An archaeological feature is a context that interrupts the soil stratigraphy of a single unit – while the strata within the unit are horizontal, the feature is marked by its vertical position. Usually this means that in the past, people dug out a section of the land, leaving an empty pit that was later filled in with newer soil. The pit could have originally been dug out either to make room for new material such as a post or foundation, or to gather the material within it (soil and inclusions) for a new purpose.
In the case of Feature 3, which we recently excavated in Easton, we believe that the land was originally dug up to lay the foundation of the parsonage used by the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and was later dug up again to remove some of the bricks, after which the resulting pit was filled back in with dirt. Thus, while the soil surrounding the feature retained its original horizontal stratigraphy, all of the soil within the feature came from a single context – most likely twentieth century, assuming that the pit was dug out after the foundation was laid. Features like Feature 3 are known as “robber’s pits,” because at some point in time, material was taken from them. Most of the time, however, the material was not removed during a robbery, but by the people who were using the land at the time.
We found Feature 3 at the end of a brick pier while excavating a strat around the remains of the foundation, leading us to the conclusion that the feature once contained more of the same bricks. The dirt used to fill in the pit was composed largely of coal ash similar to what we found in the strat above it, and beneath the ash, we found a layer of yellow dirt belonging to what we believe is the next strat down. While screening the soil we had excavated, we found several artifacts, including many broken pieces of brick.
In the creation of a feature, the original stratigraphy of that area is lost, so the question remains as to what the soil may have contained before it was dug out. We map out the exact coordinates of features so that we can determine why they may have been created, based on its positioning in relation to other elements of its site. There are some questions we can’t answer yet – for instance, where was the original soil from the pit deposited? But by determining the context of the artifacts mixed in with the newly deposited soil, we can learn about the soil used to fill the feature, and assess which context or contexts it was taken from.