Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Day 2- Geoarchaeology Geekiness

Day 2:

Oh my goodness, well today was my first day physically working on a dig as a real-life archaeology student at Monticello. It was beyond the mere description of words, but this is a blog, so I will have to try. 

In the morning, we gathered bright and early again and immediately went into lecture with Dr. Neiman. The topic was the difference, science, and inferences we can decipher when we, as archaeologists, examine the various layers of soil and sediments. Dr. Neiman continually stressed the important difference between the two terms, soil is the result of in situ (original position) pedogenic process at work (weathering) on stable parent material, and sediment is particles accumulated or precipitated by natural and cultural processes. Historians and amateur archaeologists use these terms interchangeably, this is not the case, as the archaeological record (a scatter of artifacts in their matrices) is defined by the distinct separation and notation of these two different types of horizons.

In regards to sediment, we discussed the clastic (fragments, called clasts, of pre-existing minerals and rock), chemical, and organic accumulation which can makeup the sediment deposits. Clasts can result from deposits made by water, gravity, wind, ice, or people. For example, when water transports particles, they are carried along watercourses until the water’s velocity is not great enough to keep them in suspension and they settle out as alluvium. Alluvium is the general term for the sediment deposited by rivers, including riverbeds, along its margins, and is often rich in organic matter. Similar to this, relating to alluvium, is colluvium. Colluvium is the general term for the accumulations of sediment carried by gravity down hill slopes, these are example of clast. 

Within sediments, archaeologists look for homogeneous zones, which are visible through lithology (clast composition and arrangement), these are referred to as lithostratigraphic units (layers, zones) and are a tool used by geoarchaeologists and archaeologists in order to recognize separate deposits within the matrix under excavation. Aside from lithostratigraphic units, chemostratigraphic units, and biostratigraphic units (fauna, pollen, and phytoliths), and of course artifacts (enthostratigraphic units) are also used to determine the composition of the various sediment horizons. After going over the various methods, both natural and cultural, by which the sediment horizons might arrive at the site were discussed, we gathered the equipment and headed out to our first day in the field for excavation!

After a brief trek through the beautiful forest of Monticello Mountain, we arrived at Site 8 (the name of our dig site), and broke into small work groups of three to get down to learning and understanding the basics for the necessary field documentation techniques and forms necessary for every excavation. Since archaeology in nature is a destructive process, once you dig an area of land, you are unable to retract any of your actions. This is why a large amount of our time in the field is devoted to paperwork, at least at the beginning, we notated the elevation of the entire quadrat (the 5x5 section of our small group's excavation, known as area 407), and determined the composition of the top-soil (A Horizon) as 2.5YR 3/3 on the Munsell chart. 

Once the opening paperwork for our quadrat was recorded, we took to our shovels and began the process of schnitting, which is a specialized shoveling technique used by archaeologists to minimally disturb the horizons. The second part to this process is simply placing all the displaced soil from the quadrat into buckets, which are then taken to a shifter to be screened over a large wheelbarrow. The process of screening requires close attention to detail, because although the screen may catch various artifacts, they are still covered in soil, it is up to the archaeologist to be able to spot an artifact (by roundness, evenness, color, etc.) covered in dirt and then clean it slightly for further examination. After displacing the stable organic plant material of the A Horizon, each team member grabbed their trowel (hand tool used for precision in shaving down the horizons within the matrix) and began evenly lowering our quadrat to reveal more of the soil beneath the top soil. 

Within the A Horizon, my team successfully recovered three wrought nails, slate, redware, soapstone, the stem of a pipe (imported from Britain), and a decorated button. At the end of the day, we had closed the A Horizon, and when a beautiful dose of the Monticello red clay soil tainted everyone's clothing, we all packed up to head out. Closing the site for the day involves ensuring that your quadrat is completely covered with a tarp (in the event of rain), measuring and notating the closing elevations, and keeping track of your artifact bag the entire time. Once back at headquarters, each team checks in their artifact bag for the day's dig (only if you successfully closed a horizon and took closing elevations) and then head home for the day. 

Today, I was able to take my love of history off the page, the intellectual context, became a physical experience. I held a section of a tobacco pipe which likely dates back to the mid-eighteenth century - that feeling was unreal. Personally, I did not even mind the heat, bugs, or physical labor of the day because of the immense reward I received. I welcome the coming days with eager anticipation and excitement. 

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