Blacksmiths, Backfilling, and Final Thoughts

The final week of Archaeology in Annapolis for the 2014 field season has led me to reflect on the journey that those of us new to archaeological field work have faced in the last six weeks. Familiar readers of the AIA blog, mainly my own mother, have now read my fellow classmates blogs and have gotten their respective take on how each week has developed and what each exciting, or sometimes not-so-exciting, day of digging has produced. As this is the only and final blog this week my plan for this adrenaline-charged post is to do a walk through of the final week of fieldwork as it has looked from my perspective. For those of you close readers, no need to rub your eyes, you read correctly: an entire week in one post. Buckle up.

Our week begins with the intrepid, waterlogged workers of Unit 89 (Sarah, Rebecca, and myself) wondering what our next move would be after closing out our 5×5 foot unit upon hitting the water table the previous week. We soon got our answer when our fearless TA Ben Skolnik informed us that we were to be digging STPs (shovel test pits for those of you who weren’t there the first week) to determine what other buildings were on the long green at Wye House. When Ben had talked with our unit last week we had discussed the possibility of a nearby blacksmith shop further down the gravel road from the slave quarter we were currently excavating. We also discussed how the shoreline itself near Llyod Creek and Wye River had been altered by the introduction of intensive agriculture to the region. This discussion of water not only reminded me of our previously thoroughly soaked unit we had dug, but would prove to be prophetic for the STPs we were going to dig.

At first digging STP during our final week of field work and class felt almost wrong considering it had been nearly 5 weeks since we had last ruined perfectly good grass in such a manner. The greater purpose of this war on sod was to establish the possible boundaries and determine any evidence for there being a blacksmith’s shop or facilities north of the excavations of our classmates.

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Archaeology: Its Kinda a Muddy Mystery

So I’m not going to lie, when my group (Sarah and Drew) and I began excavating test unit 89 at Wye House I thought it was going to be a quick and somewhat dirty job; now, all I can say is it has been a dirty job.

We are excavating the yard space around a presumed slave quarter (previous field schools determined where the brick piers to the quarter were, making it possible to determine how large the quarter was). Test Unit 89 sits on a downhill slope about eighteen feet northeast of where the north wall of the slave quarter would have been; Unit 89 is also about fifteen feet west of a marsh (the marsh has made dealing with the soil very interesting… and wet).

Due to its proximity to the marsh and the quarter, we thought there might only be a few artifacts here and there that might have rolled down the small hill. For the first day of excavation our prediction was correct; there was grass and mud attached to the grass and not much else. Then, it was like the gods of archaeology began to favor Unit 89.

The second level (Level B) began to show promise when we found mortar, charred wood, ceramics, glass, slate, and even part of a pipe! As we continued excavating, my group and I began to notice that there was evidence of more iron pipes and an unidentified copper-like object began to appear in this level. We were not able to take these artifacts out because they were all only visible in Level B and actually buried in Level C. (It was annoying knowing there was something there, but we couldn’t touch it for fear of ruining the chronology in which the artifacts were being excavated.) Level B proved to become more of an annoyance when we had to keep cutting through roots to bring the level down at an equal rate throughout the entire unit. Through these annoyances we were soon rewarded with Level C.

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Real World Archaeology: A Student’s POV

As the previous blog post stated, last week was our first week working at Wye House, the plantation where Fredrick Douglass lived as a slave. Ever since June 3rd, we have been hard at work excavating at both SERC (The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) and at Wye House; for myself these past few weeks have been my first experience practicing real world archaeology. I can sum up my experience so far in two words: surprisingly satisfying. 

“Why is it so surprising?” you may be asking. The reason I used the word ‘surprising’ is due to how surprisingly labor intensive archaeology can be. When I pictured doing archaeology as a little girl, I always imagined I’d be wearing those outfits archaeologists and anthropologists wear including an Indiana Jones hat, a whip, and being able to find the most amazing artifacts out of sheer luck. Well, that is not the case. During our time working at SERC I wore: jeans, a t-shirt with sleeves that needed to be tucked under my jeans, and I had my hair in a tight bun while wearing a baseball cap. I wore all of this while digging (sometimes bent over to reach the soil at the best angle) and sweating under a blanket of humidity, heat, and sunlight for hours at a time.

Currently I am wearing the same type of clothes while at Wye House, due to the heat and out of respect for the family who have invited Archaeology in Annapolis to dig there. This week, and especially today, has been a rather frustrating day for my group’s unit due to what our unit is revealing to us. A ‘unit’, is the 5 ft.by 5 ft square we dig down in order to be able to record the artifacts found and to map the statigraphy (the different soil layers of the earth, each depicting either human influence or a geological event). This is what our unit looks like as of July 1st.

Our Unit (Unit #88)

Our Unit (Unit #88)

 

Imagine digging in this hole as carefully but as quickly as possible. As the UMD graduate students tell us, it is something we as archaeological students will learn as we gain more practice. As a beginner, I can tell you it is a hard thing to do well. It becomes even more difficult when your unit reveals a level solely of large fragments of: bricks, mortar, and oyster shells. My group dug through this layer and it took roughly 2 to 3 hours to dig. The next day we had to sort, weigh, and discard (due to the sheer number of artifacts and not being able to store, analyze, and preserve these artifacts with the time they had left) as quickly and as carefully as possible before our day was over. It was a tedious process, but it was a process that needed to be done. Amazingly, the entire process was done in less than 2 hours!

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SERC vs Wye House: Similarities and Differences

As a relatively new student to the discipline of archaeology, I thought it was interesting to note the differences and similarities between the excavations of the first three weeks of the University of Maryland’s Field School in Historical Archaeology and now the start of the second three weeks, each of which are being conducted at two separate and distinct sites.  Although the purpose of each excavation is similar, i.e. research into African American archaeology in both the antebellum period leading up to the Civil War and in the years following that conflict, each site presents its own unique set of archaeological challenges for the students due to the different setting and location of each site.

As noted in the previous blog, we just completed our first three weeks of excavation at a site located on the grounds of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) located near the city of Annapolis.  This site is a possible tenant house linked to an early settler family, the Sellmans, who owned a large parcel of land which served as an operating plantation for several generations prior to and after the Revolutionary War.  After several transfers of ownership, this land was eventually purchased by the Smithsonian in 2007 to become  part of the SERC.  According to previous historical research the possible tenant house may be dated to the mid-19th to early 20th century time frame, and initial (and very preliminary) field analysis of some of the artifacts recovered thus far indicate this may be the case.  We are now in our first week of work on another site located on Maryland’s Eastern shore, which is the Wye House, an historic plantation that has been in operation from the mid-17th century to the present, and has been in the same family for 11 generations. This particular site is especially noteworthy for its connection to Frederick Douglass who lived for several years as a slave on the plantation in his youth.

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Welcome to Wye

Week Four. Day Two.

Last Friday we concluded our time at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). Our excavation at SERC proved to be insightful but a certain element of intrigue nonetheless remains. The excavation of units around the building proved to be rich in artifacts. Unit three, my unit, which straddled the inside and outside of the building demonstrated some level of difference between the inside and outside. A feature containing artifacts was located in the deeper levels outside the building, oyster shells and shards of glass were also found in greater quantity in the outside section of the house. Unit Two, located at the back of the house, is believed to be located over what would have been a porch. Unit One, located in the front of the building, surprised its excavators with a drastic difference in depth in their level C and feature containing oyster shells, and the most recent, and original, theory is that it is located on what would have been a garden. There still remains much to be learned from our SERC site, which Archaeology in Annapolis will hopefully address in future field seasons.

We are now at our new location; the Long Green at Wye House Plantation. Wye House is located near Easton, Maryland and was settled as a plantation in the late Seventeenth Century. Throughout its history as a prolific farm Wye House has seen many notable people, one of them being a young Frederick Douglass. Douglass lived, as a slave, at Wye House Plantation for a few years at about the age of six. Though his time at Wye Plantation was brief, it left a strong and lasting impression of life as a slave, and is described vividly and accurately in Douglass’ book, “My Bondage and My Freedom”. Mentioned in “My Bondage and My Freedom” is The Long Green, where we are currently excavating. One of our goals in excavating at the Long Green, an area were slaves worked, is to learn more about the slave’s daily lives. This includes religious practice.

Cache Found at entrance of building. Source: Archaeology in Annapolis Flickr

Cache Found at entrance of building. Source: Archaeology in Annapolis Flickr

Last year’s field school at the Long Green uncovered a Cache located at the entranceway of the building. The Cache, containing items believed, in West African Traditions, to protect one’s entryways, was left to be better excavated during this field season with new technology. This season the plan is to excavate the Cache using laser technology to scan the cache as it is excavated, thus preserving a record of the cache as it was found.

Currently, as we prepare for the laser scanning to commence, three units are excavating in the side yards of the building. So far we have yet to find much; one brick, a wire, and a nail that peculiarly resembles one of our own nails used to mark unit boundaries. The unit closest to the marsh area has encountered mud, while my unit, which is relatively distant from the marsh and directly under the afternoon sun, has had very dry dirt. I have yet to decide which one is worse, but the dry dirt might win on the account of being less messy. Three more weeks remain of field school and hopefully in that time period, we will be able to better understand not only Frederick Douglass, but the life of those who lived and worked in the Long Green and Wye House Plantation, through our excavation.

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Concluding Excavations at SERC

Two field school students screening for artifacts at the SERC site.

Two field school students screening for artifacts at the SERC site.

It’s really hard to believe that tomorrow is our last day at SERC. Over the past three weeks, the field students have learned an incredible amount about not only archaeology but also the rich history that  exists at the SERC properties. During our first week at SERC, we spent most of our time digging shovel test pits (STPs). While at times this might have seemed redundant, especially when we were not finding any artifacts, completing the STPs helped us students learn that having patience is an incredibly important aspect of being an archaeologist.

Once the STPs were completed, we moved on to excavating units. For many of us, this was our first time ever excavating a unit and there was a lot to be learned. We learned much about excavating  during the first weeks, like how to hold a trowel and the best ways to properly dig using a trowel or a shovel. With help from the graduate students, we were able to catch on very quickly. And our units proved very fruitful! Almost every shovel full had artifacts in them and each unit ended up exposing different elements of our site.

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Artifacts from SERC fieldwork

We’ve started our third and final week of excavation on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) campus. We’ve opened three five-foot by five-foot units around the remnants of a late 19th century building.

Since we are trying to use material culture to answer questions about what the structure was used for and by whom, our units were strategically laid out in three places: what we believe could be a front yard, in between two brick piers of the foundation straddling the interior and exterior of the structure, and in back of the building.

My partner, Joe, and I are excavating the unit in the front of the building. We think this might be a “front yard” because the building was likely positioned toward the dirt road that connects with the main Homestead (Woodlawn).

Indian Head Penny dated 1893 similar to the one found at SERC. Photo from ebay.

Indian Head Penny dated 1893 similar to the one found at SERC. Photo from ebay.

While ceramics, glass and even nails can be good for dating a site or a specific layer within a unit, these diagnostic artifacts usually only narrow the timeline to a smaller date range. However, we found an Indian Head penny with 1893 on the front which gives us a very specific year to work with. While this may not be the earliest artifact from our unit, we will know more once the artifacts have been cleaned and cataloged in the lab.

In addition to the penny, we have screened bags full of nails and other hardware which might indicate that our unit is in an area where someone might have had a discard pile for used building materials. The presence of fence staples might indicate there was a fence implying that there was, in fact, a yard to fence off.

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The Start of AiA at SERC

We started our excavation by walking around the remaining foundation of a building and looking at what makes this a site. So, we were looking for anything that demonstrated human activity, like broken glass, nails, ceramics, bricks, altered landscape; we even looked at how the trees in the area were arranged differently too!

This piece of Aqua Glass was found in one of our STPs.

This piece of Aqua Glass was found in one of our STPs. Source: Joe Harden

Then came the fun part! We started digging; we dug Shovel Test Pits (STPs). These are one-foot by one-foot holes that help us create a range of human activity; they give us information about how far away from the building humans were and what they may have been doing, and if an STP comes back empty it still gives us a lot of information, meaning that human activity didn’t extend that far away from the building and it gives helpful information on the stratigraphy or layers of the soil. All of the STPs are carefully measured from a fixed point, called a site datum, on the site that will not move. So we chose one of the brick piers and took a compass and labeled it as 1000N and 1000E and every STP from there was measured in increments of 25 feet in any of the cardinal directions, for example, if the STP was 25 feet south of our point and 25 feet west, the STP would measure at 975N and 975E because calculations are always made in regards to north and east. A brick pier is used as a building foundation. They are used for wooden houses to raise the floor of the house off the ground so that the wood doesn’t sit on wet ground and rot. We’ve all seen a brick pier before, now we know what it’s called! The bricks are stacked and mortared together in each corner and usually one on each side of the building as well.

Milk Glass

Milk Glass found in an STP. Source: Joe Harden

In our STPs we found many different indicators of human activity: different types of glass, different types of ceramics (plates, bowls, etc.), nails, charred wood, oyster shells, even a vinyl record! Glass and ceramics differ by color and texture due to the different time periods, styles, uses, and technologies available to produce them. We found ironstone, a ceramic that is white but will have a rust color in the creases; pearlware, a ceramic that will have a bluish tint; creamware, a ceramic that is off-white and usually has yellow or green in the creases; among many others. In regards to glass, we’ve found pieces of milk glass, glass that is white through and through; manganese glass, glass that appears clear but actually has a slightly purple tint due to the chemical (manganese) used to produce it; aqua glass, glass with a noticeable light blue tint from the iron impurities in the sand used to produce it; and many more. I could list them all but this would go on for ages. A link to different types and descriptions can be found here.

Manganese Glass

Manganese Glass found in an STP. Source: Joe Harden

 

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Shark’s Tooth found in an STP. Source: Trish Markert

Also in our STPs we’ve found this layer of sand, and as we started moving down the hill this layer of sand was found closer and closer to the surface. And then a team member found a shark’s tooth! We originally had a hypothesis that where we were digging used to be some type of water system, but the discovery of the tooth made us more sure! So this site may have been a Tidal River of the Chesapeake Bay at some point in the past!

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Archaeology in Annapolis comes to SERC!

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The “Homestead House” was the home of the Sellman family for two centuries — our site is several hundred meters back, in the woods, and was likely a tenant house.
(Image Source: http://www.kathypoole.com/Converted%20Images/SERC/Excerpt%20from%20SERC%20Master%20Pland%20Report.pdf)

Archaeology in Annapolis this year has the great honor of working with the Smithsonian at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC!).  This is a very exciting partnership — not only is the SERC campus home to some of the most cutting-edge environmental research in the world, but a great deal of history as well.  Also, SERC’s Citizen Science program provides opportunities to incorporate the public as volunteers in a variety of research — including archaeology.  This commitment to public engagement at SERC aligns with AiA’s own investment in public archaeology, a top priority of AiA since its beginnings over 30 years ago.  Jim Gibb’s work at Sellman’s Connection has been an outstanding example of Citizen Science in action — excavating  alongside volunteers to test the area around the 18th century house that first greets you when you drive down the winding road (at a leisurely and strictly upheld 15 MPH) and enter SERC’s campus.  We were lucky enough to get the grand tour from Jim in the spring, and thus came to choose our site for this year’s field school.  And so, we arrived last Tuesday — the Archaeology in Annapolis 2014 Field School — armed with shovels, trowels, screens, and notebooks (among many other things we use out there).

This is just the beginning — and our students themselves will be sharing their experiences on our blog throughout the season.  So for now, let’s bring you up to speed on our site and some history at SERC.

Where We Will be Excavating:

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(Image Source: historicaerials.com)

During his mapping of Sellman’s Connection, Jim Gibb located what appears to be a late 19th century foundation in the wooded area, several hundred yards behind the Homestead House (Woodlawn).  At one point in time, a road had connected this structure to the larger house and the main road beyond it.  This can be seen in several historic topographies dating back as far as 1905, and as late as the mid-1990s.  What this structure was for has yet to be seen in any written records, but its location and size suggest it was a possible tenant house for laborers during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It was mostly likely constructed using wooden planks, a building material much more ephemeral and less costly than the bricks used to construct the main house.  As we don’t know much about this structure or those who used it, archaeology will be an important tool to tell us about what this building was, what it was used for, and by whom.  Another important tool will be oral history, as many of the local community members remember a time when this building still stood and have specialized knowledge about the local history of the area.

Brief History of Sellman’s Connection

The Sellman family’s history in Maryland can be traced back to John Sellman, who arrived in America in 1658 as a twelve year old indentured servant, required to work in a single household for over a decade to earn his freedom.  Throughout his life, he worked his way from indentured servitude to owning his own plantation.  His son, William, later moved to the 360-acre plantation called Shaw’s Folly that now lies within SERC’s campus.  There, he and his wife Ann built the house that you see there today, known at SERC as the Homestead House but named Woodlawn when it was built in 1735.  This house was home to several generations of Sellmans, including General Jonathon Sellman who fought at Valley Forge with the Continental Army in 1777-78.  Several additions were added to this house over time – a wing in 1841 and another in 1979 – and it likely had several outbuildings and tenant houses for the hundreds of men and women who worked there as slaves and paid laborers through the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.  According to Richard Donavin, a descendant of the Sellman family, many African American men and women remained after the Civil War as paid laborers, but little is known about their lives and the conditions they faced.[1]  Jim Gibb and many volunteers have uncovered some clues to this past, including a potential 19th century slave quarter and food preparation building in the field south of the Homestead House and a brick foundation, probably of a 19th century dwelling, in the yard west of the House.[2] 

gibb map

Map of Gibb Excavations, 2014
(Image Source: http://www.gibbarchaeology.net/discoveries/SERC/sellman.html)

The Sellman family sold the property to Yvone Kirkpatrick-Howat, an avid tree collector, in 1915.  According to local knowledge, at one time there had been a tenant house (AA-149 MHT) that had previously served as two slave quarters (later joined together).  While this is not the structure that we will be investigating, it speaks to the presence of slaves and tenants at the plantation, and could be a potentially similar building to the one we will be investigating.  This is drawn from 1987 report done by the Maryland Historic Trust, which cites Samuel Asker, a tenant farmer for Yvone Kirkpatrick-Howat at the time.[3]

Throughout the 19th century, much of the surrounding land was used by Robert Lee Forrest as the Java Dairy Farm – the land the eventually became the beginning of SERC’s campus.  The foundation that we will be excavating belonged to a building that stood throughout this time, from as early as the latter part of the 19th century well into the 20th century and the memories of many local community members.  The land containing the Sellman property was bought by the Smithsonian in 2007.[4]

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Field School in Public Archaeology

Haven’t figured out what to do with your summer yet?  Can’t seem to get enough archaeology?  Archaeology in Annapolis is pleased to announce an advanced field school in public archaeology for summer session 1, 2014.  This course is geared toward students who have already completed some training in archaeological field methods and want to work more closely with members of the public to construct meaningful interpretations of the past.

James Madison's mansion

James Madison’s mansion. Source: Montpelier Foundation

From June 2-June 21, we will be at Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Orange County, Virginia.  Tying in with excavations ongoing since the 1980s, this year’s excavation will explore the impacts of Emancipation on the African American community in Orange County.  The excavation will take place at the site of a late antebellum slave quarter that may have been reoccupied following the end of the Civil War.  This presents archaeologists with a unique opportunity to understand the effects of Emancipation at both the household and the community levels through the comparison of this site with other late antebellum and reconstruction era African American sites that have been excavated on the property.

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