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.

Bottom of Level C and what we had to map. Source: Archaeology in Annapolis Flickr

Bottom of Level C and what we had to map. Source: Archaeology in Annapolis

To put it simply: there was a lot happening in Level C. At first, we were finding the usual artifacts: small pieces of brick, mortar, ceramic shards, and glass fragments. We were also able to excavate the rest of the copper-like object- it might be part of oil-lamp- that was visible form Level B. However, as we kept excavating, my group and I began to notice that the iron pipes that had been visible from Level B were more numerous in Level C and began to (possibly) form some kind of pipe system along the north wall of the unit. Then, we began to uncover the slate and bricks; the slate covered the floor of about a third of the unit. We all just looked at the mass of slate for a second, talked, and wondered if it was some kind of pathway. Ben later told us that we were wrong and that slate was only used for two things: chalkboards and roofs and there was too much slate for it to be a chalkboard. The brick fragment and slate roofing (we later found a fragment with a nail hole) told us that the north wall of the quarter that had been eighteen feet away probably fell over and landed where unit 89 now sits. Level C of Unit 89 helped show us some of the possible building materials of the slave quarter.

However amazing it was to uncover all the pipes, bricks, and slate, we still had to map the prominent artifacts in Unit 89; it took about an hour.

It was hard to find excitement in Level D after excavating Level C. Sure, we found bricks, slate, glass, and ceramic fragments, but it wasn’t as exciting as uncovering some cool piece of information that no one would have ever thought to be possible.

In Level E, we were again looking (the better word for it would probably hoping) that there would be something amazing in the level. Sarah found a complete milk-glass jar that had “HA” embossed on the bottom; we clung to that jar and the possibility that we could identify it. We managed to discover the jar was a Hazel Atlas cold cream jar; Hazel Atlas dates from 1902- 1964, we had a time period for this level of our unit. There was also a feature (something that causes a disturbance in the soil) that managed to intrigue us. The feature held pieces of an oil-lamp (possibly connected to the copper-like object in Level C). Level E managed to re-catch our interest in Unit 89.

Sarah and I screening through the mud from Level F. Source: Joe Harden

Sarah and I screening through the mud from Level F. Source: Joe Harden

Finally came the true trouble level in Unit 89: Level F. We thought Level A was bad with the grass and mud/clay, but Level F had thick and somewhat wet clay that made it impossible to screen the soil quickly… there were a couple of screening backups during the excavation of Level F. We would have one person shovel shaving and two people pushing the soil through the screen (we would take breaks from screening to shovel… you would think it would be the other way around). We had to leave for the day in the middle of excavating Level F and came back in the morning to water slowly trickling into our unit; but it didn’t rain- we managed to dig under the water table (where groundwater sits). We had to screen using our hands because the actual screen would not work with the mud (by the end of screening we were covered in mud). Also, since we were under the water table, we could not continue our excavations of Unit 89. We were upset that we had to stop our excavations because we could see the amazing artifacts that we could not touch.

I guess what I’ve learned throughout this field school and what I’m trying to demonstrate here by talking about Unit 89 is how, even though archaeology is a lot of work and sometimes really annoying, there are glimpses of amazing and intriguing things that remind you why you are working so hard.


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