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!



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