Discovering Gloucester’s Foundations

Last Saturday I returned to Gloucester to volunteer once again with the Fairfield Foundation.  We were continuing our excavation of two test units in the historic courthouse circle, seeking the foundations of a building that dates to sometime before 1766.  I returned to the same unit I worked on last week, but this time I got to work with archaeologist and Fairfield Foundation Co-Director Dave Brown.  Our first task was to clean up the unit to get a clear picture of what was going on so that we could decide how to proceed.  It was a gorgeous day to be working outside – 70 degrees with low humidity – and we were surrounded by the sights and sounds of a Civil War reenactment event.


Once we finished scraping, Dave and I took a step back and he asked me what I saw.  I immediately noticed some rather interesting and unusual soil patterns in our unit, including a light yellowish square at the top left, another light square on the right, and a clear line along the bottom between two large brick deposits.  Dave also pointed out a dark circle within the square at the top left, and told me that it is probably a post mold within a post hole, meaning that there was once a post or a pole of some kind there.  He explained that when a person digs a hole for a post, they will always dig it bigger than they need, and then fill the ground around it once it is installed.  When they remove it or it decays, the hole is filled with soil that dates to that time.  Thus, the fill that surrounds the post mold dates to the “birth” of the feature, and the soil within the mold dates to its “death”.  This logic also applies to certain building features, which I found fascinating!

IMG_1705We decided to excavate the line at the bottom of the unit next, but first I took a break to have lunch with my mom and my sister, Lindsey.  When I returned, Dave and Thane had already begun excavating the line, and discovered a large orange utility pipe just a few inches down.  They had also recovered some neat artifacts, including pipe stems, pipe bowl fragments, the base of a small glass bottle, and some large pieces of wine bottle glass.  Even more artifacts were discovered when I started screening the soil that they had removed – with the help of my family!  We found more pipe and wine bottle fragments, some lovely ceramics, and even the remains of a contemporary toothbrush.

IMG_1725After screening, I got back to work in the unit, removing all of the soil beneath the pipe to find the bottom of the trench.  While I was digging, Thane and Anna announced an exciting discovery in their unit – the corner of a building foundation!  This was a very exciting, but unexpected find, as this was not the foundation that they were looking for…  I hurried over to take a look at the corner of our mystery building, which was cut in half by a utility line, but still amazing to see!

The rest of my day was spent digging under the utility line in my unit, which was in a seemingly bottomless trench full of loose sand and pebbles.  Dave instructed me on how to take a core sample to see if we could find the bottom, which was a new experience for me.  I took the large T-shaped pole and pushed it down into the earth, failing to get very far the first two times, but successfully obtaining a full sample on the third try!  I pulled it up to find a nice sample of my unexcavated stratigraphy in the metal tube, which revealed that the bottom of the trench was still several inches below the surface.  We continued digging until the end of the day, but were unable to make much more progress in our unit.  Once we finished screening the soil that we had removed, we covered up both units, packed up our things, and headed home.  It was a great day of excavating, and I learned a lot with Dave’s helpful guidance!  I’m so glad that I got to participate in this excavation, and I hope to volunteer with the Fairfield Foundation again soon!



Digging with Daffodils

73331_4919435947733_1195727004_nLast weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to get my hands (and knees) dirty at an excavation with the Fairfield Foundation in my family’s hometown of Gloucester, Virginia.  The Fairfield Foundation is a nonprofit organization that is based in Gloucester and runs excavations all over the Middle Peninsula.  They are incredibly active in the community there, and have a number of public outreach programs that help people who are interested in archaeology get involved through volunteer work, which I think is fantastic.  I heard about a volunteer opportunity during Gloucester’s annual Daffodil Festival about a month ago, and jumped at the chance to get back in the field and brush up on my excavation skills.  I emailed them a couple of weeks before the festival and soon after was very kindly invited to join in the dig!

I got up bright and early on Saturday morning and packed up my gear – including my brand new Marshalltown trowel, which I was very eager to finally break in!  As I headed out to the site, I found myself becoming increasingly excited, but also a bit nervous, as I had only ever dug at Ferry Farm before and was not sure what to expect at a new site with new people.  As soon as I arrived I was welcomed by Thane Harpole and Dave Brown, Co-Directors of the Fairfield Foundation, and given some background on what we were looking for before I began digging.

IMG_1578The excavation was located between the old Gloucester Courthouse, which was built in 1766, and a short brick wall that surrounds the historic courthouse circle.  Our goal was to locate the remains of a building that they found doing construction on the other side of the wall a couple of years ago, which they know stretches under the wall toward the courthouse.  This structure predates the courthouse, and included a cellar that they excavated during the construction project.  I was very excited to start working on such an old and historically rich site, so when Thane finished briefing me on the project I did not hesitate to get straight to work!

As I began scraping the soil away with my trowel, all of my nerves disappeared and it felt like only yesterday that I was doing the same thing at Ferry Farm.  The 5×5 foot unit had already been started and was about an inch or two deep when I arrived.  I was working with a young archaeologist named Erin, who has been volunteering with the Fairfield Foundation for quite some time.  As we dug, the Daffodil Festival Parade marched by only a few feet away and countless visitors stopped to watch us work and ask about the excavation.  It was a much more energetic environment than I am used to, but I really enjoyed all of the excitement!

IMG_1583Aside from the festivities and the large amount of public interaction, the unit itself was quite unlike any I have ever excavated before.  It seemed as though every scrape of my trowel turned up an artifact, and the intense amount of brick that we found made it both challenging and exciting to work through.  By the time lunch rolled around, Erin and I had filled half a paint bucket with artifacts, including window glass, 18th Century wine bottle glass, pipe stems, pipe bowl fragments, half a clay marble, nails, ceramics, and a lot of brick.  We even uncovered half of a bottle (minus the top and bottom) that was still intact in the ground!  By day’s end we had such a full bucket that it broke when we tried to move it!  We ended the day by closing our first context and mapping the unit, preparing for a fresh start the following morning.

555767_4919424187439_470315158_nThe next day was a little more relaxed, and my goal was to get the whole unit down to a level that appeared to have some sort of brick and mortar feature, though we were not sure if it was the one we were looking for.  As the day progressed I was joined by several volunteers, including a few very young ones, which was a new, but fun experience for me.  One such volunteer was a 7-year-old boy named Joseph, who came prepared with his own archaeology pack that contained everything he could have possibly needed to carry out an excavation, including a couple of trowels, a brush to clean artifacts, and a notebook in which he took notes and drew his finds.  I was incredibly impressed by this young man – not just by his excavation abilities, but by his knowledge and passion for archaeology – and I really enjoyed working with him and helping him learn.

My day ended a bit early, but I will be returning to the courthouse this upcoming weekend to volunteer once more!  I really enjoyed working with everyone from the Fairfield Foundation and all of the wonderful volunteers last weekend, and I truly appreciate the opportunity to hone my excavation skills as I prepare for my next big adventure in archaeology… but more on that later.

If you’d like to know more about the Fairfield Foundation, visit their website at!