Student Blog — Archaeology Angel

Here is Nic’s blog post, which weaves together the works of Benjamin and Sebald, the idea of the angel of history, and how archaeology is essentially a process of reconstruction of abandonment. — Kate

An angel brought me to the Ontario Field School this spring. That angel is the one Walter Benjamin saw with ‘horrified fixity’ while gazing upon a painting by Paul Klee. This is the “angel of history” whose

“face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is brewing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Basement wall of excavated structure

This is a famous passage from Benjamin’s Thesis on the Philosophy of History from 1940, and it is an image which creates a vision of time and humanity in opposition to the material determinism present in modern Western thought. For many authors and historians living in the wake of the horror of 20th Century Europe it captured the meaninglessness and chaos hanging in the air as the rubble piled high in the streets. It was his last published written work. Benjamin was a Jewish refugee hiding in Vichy France at the time and in June as the Wehrmacht entered Paris with a warrant for his arrest Benjamin fled to Spain with hopes of reaching the United States.

He carried with him in his briefcase a manuscript of the Thesis, and another unknown manuscript, which has never been found. After the Franco government in Spain cancelled all travel visas and trapped escaping refugees he rightfully feared being sent back to France where arrest and deportation to a concentration camp awaited. On the night of September 25th at the Hotel de Francia in Portbou, Catalonia, he committed suicide with an overdose of morphine.

One European author in particular influenced me to look through the eyes of Benjamin’s angel of history. W.G. Sebald devoted his short writing career to unearthing and steeping in the rubble of humanity, the ruins of great undertakings, and the personal aspirations and tragedies of esoteric and seemingly universal dimensions. In his world the dead are always returning to us and as a German emigrant born in 1944 he fixated on the “archeological excavations of the slag-heaps of our collective existence” in resistance to illusory or determinist thought about the past and present. Few public figures have done more to allow Europeans, and especially Germans to confront their own past.

In his first published work The Rings of Saturn, an autobiographical character awakes in the Norwich Hospital after undertaking a walk through coastal Suffolk county. His quaint late summer walk through the English countryside becomes a kaleidoscopic viewfinder through the physical and metaphysical stratigraphy upon which his feet traverse. As he saunters on his vision leads him in and out of a chaotic mix of destruction and regeneration present in small snippets of history. A plaque, a ruin, a turn of phrase once used, all keyholes into a dream-like state, where the dream is humanity. Through this process he is overcome with a “paralyzing horror” which awaits within “the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.”

Church of St James Dunwich
Church of St James Dunwich

Through his eyes the ruins of Dunwich, a great English port from the middle ages which collapsed into the sea, is connected to the deforestation of England over millennia through fires and the production of charcoal. This leads to a rumination on Western civilization that “combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.”

Such a view of history and humanity is not simply a melodramatic appeal as a literary device, but poetically connects our personal realities to a broader movement of time. In a civilization entranced in ideas of progress and technological determinism, these traces of destruction are often obscured or rejected entirely, as one can attempt to bury a traumatic memory. After excavating the rubble what remains is what some have seen in Sebald and Benjamin’s work as a vision of creaturely life, one of daily toil and repetition, forever swept up in the storm.

Lang Pioneer Village showed me many examples of everyday life swept away by time but for these re-creations. Photo: Nic van Beek
Lang Pioneer Village showed me many examples of everyday life swept away by time but for these re-creations. Photo: Nic van Beek

While visiting the Hope Mill in order to view a functioning saw mill I felt this vision of the angel, of creaturely life blend with why I was here learning about the process of archeology in Ontario. As we were on the side of the country road about to pack into our vehicles, James stopped everyone for a moment and got us to look at a barn or shed right next to the road. It had visibly decayed over time in contrast to the living, resuscitated, much older Hope Mill and its appearance evoked the smell of the animal excrement you could imagine filled the structure.

Old vision machines we looked into at Lang Pioneer Village. While looking into them you could imagine a world with visions new and old. Photo: Nic van Beek
Old vision machines we looked into at Lang Pioneer Village. While looking into them you could imagine a world with visions new and old. Photo: Nic van Beek

I remember James trying to get us to visualize what it was used for, the potential human toil that would go on in and around the structure and the clues and materials which could lead you there. But most importantly, in order to access this creaturely life one had to first imagine the “process of abandonment” through which the structure had travelled in layered form into our moment. What struck me is the immensity of the process of abandonment in comparison to the usage. It can be a much longer period of time than the initial usage but it is also hidden from view as abandonment runs contrary to dominant, more easily accessible ideas. In order to access it and sort through the wreckage that is
hurled at our feet I expect you have to employ a practical vision and try to recreate the unbecoming through these traces of destruction. As I was searching for the north rock wall corner of our Nassau Mills structure I was digging into this abandonment, into the work of a bull-dozer operator hastily preparing a sports field for a university soon to be built.

Since I am new to archeology as of this field course I don’t have very much to say about the intricacies of the process itself, which Kate, James and Marit have so personably laid in front of me. But what I have been struck by is the reliance and development of your own vision, of seeing in 4 dimensions, of being able assemble and disassemble, to rotate, to age. To access the mind of someone performing an action, which has lead you to a clue of their existence, and then returning, moving on, always making whole what has been smashed.

VIDEO:  “Assembling, counting, forwards, backwards” by Nic van Beek

Throughout the 6 weeks of the Field School I found myself lost in rumination as I troweled into the stratigraphy of our ‘deserted’ Nassau Mills house structure. When finding a harmonica in a clinker pile of charred debris I imagined the life of the person who may have sat there trying to master the instrument. The people they tried to impress, the sound that may have emanated from it after years of practice, the endless nights and sunny moments of song swept away into a plastic bag, labelled and boxed onto a shelf. It sounds morbid, but for me this space is somehow open and freeing, bringing on a feeling similar to what George Simmel in 1911 described as the “profound peace,” which surrounds a ruin.

Tremolo Harmonica which had been found in a charred pile of clinker. Photo: Nic van Beek
Tremolo Harmonica which had been found in a charred pile of clinker. Photo: Nic van Beek

After the usage of a structure or a space ends something else occurs. As Simmel continued in his essay The Ruin “it is as though a segment of existence must collapse before it can become unresistant to all currents and powers coming from all corners of reality.” As a structure is abandoned it is no longer used as directly in accordance with the rules outlined in ideology or in law or otherwise, and enters into a space in some respects sheltered from the storm. Avoiding a kind of ruin mysticism is important for a rational approach to archeology, but through the actual materiality of the site you can enter a world of imagination and observation in relation to the past which rivals, and in my mind supersedes, any imaginative potential of the future.

Finally, for me the meaning of physically digging deep into the past also stems from a horror show in which I was immersed while completing my undergraduate degree in History. I had the opportunity to work on the Montreal Life Stories Project where I recorded, organized and viewed the life stories of people who had come to Montreal from situations of genocide around the world. Some of the stories and details I heard in these life stories still flash up involuntarily in my mind as people would spend up to 5 hours trying to excavate their own memories and make sense, or simply convey, the things they had witnessed and the subsequent trajectories of their lives.

For me it centered history in a moral frame and divorced technological development or progress from any kind of humanist trajectory. When early in the field school we found a commemorative Nazi pin from a May 1935 seafaring rally in Hamburg this world flashed up. I could imagine Benjamin in September of 1940 travelling with his briefcase towards the border only to find his own demise. I could imagine my Oma, as she described to me, hiding with our family in the cellar of their village home as nightly air raids shook the ground. I could imagine the owner of the pin throwing it into the bushes, out of fear, out of shame, or just to be rid of it and leaving it for us to find this trace of destruction reaching far back into the past.

— Nic van Beek

Student Blog — Reflections on the Field School

Today’s student blog is by Brianne, and relates her reflections about her field school experience this year — Kate

With field school ending, and having procrastinated writing this blog post to the very last second I’ve decided to end with some observations and random thoughts I have encountered throughout the past month.

You Might Make a Good Archaeologist If:

-Gardening is a meditative pastime opposed to a chore

-You don’t hate washing dishes

Washing artifacts in the lab

– Puzzles are less frustrating than they are amusing, and you don’t give up halfway through and put the puzzle back in the box before it’s complete

The reconstructed spittoon

-You enjoy turning chaos into order and generally get satisfaction out of organizing things

Boxes of artifacts to be processed

– You like photography or keeping a detailed journal of your daily happenings

Photography station

-You enjoy drawing or sketching nature (aka rocks)

Raine drawing plans of the test unit

-Enduring various types of weather makes you feel connected with the earth (or in our case you just really, really like rain)

– You like yoga ( as I’ve come to learn, everyone refers to the many digging positions as “archaeology yoga”)

– You have an interest in cartography or map making

– You enjoy field trips and adventures/excursions to super cool places

Print shop in Lang Pioneer Village

General Store at Lang Pioneer Village

– Worms, slugs, grubs and ants while maybe not lovable, don’t fall under your category of fears

While the field of archaeology is realistically more complicated than this list may lead you to interpret, the point is that archaeology encompasses so many different interests and facets of life. Anywhere from osteology, forensic anthropology, or environmental archaeology, all the way to archaeoastronomy.

The versatility of archaeology is one of the things that makes it so great, especially for anyone with a lot of interests. A question I get a lot when I tell people that I’m studying archaeology is “what kind of job will you be able to do with that degree?” Or “are there any jobs in that field?” And I think one of the reasons for this is that people don’t realize archaeology isn’t restricted to digging a hole in the dirt. Archaeology is a very broad field with numerous specializations (and specializations within those specializations). In reality, digging is only one of many lengthy stages in an archaeology project. While this field school was a stage three excavation and did focus on the excavation/digging part of archaeology, it did open my eyes to all the work and preparation that needs to be done before getting to this stage as well as all the work still left to be done after artifacts have been recovered and catalogued.

Coming into this course I had zero field experience, making me extremely excited but also very nervous, because no one wants to find out halfway through their degree that they don’t like the program they’ve been studying. Looking back on the past month, I’m very happy as well as relieved to say that this field school has been one of the best experiences  I’ve had at Trent thus far. I would highly recommend this course to anyone wanting to explore archaeology as a possible career path, especially if they are unsure like I was about how they would enjoy archaeology in practice. This small glimpse into the world of archaeology that the field school has given me makes me excited to see where the field of archaeology takes me next.

— Brianne Glaves

Student Blog — Plotting the Course

Trevor brings us his perspective on learning surveying and mapping during the field school. — Kate

When thinking of archaeological work the first thing most people think of is probably digging. While this does make up an integral part of the process, there is far more to it than that. I didn’t realize it before starting the course, but archaeology involves a lot of surveying and mapping. The work is tedious and some people might find it boring and repetitive but I find it quite satisfying.

Mapping involves both surveying and drawing in the field as well as digitizing the hand drawn maps in the lab. Within the first week of the course I had learned how to use a theodolite and total station, which are surveying tools used to measure distances, angles, and elevations. At first, it was difficult trying to set them up properly on the tripod, making sure they were perfectly level and centered precisely over the known datum point, but I eventually got the hang of it. Using these I could precisely measure the coordinates of any point on the site and transfer those points onto a paper map. I also learned how to draw smaller, more detailed maps using planning frames. To me, the planning and problem solving that goes into trying to find the best way of ensuring these maps are as accurate as possible is the most engaging and intellectually stimulating part of the whole archaeological process. In addition to this field mapping though, I also learned some basic digital mapping. It’s a little less engaging than mapping in the field but it’s perhaps more satisfying once it comes together since it produces and very clear visual representation of the layout of the site which we can then use to interpret the structure of the architecture.

Digital map I made of the uncovered walls of the structure by tracing over a hand drawn map drawn by James. Photo: Trevor Tyo
Digital map I made of the uncovered walls of the structure by tracing over a hand drawn map drawn by James. Photo: Trevor Tyo

The map above shows the outlines of the rocks along the top of the walls of the structure. With this, we can clearly see how the overall structure is shaped and we can make inferences about it based on this. For example, we have speculated based on our maps that the overall structure is a large rectangle with a smaller rectangle in the middle which we think is a small basement or cellar underneath it. The main advantage of having the map in digital form is that we can add layers corresponding to different depths beneath the surface which gives us a visual representation of the site at multiple points along the progression of the excavation. We can also tie specific regions of the map to the digital catalogues of the artifacts that came from them and quickly and efficiently compare the assemblages of artifacts of different regions. Having this visual representation of all the data makes interpreting the site very intuitive. I hadn’t gotten to that point yet with my map, but that would be the next step and it’s something I’m very interested in learning more about in the future.

Before taking this course, I had no idea just how important mapping would be to the archaeological process, nor did I know how much I would enjoy it. If there’s one important thing I can take away from this experience it’s the knowledge that I love surveying and mapping and that I want to do more of it. Knowing this will help to guide my choices throughout the rest of my time at Trent and beyond.

— Trevor Tyo

Student Blog — Plato, Plotinus and Archaeology

Here’s an interesting interweaving of philosopy and archaeology contributed by Bjorn. Making connections is definitely a most essential part of the practice of archaeology. Thinking about why and how we make those connections in reconstructing the past is a vital part of the process. — Kate
Over the past two weeks I had been ruminating over what I could write my blog post about. So I decided to combine archaeology with another academic interest of mine and that is ancient philosophy. One of the things that drew me to archaeology in the first place is its room for cross disciplinary inquiry and creative thinking. Aside from the hours of field work, cleaning, and cataloguing, what I have observed about archaeology especially after taking this field course, is that archaeology is about making connections. Making sense of things with an often sparse and incomplete picture of the past requires resourcefulness and deep thinking on the part of archaeologists. In a sense, archaeology attempts to reconstruct past realities through the merging of the material and the intelligible.
Plato
Plato
The philosophers of ancient Greece obsessively thought about the concept of reality and how matter and ideas were related. The most famous and my own favourite philosopher, Plato, put forth the influential concept of the forms. Which, if we recall our intro to philosophy courses in High School or University, puts forth the notion that the physical realm before us is not truly reality. Rather the physical world with which we interact with our bodies is a shadow, or image being projected by the real, realm of forms, also known as the realm of ideas. in dialogues like ‘The Republic’, Plato describes the forms as perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space. In this dialogue, Plato uses the famous allegory of the cave to describe how things we see in the physical world are not real, but projections of ideals from the realm of the forms. Which in his allegory he compares to light from a fire, projecting shadows of objects onto a cave wall in which the observer sees the shadow but is unaware of the actual object beyond his or her grasp that is being projected onto the wall. I feel I should keep this summary of Platonism, brief and simple for the sake of blog space and interest, so I will cut to the chase with how I believe this relates to archaeology.
In everyday life we interact with material objects, and generally we understand their uses. When I show the word “Cellphone”, an image may appear in your mind of what a cellphone looks like and what it is meant to do, you have an idea of this physical thing. In archaeology, we are removed from the world of the past as we are living in the present. Thus the marriage of idea and matter does not occur as naturally to the uninitiated observer, especially the farther back into the past you go. So I’ve been toying with the notion that as archaeologists, we are often purposefully reversing the roles of Platonic reality. Instead of the ideal, intelligible realm projecting the material, we work in reverse, using matter to project a reality with which we have no natural, waking connection to. By understanding the physical properties of an artifact, archaeologists can infer much about its use, when it was created, and its role in a time long past. An example in our own lab experience would be our cataloguing of ceramics. Compiled resources on the history and use of certain ceramic techniques give clues to their age and use. Especially in historical archaeology like this, we also use small material fragments to restore and reconstruct these materials back into one complete artifact, turning the physically formless back towards a faithful representation of its ideal reality.  We use our own intellect to reconnect the material (artifacts) to the realm of ideas, making the past more real.
Plotinas
Plotinas
 To get another perspective on this notion, we can look to another great ancient philosopher. The later Neo-platonic philosopher of the third century AD, Plotinus, expands further on Plato’s concept of the forms and presents a cosmology in which “The One” (like the realm of forms) emanates outwards to project things like the universe and matter.
To Plotinus, this is how reality operates, however, due to us being bound in a physical body, we see an inverted perspective of this cosmology.
Instead, we naturally see matter as the central underpinning of reality, and all else emanates outwards from it. Now Plotinus sees this perspective as a negative one and associates it with the “fall of the soul”. However when removed from his cosmology and applied to the science of archaeology, the inverted perspective is perfect for making sense of the past. Material culture emanates a past world which emanates past lives and past intelligence.  Whether you agree with Plotinus’ mystical, and confusing metaphysics or not, I believe his inverted cosmology provides a great diagram as to how the process of archaeology brings the past to reality, working from matter towards the intelligible.
I have no conclusion or grand insight as to how this philosophical connection can be applied to the work of archaeologists. However I found it to be an intriguing exercise in understanding for myself the purpose and intrigue of archaeology, and what it means to reconstruct the past. I tried to make this as concise and brief as possible so I apologize if I glossed over some concepts, but I will provide a link below if you are interested in learning more about Plotinus. I hope this provides any who may read this with some interesting ideas to think about and have us draw more connections between archaeology and other fields! After all, that’s largely what this is about, making connections.
For a great intro into the cosmology of Plotinus, see this video from Dr. Eric Steinhart:
— Bjorn Bols

Student blog — T.A. Lytle Bottle

Today’s student blog post comes from Selena Barre, and illustrates what happens to artifacts once we have dug them up! The most important part is taking these artifacts and situate them in the broader context of space, time, and human behaviour. — Kate

As we get into the later stages of investigation at our site, we’ve found a lot of artifacts. Many of us have been spending our days sifting through masses of clean ceramic and glass sherds. In lab, we can take our time to examine each small sherd carefully and – if we’re lucky – some may even fit together (like the spittoon)!

While sorting through massive piles of glass from context 6, Kate pointed out a particular pattern on some manganese-tinted pieces (a chemical present in the glass that gives it a purple tint). As you can see in pictures below, it’s a vine and leaf design, possibly with some berries. We decided to set them aside, and I got lucky in recognizing a piece of a base that refitted. It has embossed lettering! Individually, the lettering on the two pieces was not clear enough to track down this maker, but with the pieces together the name “T.A Lytle /  Toronto” is visible.

A view of the refitted base pieces, with the lettering somewhat visible. Glass is difficult to photograph! Photo: Selena Barre
A view of the refitted base pieces, with the lettering somewhat visible. Glass is difficult to photograph! Photo: Selena Barre
All the sherds belonging to the vessel(s) with this specific decoration. Photo: Selena Barre
All the sherds belonging to the vessel(s) with this specific decoration. Photo: Selena Barre

A quick Google search is often enough to find all kinds of information, and T.A Lytle is no exception. The company operated, as advertised on their bottle, out of Toronto. Mr. Lytle was an Irish immigrant who had first found work in Canada at a vinegar factory, and apparently he took to the trade because a few years later he created his own company in 1882. They had a factory (still standing!) on Sterling St in Toronto and sold vinegar, pickles, preserves, catsup, club sauce, and maple syrup.

T.A Lytle’s factory, now home to other establishments, but the sign remains.
T.A Lytle’s factory, now home to other establishments, but the sign remains.
An example of an advertisement for their Sterling brand pickles. I wonder if the factory’s location in the food producing district of Sterling St inspired this branding choice!
An example of an advertisement for their Sterling brand pickles. I wonder if the factory’s location in the food producing district of Sterling St inspired this branding choice!

All these products would have been essential in a turn-of-the-century era worker’s household like the one we are investigating. In times past, and in rural areas, many people would have made their own pickles, jams, and sauces. Preserved foods were essential for making it through the difficult Canadian winters. However, these were labour intensive processes and easy to get wrong. Processing fruits and vegetables would have been a long and difficult task to begin with. As well, mistakes could be costly. Bad jam, for instance, can harbour the bacteria that cause botulism – a seriously toxic illness. It is no surprise that people would have turned to factory made products to save themselves not only the labour but also the risks of home making preserved food.

Returning to our example, which we know was produced by the “pickle packers” at T.A Lytle’s factory, one might wonder what specifically it contained. Though we have many pieces with the same pattern, only the bases refit. That leaves us with the base as the best clue to the bottle’s size and shape. It is less than 10cm in diameter. Based on the curvature of the other sherds of glass we have, it seems likely to have been a tall, sort of narrow bottle. This means it was probably not for pickles, but perhaps for one of T.A Lytle’s sauces or other liquid products.

T.A Lytle’s maple syrup bottle is third from the left. Second from the left is a lime juice cordial bottle from another producer (Rose’s – it might be familiar looking since it is still in stores today!) with a motif that looks a lot like ours.
T.A Lytle’s maple syrup bottle is third from the left. Second from the left is a lime juice cordial bottle from another producer (Rose’s – it might be familiar looking since it is still in stores today!) with a motif that looks a lot like ours.

There are some pictures of examples of T.A Lytle’s bottles that had maple leaves in a similar sort of design. These bottles would have contained maple syrup, as indicated by their exterior. The design that looks the most like ours is one from a bottle that has been identified (on the internet, anyway…) as containing lime juice cordial. Although this bottle is from a different manufacturer, a similar product was reportedly produced by T.A Lytle & Co. Nowadays, lime juice cordial is used most commonly in cocktails, but it was originally invented to give to sailors to prevent scurvy on long sea trips! It was often mixed with a ration of rum, which probably gave it its original association with drinking. This drink seems to have caught on with the general population, because this particular Rose’s brand lime juice cordial has been produced commercially since 1867 in the U.K and the company is now owned by Coca-Cola.

While the pattern on our sherds seems to resemble the lime cordial bottle, we don’t have enough to be certain. Without an exact match, my guess is as good as yours as to the contents of this particular bottle!

— Selena Barre

 

Student blog — A Look Back

One of the best parts of the field school is having the chance to experience many different facets of archaeology. Some people quickly learn they love the technicalities of excavation, while others become enamoured of surveying and mapping. Still others discover their true interests lie in the lab, or with certain kinds of artifacts or time periods. Here’s a peek into Emily’s experience in this year’s field school. — Kate

As the field school comes to a close, it’s nice to take a look back at what I’ve learned. Over the course of the program I’ve had the opportunity to learn about archaeological techniques in both the field and in the lab. When most people think about archaeology, they think about the excavation process – where artifacts are removed from the ground. Of course finding artifacts is important, but an equally important aspect of archaeology is organizing and cataloguing artifacts so we can make sense of what we’ve found. In order to do this, we must be familiar with the types of artifacts found at our site.

In the first week of the course Kate and Marit gave us a lesson focusing on the types of glass, ceramic, and other artifacts we would be finding. While I enjoyed learning about these material types (and being able to identify them in the field and in lab), the thing I most enjoyed working with were the animal bones found on site. Since I haven’t had the opportunity to take a course focusing on human or animal bones yet I was excited to learn everything I could during the field course. As it turns out I think I’ve learned quite a bit!

Kate is amazing and identified every bone I showed her, telling me which animal it probably belonged to and what bone it is. In my limited experience with bones in a biological anthropology course I took, I had a tough time siding bones. Kate showed me how to side ribs during the course, and I was really excited when I got it! I also learned how to identify bird bones, which are hollow unlike mammal bones, and was happy about that too! I’m excited to continue learning how to identify bones in the future!

A bird bone, possibly from a chicken. Found on the exterior side of the North wall. Photo: Emily Finbow
A bird bone, possibly from a chicken. Found on the exterior side of the North wall. Photo: Emily Finbow

Animal bones found at a site can be used to understand the people who lived there. While not all of these applications are relevant to the Nassau Mills site, I enjoy learning about what certain artifacts at a site mean – specifically bones!

A faunal assemblage can sometimes be used to determine what the environment was like when the site was occupied. This can be done because specific animals require specific habitats. This application would typically be useful for sites much older than the Nassau Mills site. Animal bones found at a site can also be used to determine subsistence strategies of the people who lived there. For example, a major indicator of an agricultural society is a large number of young male animals being butchered. Male animals would be killed to eat as soon as they were old enough, while females were kept to produce milk and offspring.

Although interesting, this application wouldn’t give us too much new information about the Nassau Mills site because we already have a large amount of historical documentation for this period. Even though the animal bones being found at the Nassau Mills site may not be the most important artifacts for dating and determining the significance of the site, I still enjoyed applying the concepts I’ve learned about in class to a real archaeological site!

— Emily Finbow

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

Student blog — A Poem

While the students need to contribute at least one blog post, we didn’t dictate the format. Here’s a poem! — Kate

Digging
Digging
Digging
Up the layers of the dirt,
hoping to uncover
all the secrets of the Earth.

Context one began it all,
just a pile of smaller stones,
But soon as context layers left
We revealed ceramic sherds and bones.

In context twelve, a clinker’d mess,
were nails, glass, and coal,
and even an harmonica,
which sent Kate down rabbit holes.

On rainy days as weather wills,
we shelter in our centre
and wash artifacts with toothbrushes
—not exactly what they’re meant for!

With picks and shovels,
Trowels and brushes,
We diggers leave our trail,
Creating walls without “bathtubbing”;
Keeping our marks above a fail.

“Destructive forces of preservation”
might best capture our work’s tension,
For we both toil in mitigation while destroying
earth as James’s henchmen.

We reconstruct the landscapes
that were formed throughout the past
and through the soil
we ascertain who meddled with it last.

Well now this poem must make its close
And the poet work without a sigh,
but I’ll leave you now with Munson’s tune:
“So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye”.

— Jacob Taggett

Student blog — Archaeology: A Holistic Art and Science

We had a day in the lab today, due to the steady rain. Here’s another blog post from one of our undergraduates taking the Advanced Field Methods course. We’ll be back out on site tomorrow! –Kate

Archaeology isn’t just about pulling ‘artifacts’ from the ground or uncovering ‘features’. Its also about cataloging and contextualizing. Digging is great fun, everyone gets a rush when they locate an artifact, even some of the smallest sherds of glass or ceramic can excite an archaeologist in the field. But what happens when those artifacts are removed from their excavation location? Well, that’s when the real work begins.

In lab we do the bagging, tagging, washing, sorting, cataloging, sub-categorizing, and the recording of each artifact’s details, attributes, and we record the counts of each category and their associated sub-categories.

In the field it’s easy to locate a hundred of something and not even be aware. It isn’t actually until you head into the lab that you realise you collected over 20 sherds of glass from one broken bottle.

Just take a look at Raine, overwhelmed by green glass sherds, all of which seemed part of the same bottle until we looked at the glass in the light, at which time it was determined that all but two of the sherds were from the same bottle.

Raine busy sorting out pieces of a green glass pop bottle.
Raine busy sorting out pieces of a green glass pop bottle. Photo: Shannon Dwyer

All in all, archaeology is much more than simply playing in the dirt. It requires in-depth recording from start to finish, both in the field and in lab. It also requires research on dates, typologies, makers, and so much more.

All in all, archaeology is not just for those who like getting dirty, it’s for the organised, the imaginative, those who love puzzles, people who like drawing, and there’s even room for those who enjoy data entry. After all, as anthropology is holistic in nature, it only makes sense that archaeology also be all encompassing.

–Shannon

Student blog — Hope Mill, A Labour of Love

During the course of the field season, we will be featuring contributions from the crew. Today we have a post from one of our Advanced Field Methods students, Shannon, who would like to share her impressions and photographs of a field trip we took today to visit the Hope Mill, a historic sawmill on the Indian River.

The Hope Mill
The Hope Mill on a chilly rainy morning! Photo: Shannon Dwyer

Upon exiting my classmate’s car at the Hope Mill, my first thought was “man, this weather sucks”.  I then turned and looked at the ‘open’ work space and said “holy cow, these mill workers are hardcore”.  As I stood there freezing, in my thermal pants in the month of May, it hit me; “imagine this work space in a 19th century winter”.  Again, I’m tempted to think that this mill and its workers are hardcore.

Truth is, those currently running and maintaining the Hope Mill have it easy. They have sections of the mill upgraded with electricity and lights, and they even have a tiled floor in their ‘out house’.  All in all, the history of Hope Mill, although somewhat restored; bleeds through every aspect of this structure, and its founding families are honored in a variety of ways.

Nearly two hours go by, and I can no longer feel my left hand or my feet.

Literally frozen in my spot, the saw blade starts spinning and the entire mill starts to tremble. The crew of workers take their places and saw dust starts flying. Several minutes later, a wooden plank is sent up a roller belt and is ready for use.

This simple field trip changed my entire view of 2×4’s and I now hold a new appreciation for every picnic table I see. I have gained a new understanding of the historic value of such open workshops and the amount of work put into such structures to ensure production, and safety.

I can’t wait to see what will be uncovered and excavated during the Nassau Mills Project this year.

— Shannon

Crown gear at Hope Mill.
Turbine gates are open, and the crown gear is whirring away, turning the main drive shaft for the saw. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
Adjusting the saw carriage in order to cut the correct size plank.
Adjusting the saw carriage in order to cut the correct size plank. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
The sawing floor, and rollers to move the waste wood to the cut-off saw.
The sawing floor, and rollers to move the waste wood to the cut-off saw. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
Some members of the Hope family.
Some members of the Hope family. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
Not only a mill, this was also the Hope family's house.
Not only a mill, this was also the Hope family’s house. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
A volunteer is using a pike-pole to grab a log from the millpond to bring it up the jack-ladder via a chain and winch. From there it will be manoeuvered by cant hooks to the saw carriage.
A volunteer is using a pike-pole to grab a log from the millpond to bring it up the jack-ladder via a chain and winch. From there it will be maneuvered by cant hooks to the saw carriage. Photo: Shannon Dwyer
The sawdust is collected from under the saw blade and transported out via a conveyor system.
The sawdust is collected from under the saw blade and transported out via a conveyor system. Photo: Shannon Dwyer