Student Blog — My experience and tips

Sebastian shares his experiences and lessons learned during the field school to date. — Kate

Since Nassau Mills was the first archaeological site I’ve ever worked on, I had no idea how I would manage, and what to expect from the work. After three weeks I am glad to say that fieldwork is rather rewarding work. The main project I have been working on is digging up a tarp that contained a feature that was originally excavated in Stage 3 back in 2009 with my friend Josh. 

Tarp appearing during excavation.

To our surprise, the feature was originally thought to be a wall, but turned out it was a drain! Removing the rocks to see the inside of the structure showed that there was no mortar binding the rocks together and they were placed loosely. The reason that the rocks were placed loosely in the subsoils is so that water could easily flow in between the rocks. 

Sebastian sitting beside the top of the drain.
Drain after top layer of rocks removed.

The drain has been discussed at length, but the common opinion is that it was a basement drain, built to prevent flooding. Right now Josh and I have the feature down at least 60 cm and the rocks continue to go down. Kate told us that drains at this time could be 3 to 4 feet in length. Regardless I hope that our last week of field school shows just how deep the structure goes, and perhaps where the drain connects to. 

In conclusion, I wanted to give some point-form tips on things I’ve learned that helped with productivity and techniques to do while digging and screening units.

Learn how to draw at least the basics: I had a professional archaeologist tell me once that if I wanted to be an archaeologist I needed to learn how to draw, and they were so right. A significant part of archaeology is drawing plans of the units, features within the unit and artefacts of significance. While there is a saying that a picture can describe 1000 words, it cannot provide as many required details as a drawing possibly could. An example is this unit here, the right side is 30 cm deeper from the left, but the picture could never tell you that. 

Bisecting excavation unit and isolating the drain feature.

Trowel using your elbow and not your wrist: hours can be spent within a unit troweling away which can put significant strain on the wrist. Using the elbow to trowel relieves the stress on the wrist, and improves overall work performance. 

Get a keen eye for the smallest details: especially while screening some of the artefacts are quite small and can be encapsulated by dirt and mud. Especially nails, that are quite small and often blend right into the dirt. 

Work like a scientist, not a labourer: Archaeology is a science through and through. The reason we dig units is to gain as much information as we possibly can about the periods we aim to learn about. This means slower, very methodical digging of units, with shovel shining removing 1 cm at a time and screening every centimetre of dirt being excavated. Digging units is not about getting down to 30 cm deep as fast as possible to get the job done. If units are dug too fast or with little care, stratigraphies can be lost, artefacts displaced and potential critical historical information destroyed without proper documentation. 

Have fun: Let’s be honest, Archaeology has to be one of the most interesting and fun jobs in the world. We get paid to find, learn and share history with the world. Everyone that I have worked with has been wonderful and all have similar interests. Never in my life have I been so enthralled with work, and I recommend anyone interested in history to try archaeology. 

— Sebastian Smith

Student Blog — Connecting to the past

Janet shares a moment that really brought the past to life for her. — Kate

I began working on the pre-contact Indigenous site the week of May 15. One day I heard some of the members of the Indigenous group who were also working there, discussing what the site might have been used for. One speculated that it might have been a hunting camp. His friend agreed that it would be a good place to hunt deer and that one could build a blind. The first one said that with the slope in the ground, one wouldn’t need a blind, but could simply lie in wait for deer to come and drink at the creek at the bottom of the slope.

Listening to them talk and looking at the terrain, the site “came alive” as I imagined people there.

— Janet Ruderman

Frenetic Friday

We’re closing down the third week of the field school today, the time has flown by. We had a lot of people away today, as well as shuffling people to the other site, so it was a chance to catch up on some specific projects here at BcGn-17.

Steph and Abigail worked on a clean trowel back of their unit, which was also planned and photographed.
Michelle, Mel, Tim and Susannah worked on a mapping exercise simulating a lithic scatter in the freshly ploughed field.
In the background, James gives some instructions to the mapping crew. Josh and Sebastian start tackling the drain, first by finishing the isolation of a segment of drain by bisecting the unit…
And then by taking out successive courses of stone. The stones are loosely packed with voids between (presumably for water) and they keep going down. We had to pause as it was a short day but Tuesday this will get picked back up.
Abigail demonstrates how the hammer loop on her field pants can also handle a mattock!

A happy Victoria Day long weekend to everyone, we’ll see you on Tuesday for the start of our last four days of field school!

Trowels out Thursday

At the beginning of field school, our students were very eager to get right to trowelling because that is what we always associate with archaeology. I think some of them were surprised and maybe a wee bit disgruntled that we started shoving shovels at them, but really, the shovel is an archaeologist’s best friend (James would argue that the mattock should be promoted as well!). Our crew have been learning (sometimes grudgingly!) to love their shovels but for some tasks nothing but trowels will do.

Tim and Sebastian painstakingly trowelled out sections of two possible features today.

When documenting a feature, we sometimes take a section of it. This allows us to see the volume and shape of space that the possible feature occupies in the surrounding matrix, and the soil recovered is bagged and taken back to the lab for flotation. There might be small finds in there that would ordinarily pass through our screens. The point and sharp edge of a trowel is perfect for following the sometimes complicated contours of feature soil as it is removed.

Mel has been working on isolating some sections of what we think are layers of wood planking and plaster or mortar in her unit.

While the structure we have been chasing has been a bit elusive this season (where are you little log cabin in the woods?!), we have found some wood planking and mortar layers that might have been associated in some way with a structure. This has required some careful trowel work to isolate it from the surrounding soil so we can investigate what it is and how it relates to what we know about the stratigraphic layers of the site.

This unit has had a beautiful trowel back to make a nice clear surface for planning a potential feature (the dark stain visible).

While shovel shining is an absolute top skill for the aspiring archaeologist to attain, good trowel skills are also important. Our students have probably heard us say “that needs a good trowel back” many many times by now, and what we mean by that is that the walls are neat and vertical, we don’t have bathtub corners, and the area under excavation has had a good clean scrape to expose a fresh surface that isn’t all mucked up by boot prints or crumbs of soil. This allows us to clearly see the edges of potential features in plan view, and also to see the stratigraphy in the wall profiles.

Sebastian and Josh have been trowelling around a section of this drain feature so we can see how it is constructed.
Lorna, Steph and Abigail have been painstakingly clearing around these individual rocks that seem to be connected to the start of this drain feature somehow. There is also another potential feature in that dark stain in the lower right of the drain.

Bit by bit, with trowel and dustpan, shovel and bucket, we are unpacking what this site has to tell us! Only three full days of excavation left!

Student Blog — Field School Reflections

Here’s a post from Kelsey, where she shares some of her field school experiences so far. — Kate

As we are about halfway through our dig I thought I would reflect on some of my favourite elements of this site and its people. Firstly I wanted to touch on just how much I have learned from this course. I have some (limited) archaeological experience on a site in Ferns, Ireland. It was more of a -throwing you into the deep end and hope for the best- kind of dig, with loosened guidelines and less standardization. Although It did help me hone my archeologist’s eye, I was at a loss for the absolute organization and standardization of Ontario archaeology. The BcGn-17 site has helped me learn these standards like the back of my hand. 

I was nervous about all the elements that come along with Ontario archaeology at first but through practice and our amazing supervisors, I feel ready for anything. Mapping was something specifically intimidating to me at first but with the help of my group members we crushed it, I would say.

Our site <3

Much of my time lately has been devoted to the new 2×2 unit Adam and I opened up. This unit was under several piles of spoil soil, towards the northern end of the site. After shovel after shovel, we reached the ground level and began to measure out our unit, with the help of Kate. This unit began in a bit of a negative light, with compacted, rocky and root-filled soil. But after we reached the subsoil the unit began to prove itself. The highlight finds we have collected so far include a mother-of-pearl button, a (possibly young Queen Victoria penny) coin, and an abundance of nails and ceramics.

The finds of pit E7039 N4938 last Friday
The coin found May 17

Much of the success of this pic is due to my dig partner Adam. We sieve and dig in turns while playing 20 questions and listening to ABBA to pass the time. Sometimes the whole site even joins in on the guessing games. Befriending the members of this dig is one of the main elements that has made this course so special. We have such a wider variety of people from many different walks of life, all united by one passion.

Flower crowns with Kyla
Mapping with Adam

— Kelsey Counter

Wednesday Update

More of our crew and equipment have been ferried over to the other site, so it was a quieter vibe on site today. That didn’t mean we were napping here though, we still have lots to do before field school ends! I felt like the day flew by and didn’t have much of a chance to take photographs but here are a few from the end of the day, just before we started packing up.

There was a bit of musical chairs type unit swapping today, as some units are paused waiting for features to be recorded, but everyone was a good sport about me ordering them about willy-nilly into units.

Alyssa and Cierra and Josh and Tim have been working on bringing down two of the new units we opened. We have hopes that these will have more midden-type material in them.
Erik (in background) trowelled down his unit and planned a potential feature. Kyla (with some brief assistance from Kate) employed the mattock to take down the top layer of her new unit, and Kelsey and Adam worked steadily on their 2×2 today.

The mattocks were deployed today, as the dry warm weather has baked our clay loam into a tough surface!

Sebastian mattocks out half of his and Josh’s unit to get a side profile of the drain, and Steph and Lorna work on clearing the rock pile that seems to be the drain beginning(?).
Grant and Susannah are also working on a unit straddling the lower segment of drain to see if an original trench cut can be seen. This might give us some clues as to how the drain was constructed. Michelle has been solo in her unit, taking it down another 10 cm.

Features, features everywhere, and Artifact of the Day for May 16th, 2023

We are starting to run out of excavation time, just when things are starting to get interesting. We are rotating crew over to BcGn-28 to excavate with the Archaeological Liaison trainees, so the burden has fallen on those who are remaining!

We have many units down below the plough zone into subsoil where we can see features. Features are evidence of activity, and in our case are popping up as linear arrangements of rocks, cedar planking, dark stains in the soil, and concentrations of mortar or other artifactual material. In a Stage 3 excavation, which was conducted at this site during the 2009 field school, once you locate a feature, you basically describe it and then stop excavating.

Now we are doing a Stage 4 excavation, which not only has excavation units four times as large as the 1x1s of a Stage 3, but also has more elaborate instructions for how to handle features. Ideally we would be opening up all the units in a 2m buffer around each feature, but we won’t have time for that this season. So, some of the features might have to wait until we return and can do a proper job of understanding them. In the meantime though, that means we have lots of documentation going on site including unit forms, planning, and photography.

Lots of excavation and drawing plans on site today!
All the units with blue tarps in them are paused as they have features that need to be dealt with, and the unit to the lower right has a feature that might be a continuation of our drain possibly?

We ended the day a bit early as rain was threatening. It’s looking like tomorrow will be back to the cool temps like our first week!

Today’s artifact of the day was a bit of an old friend, and the first coin found on BcGn-17 this season! Mel and Jada found an 1852 Half-Penny token in their unit. I won’t go over all the details again of this artifact, as there are two blog posts already here and here from when we found two at our 2017 and 2018 field schools.

At the time these tokens were used for currency, Ontario was known as “Canada West”.

Quick pic in the field
And a picture with a scale in the lab.

The obverse of this coin has the coat of arms for Upper Canada, which was in use from 1792 to 1840, already obsolete by the time these tokens were issued!

The Great Seal of Upper Canada (1896 depiction from Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto with some idiosyncratic spelling!)

Upon the creation of Upper Canada a seal for the province was authorized by royal warrant dated 28 March 1792. The obverse was described as ‘the Calumet [North American Indigenous pipe] of Peace with the Anchor and Sword of State encircled by a Crown of Olives’. Above this is a representation of the royal crown. In the upper right hand was the Union Jack, on the seal of 1817 replaced by the new Union Jack of 1801 with the St. Patrick’s Cross. Below are two cornucopia in saltire.

Motto: IMPERI . PORRECTA . MAJESTAS . CVSTODE . RERVM . CAESARE (The greatness of the empire is extended under the guardianship of the Sovereign)

Legend: SIGIL . PROV . NOS . CAN . SUP (Seal of Our province of Upper Canada).

Our coin came from the unit where the possible cedar planking is, perhaps we are getting ever closer to locating a structure. It is in medallic alignment, so we know from this it had to have been struck at the Royal Mint in London instead of at Heaton’s Mint in Birmingham. 1 500 000 were minted in 1852, and we know where three of them are now!

Student Blog — Features and Creatures

Here’s another dispatch from Fraser! — Kate

This archaeological field school continues to be bountiful! As students, we carry on learning the complicated and detailed components of good archaeological research. Techniques for shining the soil, or best practice for shaping a unit wall are invaluable skills for us to learn, among countless other best practices.

Those with considerably more experience are applying their knowledge to enhance our endeavour, and our experience is the richer for it (thanks Michael and Grant!). The other leaders too are committed to their own learning, and foster an environment of respect and mutual support (Kudos to Kate, Dan, and James).

Tired and dirty, we dig on with a sparkle in our eyes. Part treasure hunter, part scholar, a good archaeologist maintains their fascination with our world, and its history. As we uncover features in our excavations, we hope to better understand what (and maybe who) was here so long ago. The features will (hopefully) unravel the mystery of BcGn-17. The curious and dedicated archaeologist could find herself checking her unit in the dark with a headlamp, if only in her dreams!

The Dedicated Archaeologist. Slaying all day, every day.
The Leadership Team at the End of Day briefing
Kate and Dan Supervising and Smiling!

The quest for the story of our site continues, unabated. Our somewhat nature(ish) location has also brought us closer to some curious local animals. The groundhog perhaps wondered why we were digging so inefficiently, and the ground-burrowing bird was protecting her nest from our steps. This group of dedicated diggers all seemed to have soft hearts for animals, vowing to leave them undisturbed (no quarter given to mosquitoes though).

Groundhog: “Shovels to dig? Amateurs.”
Killdeer: “Stay back from my nest, humans!”

— Fraser Williston

Student Blog — An experience like no other

Here’s a student blog post by Alyssa, who has some reflections on her field school experience so far! — Kate

I can hardly believe it, but we’re already at the halfway mark of the field school. The days have been going by so incredibly fast, I’m now convinced that the next time I blink, it’ll be time to say goodbye. And so, before that happens and this course becomes a distant memory, I would like to take the time to reflect on and discuss with you a few things that I have found to be most rewarding during the past two weeks:

1. The people I’ve met

I have always had the opinion that a course is nothing if it is not taught properly. Well, I can say with absolute certainty that this course is not lacking in that department. Not only are the professors extremely knowledgeable, but everyone else involved with both teaching and supervising us is also very approachable and delivers the content in engaging and interesting ways. This has made the experience so far not only highly informative but hugely enjoyable. In addition to the professors, I have also loved meeting the fellow students in my class. I find myself learning a lot from them as well, and it’s a joy to hear about their different backgrounds and career aspirations.

2. Working outside

While this may seem like a small thing, for me it’s possibly my favourite aspect of this course. Spending my days working in a beautiful field and then coming home tired in the best way possible is so rewarding but unfortunately not something that I get to do very often in my usual day-to-day life.

3. Learning archaeology and finding artifacts!!

Last but definitely not least, I think the content learned in this course is very valuable. I believe the in-class learning about dating practices for different artifacts coupled with hands-on learning about field methods offer a fantastic, well-rounded knowledge base to use in a future career in archaeology.

As for artifacts, every single discovery has been very exciting for me. It’s so interesting and rewarding when I’m able to find artifacts that help explain the history of the site, such as the sewing scissors pictured below, and I still do an inner happy dance whenever we find even the smallest piece of ceramic.

I’m now on a mission to find the second half of these scissors.
A head of a spoon that I found.
Here is a piece of ceramic with a lovely design!

While these are the things that have stood out to me the most from the experience so far, I have no doubt that my list will grow as the remaining weeks pass.

I want to finish this by saying that if you have an interest in or are studying archaeology, I highly recommend you consider participating in a field school. I have a feeling you wouldn’t regret it!

— Alyssa Fleury

Artifact(s) of the Day for May 15th, 2023 — Marvellous metal!

We have a bit of a three-way tie today for artifact of the day. So instead, I have decided to feature all three of them.

The first artifact is a bit enigmatic. All we can see is that it is a strap of ferrous metal, with two nails driven through. On of the nails is quite curved at the end, perhaps intentionally, or from hammering it in to some kind of surface that caused it to roll while it was being driven in. The other nail, however, is straight. We don’t know if this strip was originally flat and has been bent after discard such as by being caught by a plough. It might have also been wrapped around a piece of wood. It is pretty corroded, but after cleaning we might be able to discern some more details that might help us to better interpret its function.

Lorna and Abigail found this artifact on top of a pile of stones that we think connects to the drain.

Next up is a straight pin. I was really excited to see this find because this is one of those artifacts that pretty much screams that a site is a domestic context. Straight pins have been around for a very long time, thousands of years! They were first made of bone or wood, and then metal. While we associate them now with holding fabric together while it is being sewn, straight pins used to be used by men and women for all sorts of purposes. Before fasteners like buttons or zippers were common, straight pins were used to attach the various components of dress together, and to arrange folds and tucks to customise the fit of a garment to the wearer (for which we are now thankful for safety pins!). They were used to pin together pages before paper clips or staples were invented, and in any application where folds or tucks in blankets, veils, mantles, etc. needed to be fixed temporarily.

Early pins were formed by drawing wire through a plate of steadily smaller holes to make it thinner until the desired thickness was reached. This wire would be cut in pieces and a head would be formed by wrapping a loop of wire around the end and soldering it in place. These wrapped heads were sometimes rough and would catch on clothing or scratch. Later pins were made all in one piece by stamping the end of the wire shaft into a die to form the head.

Once we have some time in the lab, we can determine if this piece is made of brass or some other metal, and look more closely at the head to see how it was made. Pins usually fall through screens as they are so small, so it was great luck to find this one!

A straight pin found by Kyla.

And last but not least, we have part of the handle of a piece of what is probably pewter flatware with a linear break. Pewter is an alloy of zinc, lead and tin. Our piece is shaped in the fiddle pattern, which was pretty popular in the eighteenth and nineteeth century. Interestingly, there are some hints of marks on the back side of this artifact. These are mimicing the hallmarks found on silver and silverplate flatware. Unfortunately since all we have is a bit of the handle, we don’t know if this was a spoon or a fork! I am hopeful that under a microscope we can maybe see the marks a little better to figure out what is there.

The handle from a piece of pewter flatware found by Mel and Jada.