Archaeology: Where did we do it and why did we do it?
It is land development that most often destroys archaeological sites before they can be carefully recorded or even found. Yet, ironically, archaeology studies today mostly take place because of land development.
Federally funded land development sites, like those on Ft. Benning, are required by law to be studied by archaeologists before development. Completely privately-funded projects, like ours, are not required to do archaeology. In these cases, it is up to private developers like Westville, to be good stewards of the past and fund archaeology before beginning work on things like sewer, water, and utility lines. As a history museum, we look to engage and connect diverse communities by challenging and transforming perceptions of the 19th century South and its lasing impacts. Our goals where the archaeology is concerned are to respect this culture by consulting with the Indian Nations and to preserve and protect the archaeology as a valuable cultural resource, helping scholars of the present and the future present an even deeper understanding of mankind.
Westville hired a local archaeology firm, Southern Research, and tasked them with conducting the most thorough study that could be done within our time frame and budget. To accomplish this, they used David Chases’s (see part one of this series) 1958 notes, maps, drawings, and published reports. The challenge was that, back in 1958, the standards for archaeological field work did not include the same level of systematic surveying that is does today. The map drawn by David Chase noted a meadow, an oak tree, a barn, a house, a spring and a fence line. Southern Research accessed a 1950 air photo of the area and compared it to more recent 1993 Google earth imagery. When they superimposed the two maps, they found what they are fairly certain is the same oak tree which is still there (albeit dead but still partially standing) and, once out walking the property, they found traces of the old fence line.
The next step in the process was to create a grid over the property that had a 100 location points.
Then they performed shovel tests every 30 meters.
The tests were done to a depth of 50cm and the removed soil was screened for artifact recovery.
The soils and stratigraphy were noted for each test and a new sketch map of the site was created using hand held GPS, tape and a compass. Later, laser transet mapping (interesting in and of itself as it uses the speed of light and a prism), accurate to a subcentimeter level, was done.
This map included the shovel tests and prominent natural and cultural features. When conducting shovel tests, it is known the top layer of dirt down to about a foot deep is always previously disturbed and would have at the very least, been plowed up for agriculture in the 19th century up until the mid-20th century. When they get below that layer, they look for features, like hearths and post holes from houses. These possible features show up as color changes in the soil. By the shape they can determine if it is likely to be an archaeological feature or a more modern one created by something like laying underground cables. By testing the depth of the feature they can also estimate if it was created by a plant root or is more likely to be a remnant of human activity. In the big picture view of things, it is like looking into the past for clues through a pin hole. This point sampling served as one guide to what areas should be explored further.
To be clear, an artifact is something that can be picked up, taken to a lab and studied. A feature is anything not an artifact that people made. It can be a chimney ruin, post hole, stains, foundations from old houses, something you can’t pick up and take to the lab and study intact.
Another method to determine where to dig included looking at the entire area for what was so already disturbed by past land use and development, making any artifact and data recovery very unlikely. The archaeology team then took the new map they made and superimposed it with the Westville development plan map to look at the areas likely to recover the most archaeological data and most likely be impacted by our site development. They identified those places and that is where they did excavation pits. Westville is also using these initial tests and maps to look at our plans and ensure we can protect additional potentially informative archaeological areas and preserve them by designing these areas for minimal impact.
To begin excavation work, the archaeologists brought in a bush hog used for forestry work to clear the areas of heavy brush where they planned to dig the excavation pits. You may be surprised to learn the next step involved the use of a back hoe. Not just any back hoe, but one fitted with a scrapping blade. This may seem harsh and far from what you would expect to see when we have all seen pictures of archaeologists using small brushes, trowels, and dental tools. Using the back hoe for archaeology work requires a very skilled archaeologist operator and is done with great care and delicacy, it can be thought of as similar to the type of precision a robotic surgeon performs.
After the first foot of soil (remember this layer is always previously disturbed on land that has been used or farmed), the archaeologists scraped carefully with hand held shovels. Each small shovel full was carefully picked through for artifacts.
As the area was cleared, because it had been so dry, they sprayed small sections with water so the soil color changes indicating features would show more clearly.
Each possible feature was flagged and very carefully mapped for further exploration.
If during the shovel scraping there seemed to be a large number of loose potsherds, out came the trowels and brushes for more careful clearing as seen here at the right. Eventually this spot yielded the largest pottery sherds found and these have been sent, along with the dirt clinging to them, to the University of Georgia for radio carbon dating.
Additional intact slices (think a slice of cake) were put into cloth bags and sent to a lab to be studied by archaeologists specializing in paleoethnobotany. Those botanists will be analyzing the sample down to the smallest pollen grain. Pollen samples can reveal details of everyday life and foodways of the time.
Each feature found was carefully excavated with tiny tools—which surprisingly even included kitchen teaspoons—measured, and photographed. This valuable field work provides context needed to reconstruct the past. All of the site data, which are like additional puzzle pieces in a giant jigsaw, will be recorded so scholars can study the maps, pictures and written reports at a later time (like Southern Research did with the 1958 David Chase collection). As archaeological technology advances and organizations in our region continue to practice good stewardship, information will continue to accumulate and give us a better understanding of what could have taken place here a thousand years ago.