Student blog — In Search of….Something: Our First Stage 3 Test Unit

Here’s a little view into one of the activities our students learn during the course of the field school. They learn how to lay in and excavate a 1x1m test unit, and fill in the accompanying documentation. This is an important skill to have, as it is used widely in cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology in what is known as a Stage 3 assessment. Here’s Sam’s take on his experience. — Kate

Trevor and Sam and their Stage 3 unit!
Trevor and Sam and their Stage 3 unit!

In an ideal scenario, an archaeologist would know exactly where a site is located and would immediately begin setting up excavation units and get to work at it immediately. As Trevor and I have found out through experience, however, such is very unusually the case. In our case, we were tasked with digging to find out if something was there at all, and to achieve our goal, we needed to establish a Stage 3 test unit, one of several to be dug by the field school’s students.

Out of the four stages (numbered one through four) of the archaeological work process, Stage 3 is perhaps the most important. This is where archaeologists establish exactly what they have (or, do not have) in the area they’re looking at, how important that site and its artifacts are, and how it should be conserved and protected. While we know of our site located immediately behind the Trent University entrance sign at Nassau Mills Road and Water Street, the open field to the east gave much less an indication of the archaeological material that may lie underneath it. Thus, Trevor and I were among the first students to set out to reveal the field’s underlying secrets.

With a pre-existing grid having been mapped out previously, we marked our own one-square-metre Stage 3 test unit with pegs, peeled back the sod and began digging. At first, things seemed to come easy: the soil was loose, and easily scooped away with shovels. We even found some small artifacts, such as some glass shards, ceramic sherds and a couple cut iron nails. By the time we got about 40 cm down, however, things got tough. The soil was suddenly filled with a thick layer of small rocks, and the artifacts quickly dropped off to nothing. Soon, between the unit’s increasing depth and the large quantity of rocks, we only found progress at the sharp end of a pickaxe and the blades of trowels. We kept up hope, however, as we’d found stuff at greater depths in other units we had dug up beforehand, and kept going as best we could.

Though our progress was held up for a couple days by some unfavourable weather and a familial obligation, we were back at it today at last (May 30). Determined to find something to show for our efforts, we surged forward and got through a solid (literally) 35 cm of soil over the course of the day. As we kept digging, the rocks only seemed to get bigger, growing slowly from fist size, to requiring two hands to lift, and finally being impossible to lift or dig around. After getting to a full depth of about 87 cm, we contacted a deposit of numerous large rocks that were impossible to lift out or excavate around further, even with trowels. With no more artifacts on the way down and nothing to show a site was there, it seemed like we had, quite literally, hit rock bottom.

While it might seem like we have little to show for our efforts and just wasted a bunch of time and effort, both of these could not be further from the truth. Sometimes, in archaeology, it’s what you don’t have, rather than what you do have, that makes a difference. Knowing something is not there tells you that it’s time to rethink your methods and try digging someplace else to find what you’re looking for. Though it may not seem like much, I find solace and satisfaction in knowing that this is an archaeological achievement.

I don’t know what we’re trying to find out here away from our main site, but if Trevor and I could at least confirm where it isn’t, I hope my fellow students have some better luck confirming where it is. Regardless, wherever I go to dig next, I know the allure of the unknown will drive me to discover what lies (or doesn’t) beneath our feet. That’s the draw of archaeology: you never know what’s hiding underground.

— Sam Richardson

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