Week One: Gould Library Survey
Our first day in the field involved a simulation of an archaeological survey, conducted on the back lawn (and surrounding area) of Gould Library. In class we discussed strategies for taking a random representative sample of an archaeological site. When conducting a ground survey, we learned, it is important to systematically divide the area of interest into appropriate sections, and search for artefacts and features such that a random sample is taken. A space can be divided as a grid, or by sections determined by the overall shape of the landscape. Likewise, a random sample of each section can be investigated by searching along straight, evenly spaced tracts, or by selecting radial subdivisions within each section to search.
Behind the library, we decided that the best strategy would be to divide the space by natural divisions occurring in the landscape, for example the sand volleyball court, the drainage ditch, and along the road. Within these sections, our sampling strategy was to walk in tracts spaced roughly five meters apart, tallying finds within a space of one meter on each side of the path walked. This way, roughly 40% of each area was sampled. Data was collected on the number of artefacts of five different material categories (metal, glass, plastic, cigarettes, and other). My team surveyed the main lawn area. This yielded three pieces of metal, one glass item that was broken in shards, ten plastic items, and five items of unknown or unclassified materials. Artefacts found in the middle of the lawn were typically light, small items that would most likely have been windblown. Towards the library, at the north end of the lawn, the most variation in materials was found. Here, I discovered a broken glass bottle partially buried in mud, as well as a metal spring. My teammate discovered items characteristic of building materials: a fragmented brick and a washer. From these results, as well as the findings of the rest of the class, it appears that the distribution of artefacts was directly influenced by location.
Week 2: Goodhue County Historical Society
Week two brought our class to the Goodhue County Historical Society in Redwing, MN, to learn more about the past denizens of the Cannon River area. Our focus was centered specifically on the Native American populations residing in the area before European settlement. These groups include the Paleo-Indians, about whom not much is known, and later the Mississippian culture. We are fortunate to live so close to Redwing, where the confluence of the Mississippi and the Cannon Rivers was a hub of human activity that left abundant traces for archaeologists today. With such a rich local history, I was surprised to discover that the archaeological exhibit is not very popular compared to other exhibits at the museum. I can understand where sensational tragedy like the Sea Wing Disaster would be a captivating story to visitors, but it escapes me why thousand-year old artifacts would not attract greater curiosity. I think the unpopularity of the archaeology exhibit is reflective of the need for more widespread education and community engagement with the land’s pre-European traditions. Having the opportunity to handle some of the Mississippian artifacts was a meaningful experience that deepened my own understanding of the culture.
Another surprise from the trip was how small and unassuming the mounds that we saw were. If I had seen the burial mound at the site of the Historical Society with no prior knowledge, I would have just assumed that it was a small hill, part of the natural topography. Likewise, the village mounds that we investigated were much less obvious than I expected. After witnessing the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, I expected the site to be slightly more prominent than it was. It goes to show how Archaeology isn’t always about the monumental sites, rather, there is great value in the ordinary places that might be disregarded by an untrained eye.
Week 3: Cornfield Survey
This week we got a head start on our nice farmer tans, spending the entire class period conducting a pedestrian ground survey of the agricultural fields surrounding the women’s league cabin site. Like we did for our survey of the land behind Gould Library, our class split into groups that surveyed different units of the landscape. However, for this survey, the lay of the land favored a precise grid system rather than a feature-oriented division of survey units. Three groups of seven were each responsible for mapping and collecting data on three macroscopic field divisions. Within each group, there was one mapper, one note taker, and five tract walkers. Group A (my group) surveyed the eastern side of the cornfield, bounded to the east by Canada Ave. and to the south by Highway 19. We split the area into five survey units, each sixty meters wide. In the east-west direction were two unit columns. The easternmost column was divided along the north-south axis into three survey units of roughly equivalent length. For each of these units surveyed we walked southward in two meter tracts with walkers spaced at intervals of fifteen meters. The west column was divided into two survey units. Tract spacing remained the same, but we walked northward. Groups B and C employed the same methodology, group B surveying the western half of the cornfield, and C surveying an adjoining section of burnt prairie.
Despite spending several hours carefully scouring the landscape, few material artifacts were found. Similarly to our library survey, we classified finds by material. Materials of interest included ceramic, tile/brick, lithics, metal, plastic, glass, and other. This time, we bagged and labeled any artifacts of interest (or as Alex said, things that aren’t “gross”). Only three of the tracts I walked produced any findings. These amounted to a princely sum of 1 glass shard, 3 pieces of plastic, and 1 piece of paper. The distribution of certain artifacts seemed to correspond to an expected pattern; namely, more plastic and litter-y items were found on the edges of field closest to the roads. It is possible that we did not discover more glass, tile, or metal items because these materials are not gaudy and thus are difficult to spot among the thick ground-cover of corn chaff. Likewise, later survey units may have been less productive due to the fatigue induced by “cornfield hypnosis.”
Week 4: 3-D Modelling and Site Preparation
We continued our exploration of archaeological methods by starting this week with a discussion of 3-D modelling, and its uses and implications in the field. Thanks to Professor Sarah Murray from the University of Nebraska, we were able to learn more about the evolution of 3-D imaging technologies and even create our own digital reconstruction of the monument outside of Laird Hall. 3-D modelling is an exciting development in the field of archaeology because it permits highly accurate (down to a scale of millimeters) representations to be made of artefacts, buildings, and even entire sites. Before this technology was available, archaeological teams had to employ illustrators to create to-scale, hand drawings of sites and their features. The only alternative to this laborious (and subjective) process was very expensive terrestrial laser scanner technology, which did little to improve upon the quality and resolution of artists’ illustrations. Not only is the current method of photogrammetry much more accurate and flexible in its applications, but it is also considerably cheaper than its predecessors. I find it interesting how profound the impact of such technological advances can be on archaeology, because the profession typically elicits an image of basic field methods such as carefully excavating a trench layer by layer with a trowel, then bagging and labeling artefacts by hand. Archaeology (at least in my mind) is not a field commonly associated with having a close relationship to technological advances the way that physics or biology would be. Perhaps it is fitting then that photogrammetry has actually existed for nearly as long as the camera itself.
After taking the time to learn about photogrammetry and its uses, class proceeded to continue our work at the Women’s League Cabin site. I returned with my friends from team A to finish up the ground survey of the cornfield bordering the site. Nothing of note was discovered, and I myself did not come across a single artefact along the three transects that I walked. Meanwhile the rest of the class prepared the immediate area of the cabin site for intensive survey and excavation. A rectangular grid was arranged, with sides along the compass axes, and leaf litter was raked away to expose the ground surface. Beyond this, I am not clear on the details of what occurred at the site.
Week 5: Preparing to Excavate
Our work at the Women’s League Cabin site began in earnest this week, as the class prepared the ground for excavation. Tuesday was spent clearing leaf litter, measuring out the cabin location, and conducting a pedestrian survey of the site. I was part of the clean up crew, so it was my job to rake away all of the leaves and organic material from the soil surface in order to expose the ground lying beneath where the cabin once stood. Clearing all of this debris brought forth some tantalizing hints at what may lie in wait for our trowels. Just by removing leaves and branches, my team discovered fragments of brick and glass, as well as some flagstones where the cabin’s back patio may have once been. The surveyors also made some interesting discoveries in their systematic search for artefacts. Several of the ten by ten meter grid squares that the two person teams surveyed and mapped turned up glass, brick, concrete, charcoal, and plastic items. Even some animal bones were found, although these may have no bearing on the cabin activities.
Data on artefact distribution should be helpful in choosing favorable areas to dig excavation trenches. We spent the beginning of class discussing what might be promising areas just by looking at architectural plans, and agreed that presumably high-traffic areas like the front entrance and around the patio could yield some interesting finds. To pinpoint these locations, though, Alex and another team of students had to carefully measure the site (using the patio as a starting point) and compare their findings to the architectural documents. This endeavor became dimensionally problematic, and they had to rely on old photographs and trees to reconstruct the cabin’s layout in the context of the site. Next week we should be ready to start digging with confidence!
Week 6: Breaking Ground
After our five weeks of research and preparation, excavation of the WLC finally began on Tuesday. Again, we divided our efforts among groups, opening three excavation trenches and conducting a total station survey of the site. We were fortunate to have Alex’s friend and colleague, Tom Garrison, join us from the University of Southern California. Tom is an archaeologist specializing in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. His skill in GIS applications made him an invaluable resource to our project, as he aided some of our class in using a total station to map the topography of the women’s league site. In the midst of this mapping, my team opened up the first excavation trench on the site, located near where the front entrance to the cabin used to be. Tom helped us carefully measure out a 2×2 meter square oriented roughly North-South. Our first step of excavation was to record any surface features on a recording form in a scale drawing of the trench. We noted several flagstone fragments. Then Alex showed us how to use trowels to carefully scrape the soil from the surface, layer by layer. The first layer of topsoil, our first “context,” yielded few finds: only a few shards of glass and one nail. Scraping away soil was a very time consuming process and by the end of lab we had only begun to reach a new soil layer in one corner of the trench, distinguishable by its distinctly lighter coloration and sandier texture than that of the first. Another excavation trench, located on the western slope of the cabin site produced many more interesting discoveries. In just a 1×1 meter trench the excavators found a metal hinge and several old glass bottles. While our group expected to find artifacts because of the placement of our trench in a high traffic area (the front entrance), it makes sense that the trench down slope would be full of items because of the tendency for materials to accumulate in low areas. Near the back entrance to the cabin our final group of excavators dug trench 2, which also did not seem to produce many finds.
Week 7: Digging Deeper
Week two of excavation brought few new developments to the story unfolding in trench one. Last week we finished our day of fieldwork by closing context one, and opening contexts two three and four. Rather than having distinct vertical stratigraphy in trench one, we observed several coplanar soil types. Context four was a continuation of context one in soil type and texture– a dark loamy mixture. This soil type extends quite deeply in the south east corner of our trench. Context two is a lighter, sandier soil concentrated in the north west corner of the trench. In between these contexts, context three had been identified as an intermediate type between the soils of contexts two and four. We started our work in the trench this week by focusing on contexts two and four, so that we wouldn’t get our boundaries confused as we dug. We had to be careful not to cross-contaminate the soils of different contexts, since this week we sifted all of the soil we removed, rather than just dumping it. In context four we found some glass shards and nails. Context two held a few more interesting artifacts, including a shard of pottery and a rusted bottle cap. However, our total yield of materials remained low over all.
After digging for some time, those who were excavating context two reached a new soil type that was lighter and more clay-rich than the preceding layer. In context four, old animal burrows were unearthed. Due in part to these new developments, work began on context three. But scratching at the surface of context three revealed soil much like that of context four, so it was decided that context three would be reincorporated into context four. This decision and some further digging marked the end of this week’s fieldwork.
Week 8: Community Archaeology Day
For our last day of excavation we opened our work site to the public as part of our community outreach initiative. Somewhere between ten and twenty visitors arrived to watch us dig and ask questions about our work. It was fun to interact with people who were interested in our project and to share in our learning experience.
Perhaps having spectators was good luck, because we discovered some of our most exciting finds yet in trench one. While we continued to find some assorted window and bottle glass and some rusted nails, Rachael found a distinctive shard coming from the edge of a white china plate decorated with a light blue border. Additionally, I discovered a piece of clay pottery, as well as a rib bone. I believe that the bone is the first evidence at the site of the kind of food consumption patterns we were anticipating in the presence of an outdoor cooking area. The rib was cleanly cut on one end, as would be the ribs people eat at a barbecue.
The rib bone, pottery, and plate shard were all found in context two. Context four continued to yield deep dark soil that had numerous rocks (palm sized) and sizeable deposits of black clay. Anna found a broken piece of cobblestone deep in the southeast corner of context four. It seemed to be unassociated with any other fragments like it, and it was much deeper than the cobbles on the surface. It may have been buried during the demolition of the cabin. At the end of our dig, there was no end in sight for context four, but context two was closed when we reached a new layer of lighter sand and clay. This new context will be ready for excavation by further iterations of our class.