Week Three Update
Week 3 Update by: Claire and Cheyenne
This week at Poplar Forest was focused on Africans and African American Archaeology. We are excavating at units located at Site A, which used to be the site of a slave cabin dating to the antebellum period (1828-1865). Along with the slave cabin we are also looking for the remains of a possible stable that could date to the Jefferson-era. At Claire and Caitlin’s unit, which is the closest of all three units this summer from the east wing of the main house, they found a change in the color of the soil, which indicates a feature was present (features can be anything from post holes to planting holes and even subfloor pits). In this case, the feature turned out to be a late 19th to early 20thcentury drainpipe. We were expecting to find this pipe since part of it had already been recovered from the adjacent unit, but for them it was still fun to see how the feature was excavated. Jack and Ashley helped us get the pipe sorted out and complete the paperwork. For each layer, including features, we perform a “clean scrape” with a trowel to get all the loose dirt off the top and to make the soil color “pop” for pictures. The pictures go along with the paperwork, which includes soil descriptions and depths, maps of the unit, and an artifact count.
Dina and Cheyenne successfully completed their layer and are now down past the red clay fill layer. They are moving on to layer D, which is brown in color. This inversion of the soil colors (in an undisturbed area, we would expect to see topsoil, brown soil, then red clay) means that soil was dumped here sometime in the past, putting red clay over some of the brown. At this point in the layers, we should be able to see any features that have been “sealed in” by the red clay fill. Hopefully we will be able to find some “sealed in” stable post holes next week!
Micheal and Brittany have continued to find lots of artifacts in their unit this week. At this point, tons of interesting artifacts are popping up and instead of using the shovel they have switched over to using the trowel. They have switched their tools so they won’t t break or harm any artifacts that they happen to find. Many of the items that have come up have been burned, including wrought and cut nails. We can tell they are burnt because they have not corroded in the soil. Michael and Brittany’s unit does not have any red clay fill to seal in possible features, so it makes it more difficult to see the features for any buildings that may have been present.
In the lab this week, we worked with Lori on finding the TPQ, or terminus post quem, of artifacts. The TPQ is the “date after which” these items could have been deposited. To find this, we first look at the manufacturing or availability dates of all the dateable artifacts, like ceramics, in the layer. Once we’ve found these dates, the TPQ becomes the earliest manufacture date of the most recent artifact. For example, if there are two dateable ceramics, one with a manufacturing range of 1780-1830 and the other with a date range of 1800-1910, the TPQ would be 1800. We also spent time in the lab working on seriation and that relies on the principle that items become popular in something of a bell curve – they start out not very popular then reach a peak, and eventually decrease in use and popularity. By putting items in order based on certain characteristics we can see the bell curve and determine chronologically in what order sites were deposited. In addition to the TPQ and seriation exercises, we spent time cataloguing artifacts, which includes the process of labeling and mending.
All in all, it was a successful week at Poplar Forest. The artifacts that most of our units are uncovering continue to indicate that enslaved people were living in this area during the antebellum period. The findings of certain ceramics such as pieces from the Napier series (1833-1843) lead us to believe that these may have been given to the slaves by the owners during the Cobbs-Hutter period of the plantation. This type of ceramic was relatively expensive and based on the large quantities that we find associated with the slave cabin at Site A, it is unlikely the enslaved residents purchased them. The set may have become unfashionable in the main house and the Cobbs-Hutter family passed them along to the slaves when they purchased new dishes.
African Americans were a huge part of life here at Poplar Forest. They were the fieldworkers, the cooks, and the domestic servants. Excavating at the places they lived is giving us a better perspective into the lives of the enslaved people here at Poplar Forest. We look forward to finding more exciting artifacts and learning new techniques next week!
A clean scrape in progress exposing the bright red clay of the fill layer.
Cheyenne working on a clean scrape.
Pipe trench with terra cotta pipe intact at the base. The pipe may have drained overflow water from a cistern built by the Hutter family sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century.
An almost whole example of a plate from the Napier series found at the site of the antebellum period slave cabin.