Monday, July 23, 2007

July 16-20: WEEK 2 Dig Diary

Students and volunteers made much progress during our second week - first full week - of excavation. Work continued in units AH1-5 and we opened our first unit in the rear yard, AH6 and one in the basement, AH9. We're through the brownish topsoil accumulations of the past 200-250 years or so; these constitute the "A horizon" in archaeological parlance. We're now getting deep into the "B horizon" underneath: older levels of soil whose chemical composition has changed through weathering, water leaching, and biological factors. The final level we will excavate is the the subsoil. This soil predates human occupation and is, in this area of New England, a uniform brownish-orange color. We'll dig at least 20 cm into "sterile" subsoil - subsoil with no signs of cultural disturbances like hearths, pits, or artifacts - before officially closing a unit. Most of our units will extend at least 60 cm below ground surface. Not quite as deep as Cassie's evocative photo of Justin in AH3 implies, but we're getting there.

We know much more about the cultural materials preserved below the surface in different yard areas, and we are starting to understand how different areas relate to each other. Now that we're in the B horizon in several units, there are fewer artifacts. This is less exciting for students. But their dedication shows as they work to reveal the history of soil deposition on our site.

AH1: front yard
As Justin and Scott finished the topsoil levels, they found more "red earthenware and pearlware, glass, charcoal, and a rusted nail... We believe the nail could have been one from the roof that one of the roofers may have thrown." As they excavated the B horizon, however, fewer and fewer artifacts were found. They finally reached what seems to be sterile subsoil. They are at 50 cm below surface, very close to the 60 cm minimum excavation depth. Next week, we will dig the next 10 cm and then use a soil probe to core the soil (like coring an apple). We want to be sure the subsoil continues unchanged and with no historic or prehistoric artifacts. Both Justin and Scott were happy to near completion of their first unit. We were going to get them started on a new unit in the back yard, AH6, but class was rained out on Wednesday. Our dedicated volunteers began that unit on Thursday (see below).

AH2: front yard, edge of the berm
Volunteers worked steadily on AH2 during Week 2 and got through the A horizon, exposing the mottled brown and orange B horizon roughly 20-30 cm below the surface. By the end of the week, a blackish area mottled with light gray ash was revealed in the center area of the unit. It matches what we believe is a burned context found in two other units near the house, AH3 and AH6. Surrounding areas were not black, but were orange and brown mottled together. The deep orange color of some of these areas may result from the soil's heat transformation during the burning episode.

AH3: front yard, on the berm & by the front door
Volunteers and students worked to take down what will be our deepest unit, AH3. Lisa and Shane finished the topsoil levels and got deep into an orange and brown mottled level. The berm is made up of this soil, and it is very thick. They found a blackish organic layer at 50 cm down. This dark level was also found in AH2 (see above) and AH6 (see below). We think it represents an early burning episode on site, perhaps associated with clearing the yard for house construction. There was more mottled brown/orange below the burned level, and no end (subsoil) in sight! Lisa thanks the volunteers for pitching in on this unit: "because our unit was going to be one of the deepest and a few extra sets of hands would make the work go quicker." Lisa notes that the only artifacts in the berm fill were a few fragments of hand blown olive green glass, probably from an early wine bottle. Shane adds, "This week has become uneventful as far as finding new artifacts... The main focus of out efforts has been isolating and classifying the different types of soil in our pit. The structure of the soil is mottled heavily and we have to classify which type of soil cuts which. The professor showed us the methods we will be using to classify and draw out the cuts. It involves a grid type system with two rulers. The shapes will me marked at different points and a 'connect the dot' method will be used to map out the location of the shapes."

AH4: side yard
Erica and Gabe also got through the topsoil and into the underlying orange/brown mottled layer. Erica explains that, in the final topsoil levels, "We found many artifacts, such as more porcelain pieces, rusty old square nail pieces, red earthenware, white earthenware (probably a flower pot), and green glass (probably used to store liquor). Our artifacts found in this layer of soil were exciting and with each trowel movement, we found more and more artifacts... The second context that we opened and closed (26 cmbs) was also full of artifacts... Closing out this gravely layer, we realized it was the last of the topsoil." The next context had "no artifacts whatsoever... We are curious as to what year this layer of soil may be from but the lack of artifacts makes that difficult. We are looking forward to what lies beneath this layer with hopes of finding the trench-like" feature. Gabe reassures us that they're still "having a great time when we're out there." He's not as sure he'd give the 1922 movie Down to the Sea in Ships, in which the Akin House appears, a thumbs up.

AH5: side yard, far corner
Pat, Cassie, and Chelsea have seen AH5 undergo a transformation this week. In our second week, on site, Cassie was "hoping to find something exciting, and not slag. To our surprise, that was exactly what happened. As the slag layer departed, the more exciting stuff arose." Pat explains that "Monday's excavating revealed more slag... We also found a 1978 penny, part of a foil pie pan, pieces of clear glass, bottle cap, torso of an army figure and a washer... Tuesday we continued digging down to 36 cm" where the soil is "starting to show some mottling of a lighter color." This new context had only a few slag pieces and several ceramic fragments from the 19th century. Cassie also had a mixed response to Down to the Sea in Ships: "although the movie was hard to follow, it showed a great deal of what life was like back in the early 1900s."

AH6: back yard, house foundation
Volunteers worked to remove the loamy and silty top levels of our new unit, AH6. Artifacts were plentiful, mixed, and different than those recovered from other units: from a 1943 dime to .22 caliber shell casings; sponge-painted ceramics to sea urchin spines. Underneath the topsoil, however, the site is more uniform. In AH6, as in the front yard, the soil became more mottled with orange/brown and more gravelly around 18-20 cm below the surface.

AH9: basement stone feature
There is a large L-shaped stone feature that occupies roughly a quarter of the space in the Akin House basement. It is a platform of local granite fieldstones covered, and perhaps filled, with a material that resembles wood shavings and loose rocks. Its purpose is unknown; theories include root cellar and storage for fresh shellfish. We hope further excavation will provide some clues as to the feature's date and function.

AH0: surface finds
Bettie-Anne spent this week cataloging several years worth of "surface finds" from our site. She describes the process: "The process was to make a record, in pencil, on printed sheets provided, of artifacts placed in plastic bags, often with a card containing some identification of what the object is or was used for. The identification process and record for each object required: name of object; material (metal, plastic, ceramic, etc.); type of material (what metal, kind of plastic, which ceramic); name of object part; name complete object (of which it is a part); number of fragments." Finds include "four pairs of children's shoes: 1 pair of infant's satin christening shoes in a box; one pair of white leather shoes for a 2-3 year old child and contained in an unlidded box; two pairs of larger white leather shoes for a 4-6 year old, one pair in a box with a lid. Most of the objects were parts of things such as a chandelier, car leaf springs, engine parts, and other hardware."