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.

Our first STP, shown below, was a spot chosen near the closest sapling to our previous unit. We were rewarded with few artifacts. We found some brick, some mortar, and a few nails upon going nearly four feet into the ground. Upon these findings, Ben rethought our strategy and has us move our next STP location closer to the drainage ditch that served to prevent the road from flooding. The lower elevation would hopefully allow us to come down upon a time-frame where a blacksmiths shop may have existed more quickly, and nicely enough also served to prevent me from having to dig holes lying on my chest trying to grapple with earth nearly three feet below me.

STP One

STP One

This proved to be our break through. In our very next STP we found a pipe-stem and tin-glazed earthenware that upon primary inspection appeared to date to at least the mid 18th century. Our class was lucky enough to have received an in-depth ceramic lecture during our work at SERC that helped me identify the ceramic at nearly first glance (with the help of my group and confirmation of our TAs). Identifying ceramics has been an extremely gratifying part of this entire process. Additional findings were more brick, mortar, oyster-shell, nails, and a couple pieces of slag. Beyond the pipe and ceramic that helped us begin to date what we were beginning to find, the slag was especially encouraging.

Slag is a byproduct of the smelting of metals associated with blacksmithing. The impurities harden and form a hard mass often covered with small dents and bubbles. These findings led us to widen our STP area to a box consisting of four STPs forming the corners that would straddle the drainage ditch. The STPs higher in elevation, closer to the road, turned up more slag and brick and mortar. However, as the STPs moved down the drainage ditch and approached the water, at a lower elevation, we would often hit the water table before we could find further evidence at the appropriate elevation.

Thus we once again widened the search area to a grid that would resemble a “six on a die” formed of STPs. The first four were the previously completed box, and the final two came in towards our original excavation site. Our final two STPs produced a large amount of slag and brick and mortar compared to the previous five STPs (for those of you counting we dug seven STPs in total over the course of 3 days; Monday-Wednesday). In the sixth STP we found a good deal of brick and mortar still attached that we could not even begin to dig under. This finding and the volume of slag and metal artifacts we found around the seventh STP would suggest that at the very least there is some evidence that some metalworking and blacksmithing could have taken place in this area. After digging seven four foot holes, once again getting covered in muddy water, and forming some nice new designs of blisters on my hands it was nice to be rewarded by our initial hypothesis being supported with some substantiation.

STP Six

STP Six

Now for those following the rough timeline by the time we were done with STPs it was Wednesday. Which may lead some to ask well now what does your group do that you completed your unit and STP collection before other groups had even finished one unit. First of, it is impressive that as a reader you also realized the incredible work ethic and efficiency of Unit 89, and I applaud you for that insightfulness. However, the fact remains that every unit excavated in archaeology is different so it was now our responsibility to help the other groups with whatever tasks were necessary. These often consisted of help screening, scraping, moving buckets of dirt, and backfilling units.

Backfilling a unit is among the most satisfying and tiring activities related to archaeology. It involves the somewhat ironic task of moving the mountain of back dirt you created excavating back into the huge pit/hole/bear trap you created in your archeological quest. Having worked on a farm, and been schooled by a mother who had a particular penchant for gardening and yard work this is a task that I was rather well suited for. The last two days have consisted nearly entirely of this closure-filled activity for me.

While moving buckets upon wheelbarrows of dirt into holes I have begun to think back at my time with Archeology in Annapolis these past six weeks. It’s funny how the smell of rotting grass under a pile of dirt jump-starts the conclusion muscles. My first big-picture thought was how lucky my classmates and I were to have had the opportunity this summer learning the basics of archaeology in such historic surroundings. We received great instruction and had the pleasure of operating not only at SERC, an incredible coalition of people in an incredible environment, but also at the very plantation where one of America’s heroes, Frederick Douglass, spent some of his formative years. As the summer goes on I’m sure I’ll forget the blisters, sunburn, and ominous tick bites and focus on the experience that not many are always granted, but for now I’m focused on backfilling the final units tomorrow and getting to say on final goodbye to Wye House (possibly in a cloud of dirt).

A final special thanks to my conscientious STP model Sarah.

1 Comment
  1. What a beautiful experience, i would love to do this some day. Its true that you and your classmates had a good opportunity this summer learning the basics of archaeology in such historic surroundings. http://www.kenyajobtube.com for archaeological field work

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