Week Two Update
Week 2 Update at Poplar Forest
Ashley Peles and Caitlin Sheehan
This week at Poplar Forest, with a little help from Jack, Eric, and Ashley, we finally finished digging shovel tests out in the hayfield! We found little evidence for one of Jefferson’s stables in this area, which was slightly disappointing but still helpful. We can now say with confidence that one of the stables was not located on the ridge south of the plant nursery. For archaeologists, finding nothing still provides information.
With the completion of the shovel test pits we are back working closer to the house, in a large excavation that covers areas of both the southeast core and the southeast curtilage. In the southeast core we began working on units that are part of Site A. This area was the location of an antebellum slave cabin (c.1840—1860) from the Cobbs-Hutter period which was excavated a number of years ago. Last summer, continuing excavations in this area uncovered two very large postholes beneath a fill of Virginia red clay. Postholes are dark stains left in the soil from the support posts of a building; sometimes we also find postmolds, which are the holes that were dug and then filled in after the post was placed inside. The size of the postholes indicated that they were from a building that must have been quite substantial. Documentary evidence from the Jefferson period talks about a plant nursery that was between two stables; the plant nursery was located and excavated east of Site A, so archaeologists think those postholes are probably the remains of one of the mentioned stables. This year, we are opening up two more 5x5’ units in the Site A area in order to try and find one more posthole that is hopefully the other corner of the building. Knowing how long one side of the building is, we can estimate how big the building might have been based on what we know historically about stables.
The southern part of the large excavation is in the southeast curtilage and part of Site B, which is a large gully that was probably caused by erosion from tobacco production. In the early 19th century, Jefferson had the gully filled with soil and covered by an ornamental plant nursery. As part of these excavations, a large burned feature was found, but we don’t know just how big it is. Brittany and Michael’s unit will hopefully give us the southern edge of that burned feature, allowing us to calculate the full North-South dimensions. Right now we have broken ground on the units and are working through the plowzone, so we have a ways to dig until we can hope to find a posthole or burned feature. We use shovels to dig through the layers and trowels for finer work; the soil we dig up is then sifted through a ¼” screen. This lets the dirt fall through, but leaves most artifacts behind for us to collect.
This week, students also learned how to map a site with the total station. The opticals are focused on the prism of a stadia rod, which is centered on top of anything that needs to be mapped, whether it be unit layers, artifacts, or features. The total station sends out a laser that is reflected by the prism and bounced back to the total station, which then gives us a reading on the Northing, Easting, and Z, or elevation. This allows archaeologists to map sites both horizontally and vertically, providing a more visually complete site map. The total station work this week was focused on getting measurements for the first layer of topsoil that we excavated; we will take more measurements when we get to the bottom of the plowzone and hit the next layer.
Even though we have been working at these sites for less than a week, we have been finding a lot of material in the plow zone, including ceramics, glass, nails, brick, and some other special finds; most of these artifacts date to the mid-19th century. Each unit had its own exciting artifact this week; Claire and Caitlin found a cufflink with initials (we can only make out the first D), Dina and Cheyenne found an 1854 three-cent silver, and Brittany and Michael found part of the bowl of a reed stem pipe. All of the artifacts are collected in bags and then brought back to the lab.
Since this week was Material Culture week, students got their first orientation to archaeological lab work. Every day two people went into the lab to visit lab supervisor Lori Lee and learn about the work that is done after the artifacts have been excavated. All of the artifacts are washed, dried, labeled, catalogued, and stored. The only exceptions are mortar, metal, or anything that might fall apart during washing; instead, these get bagged and tagged in their respective groups. In order to recognize what we are finding in the field, we also got a chance to look at the display collections of artifacts at Poplar Forest. We saw ceramics, metals (such as coins), and glass in the lab, that then matched what we saw coming out of the ground where we are digging as well as what we had been learning about in our week’s readings. Next week we are looking forward to continuing our work, finding more artifacts and hopefully getting down to the layers where we might find postholes or burned features.
Cheyenne using the total station to map the excavation unit she is working on.
A shovel is used to remove the first layer of soil at the site. This first layer is referred to as the plowzone because it has been turned over by plows when the property was under agricultural production.
The plowzone, like all layers we excavate, is pushed through a screen in order to recover any artifacts.
A silver three cent coin dating to 1854. Nothing gives a good date for an archaeological site like a coin.
A cufflink with engraved initials. The initials are obscured by corrosion so we will send this off to a conservator who will carefully clean it without destroying the engravings. We hope to know what the initials are by the end of the field school.