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

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.


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