Approaching the Finish Line

After an unreasonably long absence, I feel I should begin this post with an apology for my lack of updates!  Between the end of the field season at Ferry Farm and the start of my final year at VCU, I have had very little time to sit down and write anything but papers.  Now that things have started to settle down, however, I hope to have a great deal more time to post.  I’ll begin by picking up where I left off, in the final weeks of last field season.

Though I had only one job last summer, I had more titles and responsibilities than I ever imagined I would in my first year as an archaeologist.  By the end of July, I was an excavation intern, crew chief, and teaching assistant for the 2013 VCU Field School, and all only a year after having participated in the field school myself.  I can honestly say my experience this summer was the most challenging, but rewarding I have had in my years as a college student.  I think I was most surprised by how much I loved the teaching aspect of my job, both in terms of public outreach and the field school.  I truly enjoyed being able to share my knowledge of the site and promote a better understanding of archaeology and our role as archaeologists at Ferry Farm to the various guests that would visit throughout the season, but I was most inspired by my work with the field school students.  Being able to share the methods and skills I have developed through my studies and experience was exciting, but I was particularly impressed by how well this group of students responded to my guidance and how incredibly hard they worked throughout their five weeks at the site.  Having the opportunity to share my love of this field and the work I do with students and the public is something I very highly value, and it is something I hope to continue doing for many years to come.

Following the conclusion of the field season, and a bittersweet farewell to the many friends I made at the site this year, I returned to Richmond to begin my last year as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I also returned to my post in the Virtual Curation Laboratory, which recently received funding from a new Department of Defense Legacy Program grant.  I am now the Digital Curation Supervisor in the lab, which means that in addition to the usual scanning and editing of digital models, I now have the added responsibility of overseeing the work being done by other employees and interns, which has been a good experience thus far.

The most significant development in my academic and professional life, however, has been the long and strenuous process of applying to graduate schools – a process that ended today.  I plan to write a separate post going into greater detail about all I have done to reach this milestone, but for now I will keep it brief.  Last semester I began by taking the dreaded GRE, approaching my mentors to ask for their recommendations, refining my Curriculum Vitae, sending inquiry emails, and writing my first letter of intent – which is truly the most intimidating document I have ever written.  Then, on December 1st, I submitted my first application.

Today, I submitted the last.  After clicking that final “submit” button I was very quickly overcome with a flurry of emotions.  On one hand, a huge amount of stress has been lifted, and this great task that has occupied an enormous amount of my time for the past semester is finally complete…  But on the other hand, it is an utterly terrifying sensation to know that my future as a student and an archaeologist is now completely out of my hands.  I have been planning on going to graduate school since my first semester at VCU, and I have wanted to study archaeology since my first post on this blog – following my first day of field school at Ferry Farm.  I feel as though I have been running a marathon since that day, doing all I can to stay immersed and active in this field that I love, and now, in the final 14 weeks of my undergraduate education, and with no further obstacles, I am starting to see the finish line.  This is a tremendously frightening and unbelievably exciting time in my life, and I can’t wait to see what the next chapter of this journey holds…  I plan to keep you all much more updated from here on out, so stay tuned!

New Finds in an Old Feature

Our 18th Century feature, shortly after discovering an extension to the left.

Our 18th Century feature, shortly after discovering an extension to the left.

Last month Katie and I began work on a feature that appeared to be an 18th Century cellar.  It was characterized by dark gray soil and extended through four 5×5 foot units.  We removed two quarters of it and discovered that it was fairly shallow, sloped in at the bottom, and had two layers – one dark gray with a high concentration of charcoal, and one reddish brown with a lot of plaster at the base.  The more we worked on it, the less it made sense, so after excavating the second quarter we decided to close it up and move on for a while until we had a chance to think about what we were excavating.  The week before last we finally decided to return to the feature to excavate a third quarter, but when I uncovered the units surrounding it, I was met with a surprise.

The day before I uncovered the feature the interns did a fresh scrape of the entire site, allowing us to see everything in the soil far more clearly than we could before.  This scrape included the area west of our feature, which was excavated in 2008.  We had not scraped this area before, as none of the notes from previous excavations ever mentioned anything significant there.  However, the moment I looked at our feature I could see what we all had missed.  There was clearly an extension of the feature into the two units to the west, characterized by the same dark soil and charcoal inclusions.  This changed our plans entirely.

Tin-glazed (left) and prehistoric (right) pottery.

Tin-glazed (left) and prehistoric (right) pottery.

We now had to re-map the feature, finish excavating the southwest quarter, and then proceed to excavate the southern part of the corner we discovered in the new units.  Katie began this process while I caught up on my TA duties, checking on the field school students and helping them with anything they needed.  I found it a bit challenging to split my focus between working with Katie on one end of the site and working with the students on the other, but after a while I managed to find a good balance!  In the process of completing the first part of our southwest quarter we found a fairly large piece of tin-glazed ceramic, a piece of prehistoric pottery, and our first straight pin in this feature!

My feature on a hot, but lovely day at Ferry Farm!

My feature on a hot, but lovely day at Ferry Farm!

Last Monday I returned to the feature without Katie, as she was on vacation.  It was the start of our hottest and most humid week of excavation so far – with temperatures ranging from the mid 90’s to low 100’s – and my feature was in a section of the site that was surrounded by black tarp in the center of two completely excavated areas, making it seem even hotter where I was!  I started excavating the last corner of our southwest quarter right away and immediately started noticing some differences between this small section and the rest of the feature.

Artifacts from the corner I excavated, including ceramics (center), glass (bottom left), straight pins (top left), burnt polished bone (top right), and nails (bottom right).

Artifacts from the corner I excavated, including ceramics (center), glass (bottom left), straight pins (top left), burnt polished bone (top right), and nails (bottom right).

The first major difference was that the soil did not change in color or consistency from the top of the feature to the bottom, whereas the rest of the feature had two distinct layers.  The second difference was the artifact inclusions.  I water screened all of the soil – as we do for all features – and found a few different types of ceramics, two straight pins, several nails, and a fair amount of bone.  This was very unusual for this feature, as the rest of it yielded only three pieces of tin-glazed ceramic, one straight pin, and a handful of bone total!  I enjoyed finding so many different artifacts, and was pleased that they all seemed to fit into the 18th Century time-frame that we had originally given the feature, but I was also confused by the extreme differences between this corner and everything else.  When I finally finished removing all of the dark soil from the corner I was left with a sloped edge that seemed to match those on the other sides – with the exception of an STP that was dug directly in the middle, which we excavated before re-opening the feature!

The last step was to draw the profile, which I finished on Thursday, after a delightful trip to Washington DC to visit the Smithsonian and hear City Archaeologist Dr. Ruth Trocolli talk about GIS and DC archaeology with the field school students on Wednesday.  After completing my work on the feature, we decided to close it up and save the rest for next year.  I am still not sure what to make of it all, which is a somewhat frustrating feeling, but I suppose this is a valuable lesson that archaeology doesn’t always come with clear answers.  I spent the rest of the week working with the students, who are now entering their last week of field school!  It seems to have flown by, but I have thoroughly enjoyed working with them and am extremely impressed by their skills and positive attitudes!  I look forward to working with them for this last week, which I suspect will be a great one – and much cooler too!

The southwest quarter of our feature, completely excavated!

The southwest quarter of our feature, completely excavated!

Monday at Mount Vernon

The VCU Field School crew at Mount Vernon

The VCU Field School crew at Mount Vernon

Last Monday I joined the field school students on a trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon in northern Virginia.  I have visited Mount Vernon several times over the past year, and each time I go I am reminded of why I love it.  The grounds are beautiful, the house tour is always different, and the education center offers a wonderfully dynamic alternative to the typical museum experience.

We began the day by receiving a tour of the lab from Director of Archaeology Dr. Esther White, who very generously took time from her day to speak with us.  I really enjoyed seeing all of the artifacts they had on display and in their storage facility, but my favorite part of the tour was the room in which they were repairing one of the windows from the estate.  Something about seeing this small piece of the house, which came from the “new room” and clearly showed evidence of old repairs, was incredibly fascinating to me!  After our tour of the lab, we headed out to the mansion to see their current excavation.

Karen discusses their excavation with students and visitors

Karen discusses their excavation with students and visitors

We were led by Deputy Director of Archaeology Eleanor Breen, and met by a familiar face in the field – Karen Price, our field school TA from Ferry Farm last year!  She is now the Historic Preservation Laboratory Manager at Mount Vernon.  They explained what they were looking for and discussed their methods and findings with us, which was very interesting in contrast to what we are doing at Ferry Farm.  They are currently looking for evidence of a kitchen that existed on the property when Lawrence Washington – George’s older half-brother – lived there.  It was very cool to hear about their work at Mount Vernon, and it was great to see Karen, who was incredibly kind and helpful, as usual!

After that we took some time to walk the grounds and explore the education center, then we purchased our souvenirs and headed home!  I had a great day at Mount Vernon, and I can’t wait until my next trip to the site!

A Very Festive Fourth at Ferry Farm

The 2013 VCU field school team, ready to work on the 4th of July!

The 2013 VCU field school team, ready to work on the 4th of July!

The Fourth of July at Ferry Farm is a fun, exciting, and evocative affair that I was very proud to be a part of this year.  Each year the George Washington Foundation hosts a celebration at the site that includes food, vendors, re-enactors, live music, fun activities, and (of course) archaeology!  I had never been to this event before, so I was very excited to get to work that morning to participate in the festivities!

We arrived early in the morning to open the site and get settled before the guests started to arrive, but unlike most mornings, we were joined by dozens of other staff members and volunteers who were rushing to get everything set up and ready!  Two people from the lab joined us in the field and set up a table near our excavation area with various artifacts that have been found there, while all of the field school students and Dr. Bernard Means – director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory and professor leading VCU’s field school – joined us in the field.  We were incredibly thankful for the extra help, especially as it was a school holiday and none of them were required to come in!  Shortly after we got the site open and began digging, the gates to Ferry Farm opened and the celebration officially began!

Interns and students screen with the public

Interns and students screen with the public

We were flooded with guests who made their way around the site and stopped at our excavation area to see what we were up to.  Many of them were interested in helping us screen the soil from our units, which is something our visitors are always welcome and encouraged to do!  The children were especially excited about getting their hands dirty… and there were A LOT of children!  The interns, the field school students, Dr. Means, our Site Directors Laura and Eric, and Director of Archaeology Dave Muraca all pitched in to speak with the public, screen with the children, and work on the site as the day progressed.  It was pretty chaotic at times, but a great deal of fun!

Me, Lauren, and Mariana pose with re-enactors in front of the Surveyor's Shed!

Me, Lauren, and Mariana pose with re-enactors in front of the Surveyor’s Shed!

During my lunch break, I took some time to explore the rest of the site and visit some of the vendors.  I especially enjoyed seeing all of the re-enactors, who had small “camps” set up all over Ferry Farm.  There was a blacksmith, some Revolutionary War soldiers, Civil War soldiers, and even our very own George Washington!  After lunch there was a flag retirement ceremony and shortly after that we got back to work!  Allen and I worked on our unit and simultaneously helped the field school students with theirs.  It was a very hectic day, but before I knew it things started to wind down and it was time to go home.

The Fourth of July at Ferry Farm was a very fun and exciting experience, but it also gave me a better appreciation for the significance of this site.  Ferry Farm is the boyhood home of George Washington, a man who risked everything to fight for what he believed in, and who – with incredible courage and leadership – ultimately led this nation to victory and freedom.  He is revered as our first president and the Father of Our Country – titles that he proudly carried when he traveled through the many sites where we now go to honor him… but this was not his identity at Ferry Farm.

Flag retirement ceremony at Ferry Farm

Flag retirement ceremony at Ferry Farm

Here, he was just a boy.  He was not a surveyor, a soldier, a general, or president.  He was the oldest of six children on a 600-acre farm, just outside of the growing city of Fredericksburg.  He lived with his widowed mother, who cared for her family as best she could with the limited resources they had.  It was here that he played as a child, he grew as an adolescent, and he learned as a teenager.  It was here that the Father of Our Country would develop the strong will and character that led him to become the man we all know and honor today – especially on days like Independence Day.

Ferry Farm is not as well-documented or understood as other Washington sites, but it played just as critical a role in his development as those that have been more thoroughly studied.  I feel incredibly fortunate and proud to be working at a site like this, and to have the opportunity to contribute to the story of Washington’s life and childhood through my work as an archaeologist!

Muddy Monday, Montpelier, and More Features

Screening mud on Monday!

Screening mud on Monday!

Monday began with a rainstorm, as many of our days have begun over the past week or so.  We suspected that a storm may be rolling sometime in the morning, but we wanted to excavate as much as we could before it hit, so we rushed out to the field and started digging as quickly as possible!  About 30 minutes later, we were rushing to close up.  The rain poured and poured, but was fortunately not paired with thunder or lightning.  Within minutes I was completely soaked, but we successfully covered the site and put away the equipment before it got too bad.  Unfortunately, our mad dash to excavate meant that many of us had produced quite a bit of dirt in that first half hour, and as the rain became stronger, our wheelbarrows began filling with more and more water!  We all pitched in to help each other screen, but the soil was so muddy that we could not see anything we picked up.  It was an amusing challenge though, and despite being soaked and covered in slimy mud, I think that was probably the most fun I have has so far this summer!

After we finally got everything screened, the students returned home and the interns went inside to help out with some paperwork.  We stayed indoors until shortly after lunch, when the rain stopped and we were able to return to the field.  Allen and I worked on our unit and successfully brought it down to the antebellum layer, which should be full of exciting 19th Century artifacts!

Yesterday I accompanied the field school students on a trip to James Madison’s Montpelier, where we toured the house, the grounds, and the archaeology lab.  Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and friendly, and I learned a great deal about James and Dolly Madison that I never knew before!  I really enjoyed the lab as well, which is built to allow the public to walk through and see the many exciting artifacts they have in their collections.  I had a great time on this field trip and I can’t wait to visit again!

Artifacts found in our unit today!

Artifacts found in our unit today!

Today was a very productive day, and the first day this week that it did not start raining while we were outside!  Allen and I got about halfway through the antebellum layer, but just before we reached the colonial layer we noticed a thick line of bright orange soil and pebbles running through the middle of our unit.  After a lot of thought and confusion, we finally realized that this is part of a utility trench that runs through the whole northern half of our excavation area.  We will have to excavate the trench separately before we proceed with the rest of the unit, which I hope we can complete before the end of the week!  We did find some neat artifacts in our antebellum layer though, including a butchered bone (complete with cut marks!), Westerwald stoneware, some other lovely ceramics, nails, brick, and window glass.  Meanwhile, our students are making great progress, and I have enjoyed seeing the many things they have discovered as they work their way through their own units!

It’s been a wonderful week so far, and I am excited for the rest of it.  Tomorrow we are having a big 4th of July event, complete with activities, vendors, re-enactors, and archaeology, so if you happen to be in the Fredericksburg area, I encourage you to stop by and see us!  More information is provided on the website: http://kenmore.org/events.html.  Have a safe and fun holiday!

Week One is Done

Giving a tour to the new students at Ferry Farm!

Giving a tour to the new students at Ferry Farm!

Last week was my first week as the 2013 VCU field school teaching assistant, and what a week it was!  On Monday I met the new students at Ferry Farm and gave them a tour of the site, discussing the history of the land and the archaeology that has been done there.  After that, we all headed out to the field and met Laura, Eric, and fellow intern and VCU student Allen Huber.  Allen and I will be working together with the students as Crew Chiefs, teaching them the basics of excavation, answering their questions, and supervising their work for the next month.

We got them started by having them split into four groups and gather all of the equipment they needed to open a new unit.  Allen and I walked them through each step – from starting their paperwork to shoveling up topsoil.  Each group managed to remove the majority of their topsoil layer before the day was over, and I was very impressed by how well everyone worked together to get it done!

Mariana Zechini (left) and Lauren Volkers (right) skillfully excavate an STP in their unit.

Mariana Zechini (left) and Lauren Volkers (right) skillfully excavate an STP in their unit.

On Tuesday two of the groups completely excavated the 20th Century layer of their units, while another group – Lauren and Mariana – spotted a circular feature in the southeast corner of their unit.  The feature was characterized by bright orange soil and a high concentration of rocks.  Having come across several similar features in the past, Allen and I immediately checked a map we have that shows the location of the shovel test pits that were dug in the 1990’s.  Shovel test pits – or STPs – are small, round holes that are dug at a set distance from one another across a landscape to determine what the ground may hold before fully excavating it.  Sure enough, this circular feature appeared on the map, and we had them stop excavating the unit at that point so that they could remove the soil within the STP separately.

Allen and I work on our new unit!

Allen and I work on our new unit!

The next day began like any other.  The students continued excavating, and half of them reached the top of the antebellum layer.  Allen and I decided to open our own unit in the same area as the students, which was very exciting as neither one of us has worked on a full unit from top to bottom so far this season!  We started by setting up string around our unit, taking elevations, and getting the paperwork ready.  We then cut the topsoil into squares using our shovels and scooped them up into the wheelbarrow.  We managed to get to the base of the topsoil layer a few hours before closing time, but as everyone was screening and I was helping one of the students with their unit, a dark cloud started to make its way over the trees toward us.  Before we even had a chance to react, the winds picked up and dirt and debris began flying across the site.  We rushed to put away the equipment and pull the tarps over the open excavation area, but the wind got stronger and stronger, and thunder and lightning quickly followed.  The tarps began flying into the air before we could weigh them down, so a few of us threw ourselves across them just to keep them in place long enough for the others to grab the cinder blocks.  The wind became so loud that we had to yell over it just to hear each other, but within minutes we had everything safely stored, the site covered, and were able to get safely indoors just before the rain started to pour.  It was an incredibly chaotic, intense, and somewhat thrilling end to a fairly average day, and I was very impressed with how well everyone – especially the new students – reacted to the situation and worked together to make sure we all made it through safely!

The George Washington Birthplace National Monument

The George Washington Birthplace National Monument

On Thursday we had a field trip to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, where museum curator Amy Muraca very graciously took us on a tour of the site and the lab.  It was a lot of fun, and I learned quite a bit about the Washington family and their lives before they made their way to Ferry Farm.  We were also able to surprise her with some plastic replicas of artifacts that we scanned there last August (see the blog here), which was very fun!  Friday went smoothly, as each of the students worked through their units and Allen and I made it about halfway through the 20th Century layer of ours.  All in all, it was a very eventful and exciting first week for the field school students, and I can’t wait to get back in the field for week two!

You can read more about their experiences at Ferry Farm on the official field school blog, vcu2013ferryfarm.wordpress.com!

A New Chapter

The southwest quarter of our feature, partially excavated!

The southwest quarter of our feature, partially excavated!

Katie and I completed the second quarter of our unit last week, and were left with just about as many questions as we began with.  We started by scraping the unit and outlining the feature, which was significantly darker than the soil that surrounded it.  As we began excavating, however, we quickly noticed the darker soil start to disappear along the bottom edge of the feature.  This was frustrating at first, as it left us with a shape that was completely different than the one we found in the first quadrant, and was not consistent with the feature being culturally formed.

Artifacts recovered from our feature last week

Artifacts recovered from our feature last week.

As we continued excavating, we began finding some interesting artifacts along the top portion of the unit, where the feature dipped down much lower than the rest.  Among our discoveries were the base of a wine bottle, a pipe stem, a wrought nail, and two pieces of tin-glazed ceramics which appeared to be from the same vessel as the two we found in the first quarter.  All of the artifacts we found dated to the 18th Century or earlier, so despite its many mysteries, we know for certain that this feature dates to the 1700’s.

Once the quarter was completely excavated, it was time for Katie and I to come up with some possible interpretations for it.  This quarter was partially excavated in 2008, so the top layer of it was missing, which may explain why the shape was not exactly the same as the first quarter, which was fully intact.  This quarter dipped in at the center in the same way that the first quarter did though, so we were able to confirm that it was, in fact, culturally formed.  Other than that, we were not able to come to a solid conclusion about this perplexing feature.

Our feature after excavating two quarters!

Our feature after excavating two quarters!

After a great deal of discussion and thought, our field directors decided that it would be best to close the feature for now and hold off further excavation until we have a firmer grasp on what it may be.  We agreed with this decision, and on Friday we wrapped up our paperwork and very carefully covered up the remaining quarters of our feature.  We spent the rest of the day helping our fellow interns work on a series of units in the middle section of our excavation area that needed to be taken down to subsoil from the colonial layer.  It was a nice, relaxing day, and an excellent way to end the first chapter of my summer at Ferry Farm…

The next chapter began today, as I took on the responsibilities of the Teaching Assistant for VCU’s field school, which runs from now until the end of July.  I am very excited about this new task, and I hope I can pass on to the students all of the knowledge that I have gained, as well as a bit of my love and enthusiasm for the field!  It’s the beginning of a new and exciting adventure at Ferry Farm, and I look forward to sharing it with this year’s field school students!

The 2013 VCU field school crew!

The 2013 VCU field school crew!