Thursday was an incredibly productive day in the field. We have 13 units in active or suspended excavation (meaning we stopped excavation because we identified features and will return to them during the last week). The excavation units are where the art of excavation actually takes place.
Today, all of the groups were schnitting (shovel skimming), troweling, measuring elevations/depths of units, plotting artifacts and features in situ, and screening through soil searching for the artifacts excavated from the units. Schnitting is a very important skill learned in field school where the excavator gently shaves off centimeters of soil, so as not too dig too deep. This allows us to identify features as they first appear. Once a layer of excavation is finished the trowels are used to create straight walls and sharp corners and to produce a smooth surface in the floor of the unit.
Excavation units must be as smooth and level as possible to see the features in the soil. Features are changes in texture, composition, and or color of the soil and/or artifact density within the excavation unit. Many of the excavation units today revealed features of much lighter colored soil and of much darker colored soil than the normal soil found throughout the site. So why are features important? They are not tangible artifacts like ceramics or lithic, but they do tell us a wide array of information about the site and those who lived in it. Features tell us about human activities at the site, such as where a cooking fire or house wall once stood. Features can also depict where artifacts that no longer exist were once placed. The positioning of living, ceremonial, and working areas can be determined by the features that are found within the excavation units. Features map out what the layout of the site once was. Our goal is to identify features over the next few weeks, and during the last week document them via mapping and photography, and then excavate them taking 100% sample of the feature for further processing in the lab. We’ll post more on these features, what we are learning from them, and how we process them in the coming days. After today, we are off for a much needed rest over Memorial Day weekend!
Today we worked in our units and on the topo map until about noon. Then we packed up and headed to a neighboring site (in the Wildlife Refuge) for a guided tour by the Southeast Archeological Center’s Jeff Shanks. The site we visited has a Weeden Island village and shell ring and an older Swift Creek shell ring. This is similar to our field school site which is a Weeden Island village and shell ring with a Swift Creek component. We are finding similar types of artifacts and, hopefully, we will encounter similar types of features.
Jeff’s tour gave us a lot of insight into just how big these sites are. They are really massive. They have also been hit pretty hard by looters over the years. Numerous looter pits can still be seen, which to the professional archaeologist, is heartbreaking. Any digging into an archaeological site is destructive, and illegal when done on state and federal properties.
Archaeological sites located on federal lands are protected by the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979. ARPA made it illegal to remove, damage, vandalize, excavate or destroy archaeological materials from lands owned by the U.S. Government. When an digs into an archaeological site to get artifacts, the data surrounding that artifact (including its location, its relationship to other artifacts and evidence of human activity) is lost forever. Taking artifacts from the surface is also prohibited. In many cases, artifacts on the surface may be all that remains of an archaeological sites and their removal will further restrict our knowledge of what may have occurred at that particular location.
ARPA violations come with stiff penalties:
For a felony offense, first time offenders can be fined up to $20,000 and imprisoned for up to one year.
Second time felony offenders can be fined up to $100,000 and imprisoned for up to 5 years.
Section 7 of ARPA enables Federal or Indian authorities to prosecute violators using civil fines, either in conjunction with or independent of any criminal prosecution.
Section 8 (b) of the statute allows the court or civil authority to use forfeiture of vehicles and equipment used in the violation of the statute as another means of punishment against convicted violators.
Above all, archaeological and historic sites that are located on federal and state properties are there for the benefit of all. The taking of artifacts or looting of a site steals knowledge of our collective past from all of us. All for the personal gain of an individual or small group of individuals.
Today was the first day of Week 3. We arrived on site to find that our three deepest units contained water from this past weekend’s rains. The students had their first chance to bail the units.
By the end of the day we had nine Excavation Units (EU) being actively excavated, with another ready to be started tomorrow. All of our units, with the exception of one, are rectangles that measure 1 meter x 2 meters.
To begin working in an EU, first we had to remove all brush and loose vegetation from the marked off unit. After clearing these out, we then used a laser level to accurately measure the depth of each corner of our 1×2 meter units, as well as the center (all measured below a set datum point). To do this we used stadia rods with adjustable sensors and a laser level set up over the datum point. We took depth readings to within the half centimeter. These were noted so that we could compare the depth of the EU as we go down each level.
After accurately measuring at what depth each corner was, we began to dig. Our first task was clearing out the numerous surface roots within the humic layer, or the decomposed plant remains and roots located at the top of the soil profile (You can read more about soil profiles and how soils are typed or classified). Once this had been cleared out and properly screened for artifacts, we began to dig into the soil below. We dig in a controlled systematic manner, sometimes called schnitting or shovel skimming, taking off a centimeter or two at a time. This allows us to map any artifacts or identify features as they appear.
On Wednesday our partners from the National Park Service’s Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) gave us a lesson on their Total Station so that we can create a topographic map (topo map) of the site. This type of map will allow us to very clearly see the elevation differences between the natural landform and the human-modified features. We also use the GPS function on the Total Station to accurately record the location of our archaeological activities such as shovel tests, excavation units, and site datum.
The first part of the lesson was in how to set up the Total Station on its tripod, insure it is level, and turn it on.
Then we learned how to record our data in the on-board computer and in a Field Transit book. After the lesson, Field School field assistant Kelly L., worked with two of the undergraduate students to begin recording points.
We estimate we will record over a thousand points in the next few weeks. We’re looking forward to the results of our careful topo mapping work.
Today we mapped out where the excavation units were going to be. We used knowledge of the site and the completed shovel test survey to determine where we were going to open up units that will help answer the project research questions.
We started out by clearing all of the brush out of the way so that they tape measures would lay flat on the ground. Then we measured out one meter by two meter units using the East 1020 transect line as our point of reference. It is important to measure everything in relation to the grid that was established by our partners at the Southeast Archeological Center so that we can find the exact location of units we are working in and future archaeologists know where we had units opened up for excavation.
We double checked that our measurements were correct by doing a little bit of geometry. We used the Pythagorean Theorem which is a2 + b2 = c2 to find what the measurement of the diagonal line or hypotenuse should be. We found that for our one meter by two meter units that the hypotenuse should be 2.236meters across.
Once we checked, doubled-checked, and triple-checked the measurements again we put metal pins in the ground to mark the four corners of the unit.
Then tied pick flagging tape around those pins so we wouldn’t lose them or trip of them the next day.
The last step in preparing the units to be excavated was to wrap twine around all four of the metal pins to clearly define the edges of the units. The twine will help us start off the excavation with straight walls so that we excavate following accepted scientific methods for proper contextual control. The goal is to get as much information as possible about the people who lived here in the past and marking out perfect excavation units is just one way of achieving that goal.
On the drive to the site this morning we discussed the importance of meeting the goals set for us this week – namely finishing all of the flagged shovel tests. We needed to hit the ground running this morning as we faced a 50% chance of rain in the afternoon. As of 3:00 pm today we had completed all of the shovel tests that were pinned in by our project collaborators with the National Park Service’s Southeast Archeological Center. They had previously excavated 56 of them and we excavated 93 for a total of 149. The majority of these were located 20 meters (just over 65 1/2 feet) apart, though approximately 25 were closer together at 10 m (approximately 33 ft.) apart. As mentioned previously, the goal was to dig them to a depth of 1 m (3.3 ft.), though we encountered the water table at a much shallower depth in several of them. The past two days we have been in the thickest part of the site and have seen a lot of marine shell, especially oyster. Judging by the size of some of the shells, the people that lived here nearly 1400 years ago loved oysters, especially big ones.
Oyster shells, fragments of turtle shell, and a small piece of pottery are clues to the meals enjoyed here nearly 1,400 years ago.
While the students have been learning a whole new set of skills, one of the most important, and to me (Dr. Peres) rewarding skills they practice is teamwork. That they understand the importance of coming together to work as a group is evidenced in the students’ writings this week:
As one group would finish, that team would separate to go help another group, with a threat of rain on Friday we were very concerned with finishing all shovel tests that were underway before we left; a goal we were able to meet by pulling together. – Alison B.
We all make a great team; as groups finished their test pits they joined other groups to help them finish. – Brady
Next week we start opening excavation units. With this comes a whole new set of skills the students will be expected to master. Judging by their enthusiasm and hard work this week, the next four weeks will be a wonderful educational and research experience for all involved. We are off for the weekend to rest and hydrate. Look for updates next week!
This week is devoted to shovel test survey of the site to determine how big it is. Yesterday and today we shovel tested on the exterior of the known shell ring. To date we finished 72 shovel tests, most to a depth of 1 meter (just over 3 ft.). Several of them ended when water seeped into the bottom from the water table. Doing the shovel tests at various points around the site allows us to better map and visualize the area where we will excavate. It is important to test the outer edges of the site as well to determine where it ends or continues on. There are only a few more shovel tests to be completed tomorrow before the full scale excavation can begin.
Today we had a number of visitors to the site. Colleagues from the University of South Florida stopped by on their way through the area. That was a nice (though brief) visit. In the afternoon a number of staff with the National Wildlife Refuge came out to see the site, learn about our survey and excavation plans, and discuss future research and management issues. We are very fortunate to have great collaborators on this project. Everyone is excited to see what we find and learn about this site that was built nearly 1400 years ago.
Dr. Mike Russo and Jeff Shanks, archeologists with the National Park Service, talk with staff of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.