During our lab period this week, we took a trip to Faribault to visit the Rice County Historical Society. Dedicated to curating the prehistory and history of Rice County for public access, the Historical Society had sections focused on the indigenous prehistory of the area as well as documents, artifacts, and various collections having to do with its settlement and development as part of the United States.
Most interesting to me were the topographical maps that described the glacial processes by which the landscape of modern-day Rice County was formed, the collection of lithics from various periods of prehistory, and the nineteenth century surveyors’ and insurance maps. I was struck by the breadth of evidence that can be drawn upon when engaging in archaeological study – from climate data to documentary record of human engagement with material culture, the Historical Society was a useful first look at how archaeological research need not be strictly field-based.
For this lab period, we took our first trip to the site that will be the focus of our archaeological endeavor for the term: the Waterford Mill, located across the Cannon from Carleton in the Arb. We’d looked at this site in class, with some photos and documents about the mill and its construction, but when visiting its current location, it became a puzzle to figure out the boundaries of the site.
Students engaged in mapping and preliminary survey of the site; however, I was part of a team that was assigned the task of clearing the site of overgrowth, brush, and debris that had obscured the remaining structure and surrounding area. Although I didn’t get to use any advanced mapping technology, clearing branches was an unexpected exercise in restraint – we had to be careful not to disturb any of the structure or remove any visible artifacts from their contexts, which would be poor practice. We made good progress, and I’m excited to see how the site looks after Wednesday’s group is done with their clearing!
Coming back to the mill, it was great to find how much the site had been cleared since last Tuesday. Although it was rainy, with mud hindering our collection and drizzle threatening our survey forms, we managed to keep dry well enough. The main rectangle of space that we’d set out to clear last week was much more accessible, which made it easier to engage in this week’s task: gridded collection of surface artifacts. While other groups were digging test pits, I, along with a group of other students, surveyed squares G11 and G12 (according to our recently created map), spending 10 minutes collecting anything we could find on the ground.
We found a fascinating variety of artifacts – from sheet metal, contemporary plastic cups, and broken glass to weathered ceramic pieces, there was a wide range that we found. Most interestingly, I came across a pair of intact small glass bottles, one of which had what could be the manufacturer’s name or logo inscribed at its base. This could help us to determine the date range of possible manufacture of these bottles, as well as any other relevant information about where they might’ve come from. Depending on how many squares the Wednesday group manages to finish gridded collection of, next week might be more of the same or something different. Overall, this was a very rewarding lab period.
In this week’s lab, we split up into three main groups: trench excavation, feature survey/site clearance, and DGPS mapping. The trench groups continued their excavations of the two trenches that had been started earlier in the term, and the DGPS group took points at grid square boundaries, around the trenches, and where the feature survey group was working. I was part of that survey group – we were tasked with searching for any remains of a second building, attested to in a historical photograph, that might be visible at the mill site today.
This building, in the photograph, was placed up a hillside west of the main mill ruins. We first found linear, parallel slopes on the surface atop the hill that served as the boundaries of a depression in the ground in the middle of the hill. This was our first clue as to the boundaries of the building – the slopes appeared to be mounds that had built up on top of the remains of walls. To figure out more, we had to do some site clearance to better see the ground and topography of this area. Although that was the bulk of the work that I engaged in, other members of the survey group found stacked stones that were nearly identical to those that constituted the walls of the main mill building. Other than those large remains, there was a pile of more modern debris in the middle of the depression between the wall-mounds. One of our group members drew a quick sketch that mapped the features we found (mainly the remains of the walls and the mounds that we thought covered them) and situated them in the context of the entire mill site. I wish we could come back to further investigate the building, but next week, I don’t think we’re coming back to the mill site.
This week, we didn’t return to the mill site, but rather stayed on campus to work on cataloging the artifacts that we’ve collected throughout the past two months. This consisted of two main steps at this preliminary stage: first, we washed and cleaned what artifacts could be safely cleaned without breaking, and second, we logged their material features and analyses of possible uses in a spreadsheet. Washing the artifacts was interesting; certain materials, mostly glass, revealed features hidden by dirt after careful brushing. A particularly interesting piece was a detailed fragment of thick, blue glass that almost seemed like it was designed to break without shattering. We learned, with some online digging, that this was some sort of insulation, which I found interesting because I don’t usually think of glass as an insulator. Other interesting artifacts that I hadn’t seen until now included a gear-shaped metal valve and a rubber stopper with plastic tubes, which might point to past industrial activities that might’ve occurred at the mill site. Beyond the cleaning and cataloging of each bag of artifacts, I’m curious to see how different students’ final projects might incorporate the artifacts that we excavated from the site.
For this Tuesday’s lab, we continued last week’s endeavor of cataloguing every artifact that we’d dug up. We’ve mostly moved beyond cleaning, although there remain a few bags full of metal shards and the like that still need to be cleaned. This week, we shifted our focus more to cataloguing. On top of noting the material qualities of each artifact, we were tasked with determining, when possible, artifacts’ typologies and possible uses. For some, this was easy: the more intact pottery fragments that clearly displayed mug-handles, for instance. However, for others, it was nearly impossible; I examined a strange plastic tube that looked like it might’ve been anything from a piece of an irrigation system to electrical insulation, but was impossible to pin down. For the artifacts with no clear category or use, we simply had to leave them blank, which felt a little disappointing (as though our grand spreadsheet had too many holes in it). However, as we looked through bag after bag, I came to the realization that without very specialized knowledge of both the area around the mill site and every conceivable material practice and industry that might’ve been present in its vicinity, educated guesses are all that we can hope to make.
In addition to logging artifacts in the spreadsheet, some people also took pictures of the more complete or interesting lots of artifacts. These were mostly either intact glassware, sets of similar pottery, or unique metal and plastic pieces. However, I wasn’t sure as to whether it was for class-wide recording purposes, or just for a certain group’s final project.
During our final lab for ARCN 246, we catalogued the few remaining bags of artifacts that hadn’t been dealt with in the weeks prior (two of which consisted of bricks that were sitting in the boxes, sans bags or much labeling). When the final bag had been logged, I was ready to turn to whatever new, final project we were going to finish out the term with. However, we didn’t begin any new projects, but rather went back through each catalogued bag and lot and verified that what had been entered in the spreadsheet was accurate. I was initially skeptical as to whether it was even necessary, but after I found a fair few discrepancies between the spreadsheet and what I assumed to be the correct bags, it became clear that before we put the artifacts in storage, a diligent look through our records was warranted. Looking over the list of every artifact we’d excavated, I was happy to see how much we’d found at the site. This fieldwork has been challenging and rewarding, and I’m glad that we’ve recorded in such detail the final set of artifacts that we found! I look forward to seeing how different groups’ final projects not only deal with the mill site, but also specifically with the collection of artifacts as well.