboard at one point and pull out a bit of wall along with a stubborn tree’s root system. The more sedate activity of scraping away at the earth with a trowel was pleasant in a more meditative way, though it was frustrating to constantly encounter tough roots and rocks of uncertain provenance as I tried to establish the width of the wall I was sitting on top of. Still, discovering an ancient-looking square iron nail among the rubble (and thereby taking our area of examination from “probably what we’re looking for” to “very probably what we’re looking for”) was exciting, and made me feel like an archaeologist rather than just the overzealous lumberjack I’d been earlier.
Week 7 lab, 5/14/2019
The Tuesday lab group spent this lab period continuing the excavation of our two trenches in the mill ruin and an associated garbage pit, DGPS mapping, and examining the secondary building upriver of the main ruin. Like last week, I worked with the group assigned to the upper building, where I helped to clear brush from the “inner” areas of the site and clean out the area that we’d cleared last week. While the other members of my group worked to find notable artifacts (like a shoe!) and fill out a feature form with a map of the site, I attempted to find out exactly where the building’s walls had been to get an idea of its size and layout. I cut through roadside grass to find the northwestern limit of the building’s walls, and with guidance by Professor Knodell determined that its river-facing wall, a straight line running from northeast to southwest, went on for far longer than our photographic evidence had indicated. As part of my assignment to compile this week’s weekly lab summary, I also took photos at our two excavation pits to get an idea of the progress being made there.
The detective-work aspect of archaeology was made readily apparent to me this lab period, as I crouched through thorny underbrush and scraped moss from the ground in search for evidence of a long-gone structure. Exercising caution remains something I have to work on, seeing as I kept accidentally nearly destroying evidence in my zeal to chase the wall, but at the same time my eye for detail seems to keep getting keener every lab period as I get more practiced in the art and science of looking at dirt.
Week 9 lab, 5/28/2019
This week’s lab was focused on organizing and recording the finds from our excavations and surveys at the Waterford Mill site. We spent the first part of the lab sorting the various bags of material evidence into groups based on the trench area and context in which they were found, then went through the bags one by one and worked alone or in groups of two to describe the items inside. I was part of one such team, and was charged with going through the bags and finding suitable descriptions for the artifacts being recorded. For some items this was fairly straightforward, e.g. “transparent brown circular glass fragment, two inch diameter, probably the base of a bottle,” and sometimes less so, e.g. “two hollow ceramic cylinders of off-white color, rusted nail going through center of both. Upper cylinder is 1/3 the height of lower cylinder, displays fins on the face contacting lower cylinder, and reads “BULLDOG” on other face.” Another important task was sorting items into lots, which sometimes required judgment calls based on slight color differences in glass, paint chips from rusted metal, etc.
This lab was an exercise in careful observation, and in avoiding distraction. Elise was an admirable TA, but there was an element of cat’s-away frivolity in our lab group that, compounded by the giddy exhaustion of ninth week, provided this lab with an atmosphere of levity which could have made staying on task difficult. Luckily, we managed to have fun and also work efficiently, and tore through a considerable number of the artifacts.
Week 10 lab, 6/4/2019
Like last week’s lab, we spent this week cataloguing items and checking over our list of already catalogued items to ensure that none were missed or incorrectly recorded. This mostly went well, although a few items had seemingly gone unnoticed in previous labs and needed to be noted down, which was, fortunately, the whole point of checking the items over. Otherwise, not much that was notable or different from the previous week happened during this lab period.
I’ve really enjoyed every lab this term. Each has not only been an interesting and productive break from the usual activities of scholarship, but also helped me learn more about archaeology and what it means to be an archaeologist. This lab and the previous one, though they were more sedate than the others, nonetheless provided a window into the day-to-day work of archaeology. As with all the others, I found it both edifying and rewarding, even if it wasn’t very eventful. It’s been great to have the chance to learn in this way, tearing up trees, brushing dirt from finds, and making maps in the rain, and to be reminded that, yes, learning is actually supposed to be fun.