Archaeological Dig

Elliot removing layers at the field slave site

Continued from previous post…. Can this program get any better?  Even though a few of the detectorists are nursing sore muscles, moaning at the early mornings and trying to figure out how to plan apparel for 28F mornings and 60F afternoons, we are rapidly getting into archaeological rhythm.  (We’re only half-joking when we say the Arlington house needs a candy dish full of Motrin!)

On Thursday the detector stayed in the house and I spent some of the day working in the lab and on the archaeological site, learning how the finds are dug, screened, cataloged and interpreted.  I am also humbled by how hard this work really is.

This site is at the base of Chicken Mountain and was initially identified by metal detector survey which, of course, allows a large area to be covered quickly – but only indicated metallic objects. Based on the scatter of metal, the team subsequently excavated a shovel test-pit survey on a 10-foot grid, and the data was compared.  The two patterns correlated quite well, further endorsing the viability of metal detecting for site definition activities.

Our windswept dig site

Our windswept dig site

With Shovel Test Pits (STPs) soil is sifted and the artifacts recovered, leading to a decision process about excavation.  According to Matt, it took about 3 days for the metal detector survey, and three weeks to cover the same area with the shovel test-pits. It seems to me that embracing skilled detectorists during site surveys can reap very tangible rewards, and save a lot of time.  The correlation between the STP data and the detector data become very clear when you look at it on the lab’s heatmap software.  When I saw this, I felt suddenly quite useful to helping to document the history of our country, one nail at a time.

unitstrowelSo, with my shiny new trowel and well-medicated muscles, I spent time at this site Thursday.  The units were positioned based on evidence, and extended in a checkerboard style as long as artifacts are discovered.  Rich deposits may warrant a full excavation of all squares, resulting in the entire area having layers removed, screened and inspected.

Elliot patiently showed me the methodology, also pointing out that breaking a survey string means you must buy a drink for your unit-mate and collapsing a unit wall meant a round for the entire team.  As I hobbled and stumbled through the site, I was sure to come out of this little experiment a bit poorer.  Aside from an embarrassing head whack on the sifting roof (“pwang!”) I came out unscathed.   (Later on, my friend Jim showed the team how to use the Garrett pinpointer to scan the archaeological units between scrapes, showing yet another transfer of knowledge.)

This thin copper coin was found at the site.

This thin copper coin was found at the site.

I spent some time removing layers from one unit and it takes some getting used to.  You must find ways to make the trowel work for you, not against you.  Elliot was ever encouraging but I’m sure my half of the unit looked like it was dug by a grub-hunting skunk.  I noticed he had two buckets for every one of mine.  Perhaps I should stick to detecting?

courtesy Richmond History Center

Stick and Mud Servant’s Huts

….The quarters for the field slaves were likely built of logs, with clay floors, stick-and-mud chimneys, and simple wooden shutters. Archaeological evidence suggests that, aside from nails and door hardware, the Madisons provided little resources for slaves to build these simple structures. The homes of the field slaves stand in marked contrast to the house slaves’ homes directly in sight of the Montpelier mansion….
from: Montpelier’s Intro to Archaeology Guide (PDF)


Dolly Madison’s China Hand-Me-Downs

But after a few bucket loads, Elliot and I found pieces of blue Madison era pottery on the screen – very cool.  Often the found china was from Dolly Madison’s collection, after it was possibly chipped and given to the slaves (or pulled by them from trash bound for the dump.)  Besides not having your freedom and potentially being split from your family at any time, I cannot imagine living in a drafty handmade shack on this hill.  It had a steady gale and we, with our high-tech under-armor and layers still came away with wind burns after just a few hours of work.

See this excellent post on Slave Quarters Archaeology by Terry P Brock.

Next:  Wrapping up and looking forward


More posts on my Montpelier Experience here:


Here’s a video from Ron Guinazzo taken in the session after us: