Religious, Medical, & Gardening Practices
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.
Public Archaeology at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Easton, Maryland
This summer the AiA field school is conducting three weeks of archaeological excavations in the adjacent lot of the Bethel A.M.E. Church located in the historic Hill Community of Easton, Maryland. For nearly two centuries Bethel A.M.E. Church’s community-building initiative has linked African American congregates through a network of other A.M.E. Churches in the U.S. Throughout its history, Bethel A.M.E. has played a vital role in abolitionist projects such as the Underground Railroad, as well as the Civil Rights Movement, all of which have contributed to a lasting heritage of African American resilience.
For the last thirty years, AiA has fostered a strong tradition of active and critical engagement with descendant communities in the Chesapeake region. Integral to our work in Easton is a continuation of this fundamental philosophy, which incorporates elements of both public and community archaeology. One of the key aspects of public archaeology is the sharing of archaeological sites and findings with the public. When doing public archaeology, archaeologists this summer not only regard education of the public to be just as important as the research itself, but also ensure that tours of the site have a structure, and that there are both convincing and relatable ties to the present drawn from the artifacts from the past (Leone 1983).
Our work this summer at Bethel A.M.E. is a continuation from a shovel test pit survey conducted last summer. Three units have been dug this summer in the adjacent lot in locales that may reveal material artifacts, which attest to the church’s role in civic engagement and community-building. Our site has been open to the public in order to share with community members our findings and their significance, and to participate in the dig. Visitors to the site are given a tour of current excavations and are invited to participate in in an array of activities such as digging, screening for artifacts and washing of artifacts.
Community archaeology is another aspect of our work this summer in Easton. Community archaeology differs from public archaeology by seeking a more active engagement with community residents, in order to gain their input on archaeological findings, on our own interpretations of artifacts and on future research design. Additionally, when working with a descendant community, we as archaeologists seek to better understand notions of community as multi-vocal and dynamic constructs. Often our expectations of community position community members as homogenous groups who all have the same shared interests. As this is most often not the case, the idea of community should be reconciled between notions of a natural category and as a process of continual transformation. According to archaeologist Anna S. Agbe-Davies, the true reality of a community is neither “natural or essential, but rather processual or generative” (2010: 383).
While uncovering pasts that have largely been excluded from or misrepresented in mainstream Anglo-dominated history is one of our primary goals at Bethel A.M.E., AiA takes as one of its key objectives to make archaeology relevant and useful to the residents of the Hill Community. By engaging with local community members, the archaeology that is performed at Bethel A.M.E. has the potential to empower residents in their efforts to preserve the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the Hill Community.
Agbe-Davies, Anna S. 2010. Concepts of Community in the Pursuit of an Inclusive Archaeology. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 16(6): 373-389.
Leone, Mark. 1983. Method as Message: Interpreting the Past with the Public. Museum News. 62(1): 34-41.
We’ve been busy this past summer, excavating from June through the end of August. Now that we’ve had a chance to catch up with ourselves, here’s what we’ve been up to! The next several posts were written by field school students about their experiences and the work we did in summer 2015. They were really a fantastic crew and it was a pleasure working with them.
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.
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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