The Infamous “Rat Hole”

Rodent burrows on the north of Unit 2.

Rodent burrows on the north side of Unit 2.

Unit 2, my beloved unit, has come across quite a feature in the past few weeks. Not just a rodent burrow, but the beginnings of a rodent condominium. In a site like the one we are digging in, rodent burrows are not unusual, but they are incredibly frustrating. After Dr. Jocelyn Knauf’s lecture, I found myself reviewing the information we have learned in the past several weeks regarding context, and the effect the rodent burrow has on the interpretation of our unit.

According to “Artifacts and Active Voices: Material Culture as Social Discourse” by Mary Beaudry, Lauren J. Cook and Stephen A. Mrozowksi, in an archaeological context, the deposits of an urban area often result from rapid depositional episodes. These episodes can include many stratigraphic sediment layers, which can be missed if one is not careful. These layers can correspond with changes in household-level events such as changing waste-deposit systems or water/sewer management facilities.

Stratigraphic layers or features can be identified through their texture and color. To the untrained eye, they are sometimes difficult to discern, but under the careful watch of our TA’s, we have been fairly successful at identifying each layer. With the emergence of the rodent burrow, which cut through a separate feature as well as the rest of the unit (and continues outside of the unit), it has become more difficult to identify the stratigraphic layers.

The rodent burrow stretches across the majority of the North wall of our unit, and the creature inhabiting it has worked its way through several layers, in the process hypothetically pushing artifacts down to other layers and kicking up artifacts that were in lower layers. This displacement of artifacts, the creation of an entirely different kind of soil surrounding the rodent burrow and the lack of stability of the soil layers on top of the rodent burrow have created an unfavorable condition for our unit.

The most difficult element of the emergence of the rodent burrow is that of its effect on a feature that our unit came across. The feature we found (prior to the rodent burrow) on the surface extended as a semi-circle placed on the East wall of our unit. We bisected this feature in order to better identify the soil levels and account for any student error in the process. The North side of the feature was excavated first, but before the shape of the North side of the unit could be fully identified, the rodent burrow impeded on our progress and the excavation of the feature was paused. After removing the burrow in its entirety, we found that we were unable to determine what the edge of the feature looked like—which could have been integral to its identification. Within the feature (not the rodent burrow) we found brick, coal, mortar, ceramic pieces, a marble and numerous modern synthetic artifacts indicating initially a layer of yard scatter, followed by a layer of “fill”.

The South side of the feature was further excavated and was found to be plant remains. Fortunately, so far, the burrow is contained to the North side of the unit, indicating that our four-legged friends have not obscured the entire unit. The effect of any disturbance on a site are felt when attempting to understand what is going on in the soil. Disturbances that affect separate areas of the site, such as this one, deem the artifacts found within the disturbances problematic to use in an interpretation due to their lack of a concrete deposition layer. Deposition layers can be dated based on the artifacts found, a feat that is difficult to accomplish in an area that has been shifted around.

The term “rat hole” has become affectionately used in our description of the burrow. It impeded our progress for several days, but we are finally able to continue with the excavation of our unit. Although these disturbances are frustrating, they are not infrequent in the area. Learning how to deal with these disturbances is just one more challenge that my group has conquered.


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