Life in the Archaeology Lab, Part I

RCARP operations moved to the lab in July after a much-needed week off following the end of fieldwork.

Did you know that fieldwork is just a small fraction of how an archaeologist spends her/his time? A general rule of thumb for how an archaeologist spends their time is:  one 40 hour week in the field (per person) = three 40 hour weeks in the lab (per person). We spent SEVEN 40 hour weeks in the field at Magnolia Valley. This equals twenty-one 40 hour weeks in the lab. But wait, that is per person. Our crew consisted of 17 people on site each day. That means we can look forward to 357 40-hour weeks in the lab (not including the Geophysical survey and data analysis). This time will be spent washing and sorting artifacts, processing 100% samples through a process called flotation, checking all field notes and forms, digitizing field maps, analyzing and cataloguing artifacts, entering data, and eventually writing reports, articles, lectures, posters, blog posts, and public talks.

Today we will get a glimpse on how we start to tackle that long to-do list.

Two weeks ago we began the long process of organizing the hundreds of bags of artifacts and double-checking that all information on the bags and in the FS log are the same. FS stands for Field Specimen number (abbreviated on all paperwork and bags as FS#). This is a unique number given to each different provenience during excavation. For example, a shovel test will get its own FS number so that no two shovel tests have the same FS#. Each 10-cm level of an excavation unit is assigned its own FS#. The artifact bags are arranged in boxes FS# order, from 1 to 345. This corresponds with the FS Log and allows us to quickly locate any given bag of artifacts we are interested in.

The early stages of artifact processing.

The early stages of artifact processing.

 

As the bags are being checked for accurate information, all artifacts within them are also being washed, dried, sorted by artifact category, and re-bagged. This is the initial step in analysis, which will commence once all of the artifact bags have undergone this process. You can read more about how we go about washing artifacts and also the flotation process in the coming days.

On the road in Allisona

— post by Susan London-Sherer, Historical Archaeology/Historic Preservation Graduate Intern

Although the timeline related to the road that we exposed in our excavation unit remains uncertain, the research that I have been doing related to it has been fascinating.  We now know that a road from James Allison’s property was ordered by the court, and that local men were appointed to build this road from 1807 to 1809.  We cannot be certain yet that the road in our unit is indeed part of this particular court-ordered road.  So, it is necessary to investigate further, to consider other avenues…take a detour, so to speak, into alternate possibilities.

If you will remember back to my last blog post, I wrote about the uniform-sized rock that my colleagues diligently shoveled and screened for days.  In researching early road construction, and in discussion with Co-Director Jesse Tune, we came up with an interesting concept that just might apply to the road in our excavation unit, and place a slightly later date on our road.

Map of the First Surveyor's District of Tennessee, circa 1807-1808 Digital Image © 2008, Tennessee State Library & Archives.

Map of the First Surveyor’s District of Tennessee, circa 1807-1808
Digital Image © 2008, Tennessee State Library & Archives.

 

We came across the name John Loudon McAdam, a Scottish engineer, who developed a new system for road construction in 1820.  The size and weight of each stone was the most important element of McAdam’s technique.  Men sat with small hammers and carefully broke up rocks into different sizes, which were then laid in layers with the largest on the bottom and the smallest on the top.  The largest stones, which comprised the bottom 7.9 inches of road surface, were to be no bigger than three inches in diameter.  The top two inches of the road consisted of stones no larger than .79 inches in diameter.  The road building crew was under strict supervision and the size and weight of their rocks could be checked in a variety of ways.

Sometimes road crew supervisors carried scales with them and made sure the rocks did not exceed a maximum weight of six ounces.  If no scale was available, sometimes supervisors carried metal rings that each rock had to pass through to certify its size.  The road crew also had a third option of guaranteeing the size of their rocks.  If they were able to fit the rock inside their mouths, then it was approved to go on the roadway.  McAdam’s technique also required that the men lay the road one careful shovelful at a time.

Workers break up rocks for a McAdam’s road.   This is where the term “macadam” road surface comes from. Photo courtesy of wikipidia.com

Workers break up rocks for a McAdam’s road.
This is where the term “macadam” road surface comes from.
Photo courtesy of wikipidia.com

 

 

If indeed, our road dates to a later time period, specifically after the first macadam roads were constructed in the United States in 1823, a whole new set of questions begs to be answered.  Where exactly were the early residents of Allisona going?  What kinds of places did they want, or need to visit when they traveled along this road?  What kinds of businesses developed in the region due to the construction of the road and the access it provided to the settlers?

As you can see, with each day that passes at the Magnolia Valley site, and with each new discovery that we unearth, our research questions take on new shapes and dimensions.  The more ways that we can confirm human activity on the landscape, the more significant our research becomes.  This journey began when a revealing snapshot of something that “looks like a road” was discovered in the data from our initial geophysical survey.  The road was later confirmed through the controlled excavation of a two-meter by two-meter excavation unit laid out on a grid with the same coordinates as the geophysical survey.  The historical document research revealed a contemporary road-building technique that appears to back up the description of the uniform-sized rocks that covered the road in our unit.  In this case, the detour that I took on the road to discovery led me on a quest to a precious hidden gem of knowledge.

 

Magnolia Valley Field School: Week 5 Recap

— post by Dr. Peres

We have just finished Week 5 of the MTSU Field School at Magnolia Valley. This means only TWO WEEKS left before we close the site.

Monday was a complete wash and we spent the day in the lab washing, sorting, and bagging artifacts for analysis later this summer.

We were able to start our Tuesday at the field site and get in a few hours of work before the rain rolled in and we had to close up the site for the day. Just as we finished closing up the site and were preparing to head back to campus, we noticed the field school van had a punctured tire and was quickly going flat. Luckily, Field Assistant Joey K., was able to change the tire so we could get it back to motor pool and get a “fresh” van.  The rest of the day was spent in the MTSU Archaeology Teaching Lab. Jesse gave a mini-lecture on lithic analysis and I gave a talk on how to prepare a Curriculum Vitae (CV) — basically a long resume that details one’s education, work experience, research, publications, etc.

Field Assistant Joey Keasler changes the flat tire on the field school van (with help from the students). Thanks guys!

Field Assistant Joey Keasler changes the flat tire on the field school van (with help from the students). Thanks guys!

Artifact washing in the MTSU Archaeology Lab (Nathan Allison in the foreground, Josh Bicknell in the background; hands belong to various students who wish to remain anonymous).

Artifact washing in the MTSU Archaeology Lab (Nathan Allison in the foreground, Josh Bicknell in the background; hands belong to various students who wish to remain anonymous).

 

Finally, Wednesday morning arrived, sunny and mild. Everyone was ready to be on-site and move more dirt! We are all in the groove of the daily morning routine of uncovering the units and setting up the equipment in the mornings, schnitting, troweling, filling out paperwork, and screening for artifacts. Everyone knows what an artifact is — any object made, modified, or used by humans.

Obvious artifact: stemmed spear point made from chert.

Obvious artifact: stemmed spear point made from chert.

 

This week we introduced the students to the art form of feature identification. A feature is a non-moveable area that indicates human activity — such as a hearth, building wall trench, or storage pit.  Features are some of the most important things we identify in the field and why we excavate in a controlled scientific manner. Identifying features is a bit of an art form  and involves a lot of standing back and studying the soils exposed in the excavation units to determine changes in colors/textures/inclusions. Sometimes these changes are flick-you-on-the-forehead-obvious; other times it takes the trained eye of a seasoned archaeologist to tease them out.

Jessica O. trowels the floor of this unit to expose Feature 6.

Jessica O. trowels the floor of this unit to expose Feature 6. The unit directly to the west (the right in the photo) will be opened next to capture more of the feature. 

Can you spy the feature (Feature 4) in this color photo? (Scroll down to the next picture to see the unit in black & white.)

Feature 4, color photo (not an official photo for curation purposes).

Feature 4, color photo (not an official photo for curation purposes).

 

Same unit, only with a black and white filter applied (again – photo is for illustrative purposes, NOT an official curatorial photo). NOW do you see the feature? (Hint: it is dark soil on the lower 1/2 of the unit).

 

Feature 4, black and white filter applied.

Feature 4, black and white filter applied.

 

So far we have identified 5 cultural features (meaning ones created by humans) and one non-cultural feature (meaning likely remnants of where a tree or root once were). The five cultural features are in areas that we targeted specifically due to the remote sensing data Tim DeSmet generated early in the project. Over the next two weeks we will continue to expose these features by opening up adjacent units. We will then document them (by mapping the plan view and photographs) before excavating them. More on that in a later post.

 

Looking to see who visited us this week? Check out our Facebook page and Flickr account for photos!

 

 

Rain, visitors, and features

blog post by  Sara N.

We have now had several rain days this field season resulting in either full or partial days not spent excavating units. While we all like a break from the heat and constant sun, I think we are all ready to get back to work and see what bits of the past we can uncover. Our last full day in the field was on Friday, which was also a Friends & Colleagues Day. The rain on Thursday night meant more bailing for the RCARP crew Friday morning, leaving a few units too muddy to excavate further.

Instead we focused on one of the main goals of the project, to share the prehistory of Middle Tennessee with the public. We had four visitors at the site, including Aaron Deter-Wolf and Sarah Levithol from the TN Division of Archaeology, and MTSU Assistant Professor of Nursing Mariesa Severson and her son, future archaeologist, Will Severson.

Will S., aspiring archaeologist, learning how to trowel.

Will S., aspiring archaeologist, learning how to trowel.

 

Will S., learning the basics, like screening for artifacts, with field school student, Clacey.

Will S., learning the basics, like screening for artifacts, with field school student, Clacey.

They all received a tour of the area currently being excavated and a brief summary of what we’ve uncovered about the site in the past four weeks. Then they all spent a few hours getting their hands dirty! Helping screen for artifacts, carrying buckets of dirt, and “schnitting” or removing dirt from the excavation units by lightly scraping a shovel across the surface to slowly reveal any differences in the soil (technically called “features”). Friday was their  lucky day as we began to see a few of these features/soil differences. One unit has a noticeable soil change stretching diagonally across half of the 2 x 2 meter square (pictured below). Another unit has a semi-circular feature visible off of the southern wall, marked by a darker soil color and more gravel, and the outer wall of the half circle is lined with large rocks not present anywhere else in the unit.

Feature

Meet the Archaeologists, Part II

Jesse Tune (center below) is the co-director for the Magnolia Valley excavations.

Left to right: Mike Moore (Tennessee State Archaeologist), Jesse Tune (PhD student, Texas A & M University and MTSU Alumnus), John Broster (Prehistoric Archaeologist, Tennessee Division of Archaeology) visited the MTSU MCAP Field School in May 2012.

 

As a native Tennessean, Jesse Tune has a deep interest in the state’s cultural resources. He graduated from MTSU with a B.S. in Anthropology (2008), American University with a M.A. in Public Anthropology (2010), and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Texas A&M. To the last two years he has been the Archaeological Lab Manager at the Center for the Study of the First Americans. His research focuses on behavioral adaptations and technologies during the late Pleistocene. He has worked in supervisory positions on grant funded research projects throughout the Southeast.

Tune is an active participant in Tennessee archaeology. He regularly presents papers and posters at the annual CRITA meeting and other professional meetings throughout North America, and gives public talks through local interest groups such as the Middle Cumberland Archaeological Society and the Williamson County Historical Society. He is currently conducting long-term research in the state related to transitions in lithic technologies during the Pleistocene.

Through his involvement in numerous public archaeology projects, Tune advocates for greater awareness of cultural resources while teaching professional standards and ethical responsibility in research. He strongly believes in the value of public awareness and outreach. While working at the Topper site, in South Carolina, he led weeklong lithic analysis workshops for public volunteers. At American University he worked on educational displays for installation in public libraries. He currently serves as a graduate student mentor for undergraduate research at Texas A&M. He also coordinates volunteer participation in research projects at Texas A&M.

His dissertation research focuses on lithic technology and behavioral adaptations related to the Pleistocene-Holocene transition in the Southeastern United States. He is studying the evolution of biface technology throughout the Clovis-Cumberland-Dalton succession to investigate the potential effects of ecological change and colonization processes on technology and behavioral adaptations.