So Many Shells, So Little Time

SONY DSCLast Wednesday Allen and I began the process of excavating the shell feature that we were assigned to earlier in the week.  We started by creating a detailed map that included the boundaries of the feature, each shell within it, and all significant objects in the two units around it.  I set up rulers on each side and along the center and then measured the objects that we needed to map, giving Allen their exact location so that he could draw them to scale on a grid.  This was a fairly straightforward, but extremely time-consuming task that took the majority of the day to complete.  By the time we were finished, the day was nearly over!  We did not have time to begin working on the feature, so instead Eric asked us to finish excavating a utility trench in another unit.  We managed to finish digging through it by the end of the day, and only had the paperwork to complete the following morning!

SONY DSCWe wrapped up the utility trench early Thursday morning and returned to the shell feature immediately after that.  Because the paperwork and map had already been completed for that context, we were able to get straight to work!  We started by excavating only the north half of the feature so that we would be able to see the profile of it once everything was done.  Shortly after we began digging, however, we had to stop to get a quick lesson in water screening.  Water screening is often used when excavating features, as it allows the excavator to find tiny artifacts like bone fragments, bits of ceramic and pins that would fall through a standard ¼ inch mesh screen.  This was my first time using that method, so I was very excited to try it!  We poured the dirt that we had excavated from our buckets onto the screens, which have a much smaller mesh on them that does not allow small things to fall through.  We then took hoses and gently sprayed the dirt until all that was left on the screen was shell, rocks and artifacts.  Our first load did not yield very much, so we returned to the feature to continue digging.

SONY DSCAllen started by gently working around the large oyster shells on the main part of the feature, collecting them as they began to pop up.  Meanwhile, I began by removing the northernmost tip of the feature, which was on the other side of the utility trench.  In that section I uncovered a few shells and a very nice piece of tin-glazed ceramic with a hand-painted design on it.  After completing that part, I joined Allen in excavating the rest.  It was very difficult to work around all of the shell, but after a few hours we had finally removed the top layer.  Beneath that layer was a continuation of the dark soil that surrounded the shell, but there were only a few scattered shells underneath.  Due to the dramatic change we had to assign a new context to the rest of the feature, so we cleaned up the unit, screened the soil, and completed the paperwork just as the work day came to an end.

SONY DSCWe picked up where we left off on Friday, starting the paperwork for our new layer and getting the water screen ready for use.  We immediately began digging once everything was ready, following the dark, loose soil as we worked.  In this layer we found a fairly large piece of a long bone, more shell, and some small bits of brick, charcoal, and ceramic.  In what seemed like no time at all, we reached the bottom.  The feature ended up being bowl-shaped with an irregular floor, which seems to indicate that it was not intentionally created by a person.  The amount of artifacts recovered from this half of the feature was surprisingly small, though we did make one exciting discovery as we used the water screen to sort through our last bucket of dirt – a straight pin!  Straight pins were used to hold women’s clothes together in the 18th Century, and frequently appear on archaeological sites dating to that time period.  This one was the most common type found at Ferry Farm.

All in all, the excavation of the north half of our shell feature did not provide us with as many answers or artifacts as we had hoped.  Our interpretation of this pit thus far is that it was a naturally formed hole that someone simply filled and – for whatever reason – covered with oyster shells.  We are hoping to gain some more insight when we excavate the other half of the feature, which will most likely be done this week!

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