Student Blog — Deciphering Dirt and being Artifaked!

Justyna’s post give you a slice of life during the field school. — Kate

If someone were to ask me what dirt was one month ago, I would probably respond with, “The crumbly brown stuff containing creepy crawlies and nutrients that keep my plants alive”. After looking at dirt for countless hours and noticing its intricacies during this field school at Trent, I have pivoted to the belief that dirt is a whole science and an art!

May I guide you through my week at the Middle Woodland site Kiiktanong Mash’iing which is a suspected seasonal hunting campsite:

Each morning began carpooling in a cuddly fashion with my fellow diggers. The site was enclosed in a forested area which required us to lug all of our equipment through a path lined with poison ivy. We would sing “The ants go marching, one by one, hoorah”, as we grasped our shovels in single file, sporting matching fluorescent orange safety vests.

In the clearing, we were welcomed by a plume of sweet grass smudge and mosquitoes. The Indigenous liaison trainees invited us to purify our thoughts, vision, and hearts to make a positive space for the digging activities.

The Indigenous artifacts here were drastically different from the stark white and blue ceramics and easy-to-spot metal nails at the historic site. These artifacts were mostly ceramic (clay) or lithic (stone), which are naturally found in dirt. At first, the screens looked like an intimidating haze of brown and gray. I was picking out pieces that had an orange hue thinking they were pottery, just to have them crumble in my hands and reveal their mudstone identity. The actual pottery had visible temper inclusions along the broken edge. This is added to the clay to prevent shrinkage and cracking during the vessel’s drying and firing stages.

It is safer to over-analyze screen material than to skim it over. However, I think the sunscreen and bug spray chemicals were getting to my group because we began hallucinating projectile points into existence. This pictured rock is not an artifact, it is an artifake!

Some actual artifacts found at the Woodland site included:

– Blue calcined bone and other faunal remains (mammal, small and large fish vertebrae, an ungulate, a tooth)

– Ceramics (some decorated with a cord-wrapped stick pattern and chevrons)

– A biface thinning flake (when held up to the sun, the edges become translucent due to thinness)

The art and science of dirt are seen through its colours, textures, and layers. The topsoil was usually medium brown and felt like a stickier version of garden mix, termed “loam”. Reaching subsoil was characterized by splotches of orangey loam and sandy or silty gray clay. The technical term for splotchiness is “mottled”. Typically, beneath that layer lies a pristine stratum consisting of either the variegated variety, which is glacial deposit free of cultural material. Occasionally the dirt would be an amalgamation of clay, loam, silt, AND sand! Our profile unit drawings included the stratigraphy of the walls labeled with a code provided by the Munsell colour system book.

Stratigraphy: the neapolitan icecream of archaeology

Most of the time our pits looked like a paint palette. Colourful streaks would peek through while troweling – white was mortar, bright orange was brick, black was charcoal, sparkly grainy material in gold, plum, green, and black were decomposing rocks. Sometimes clay became oxidized and turned red.

At the historic site, occasional stone and brick features would be found, but the Woodland site features were simply dark charcoal-coloured stains in the ground. This hints at organic matter. Features can be figured out based on their shape – post holes (circular), midden (large and diffused). Other times, the stains could have formed from natural events like animal burrows, or burning events.

At lunchtime, our team would refuel at the local food shop and have conversations that would propel our curiosity about the site and each other. The days closed with carpooling back to Trent (shoutout to the drivers!), and smiley goodbyes until the next day.

 — Justyna Male

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