Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Call for Participants and 3D computer modelling of Oven Site

Smiths Island seems a long way off and a long time ago, considering the view of snow-covered trees currently out my window, but already I am putting together next season's excavation plan and finishing the 2013 season site report.  This year, the University of Rochester will be opening up participation in the field school internationally. Participants can earn six college credits (undergraduate) in Bermuda actually for less than the price of taking the same course in Rochester, NY, and this includes food and lodging for five weeks in Bermuda, under my expert tutelage ;-)  Graduate credit can also be arranged.

Those interested can download an application at my my department homepage.

The deadline for applications is March 1, but I will be filling spots on a rolling basis before then, so you are encouraged to apply early. Please contact me ( for more information or answers to specific questions.

I don't know if any of you wonder what goes on in the ten months between the frantic flurry of postings on this blog, but rest assured I'm not sitting on a sofa eating bon-bons. Lots of teaching and working with students on analyzing the Smiths Island sites accounts for a lot of the off season - in general terms, for every hour spent in the field, archaeologists devote four to artifact processing, analysis, record digitization, GIS input, writing reports, etc. In my case I cannot work with the site assemblages off season, since by law all artifacts must remain in Bermuda and I'm in (now snowy) Western New York, but recent advances is digital technology and my university's acquisition of a GIS specialist and ArcGIS license has facilitated highly detailed virtual reconstructions of our sites and the linking of a wide range of historical records spatially to Smiths Island. Anima and Leigh have also both been quite busy as well in the months since the dig making this happen!

Last week the University of Rochester hosted a symposium, 3D Digital Archaeology: Reconstruction, Analysis and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, which brought together scholars working on the Roman World and pre-Columbian Peru in support of U of R's Archaeology, Technology, and Historic Structures program (Thanks, Renato and Elizabeth!!!). It was an incredibly useful gathering for learning about cutting edge technologies, seeing them modeled, and thinking about the new insights and modes of analysis they generate. I was especially interested in several software programs/services (PhotoScan, Pix4UAV, ReCap) that process photographs into manipulable 3D models and the prospect of using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or Drones) with HD cameras to capture whole landscapes in 3D, exportable into GIS.

After a few days' cogitations, I wondered if I had inadvertently captured enough photos of Bermudian sites and the Smiths island sites during the 2012 and 2013 seasons for one of the programs (Autodesk's ReCap, in this case) to process. My first attempt was to upload several dozen reference pictures I had made of the early 18th c. ruin called Longford in St. George's off Duke of Kent Street. After a few missteps and a couple hours' wait, an impressive model arrived in my inbox:
This picture does not do justice to the awesomeness of this model, which can be orbited, rotated, and pivoted and has a CAD web of about a million datapoints underlying the draping of the stitched together photographs. Not bad, considering I did not shoot any of the photos with the proper method of extensive overlap, multiple heights and angles, and including common reference points for ease of modelling.

This success led me to invest many more hours selecting and uploading nearly 200 Oven Site photos. Again, having not taken these photos with 3D purposes in mind and with insufficient overlap, I didn't expect much. I spent four hours last night uploading them into ReCap and then went to bed, letting Autodesk's computers work through the night. 

The model that greeted me this morning went beyond my wildest expectations - and these images are only coarse graphic projections: the program also generates sub-centimeter versions downloadable into AutoCAD 3D and other platforms.
A photomosaic of Oven Site from the top, showing aggregate 2010, 2012, and 2013 excavations (facing North)
And now orbited and tilted to show northern sidewalls
Further rotation, facing east: photographs of the uncut bedrock surface at the far eastern edge were insufficiently cross-stitched to be displayed.
The site rotated to give a view looking west. The gray and white areas in the foreground lack sufficient overlapping coverage for modelling.
The program also can reveal the CAD datapoints underlying the visualization thus (same view as above):
And also display the camera positions and planes of the individual photographs amalgamated into the model (the gray squares):

The conference, in short, was transformative for me in unlocking a lot of the potential of data I'd already collected. Now, in my cold Rochester office, I can re-explore the Oven Site, take measurements, project proportions, and revisit interpretations and assumptions made during the field season. More profoundly, the model is really 4D, in that it collapses time: the integrated photos were taken in 2010, 2012 and 2013, effectively creating a visualization that has never existed but uses details and data collected diachronously.

I can't wait to return to Bermuda for the 2014 season with these tech tools in mind so I can capture the proper array of overlapping multi-perspective photos to create more complete and fine-tuned 3D arrays, both on Smiths Island and in the Town of St. George's - after all, standing buildings work as well, if not better, than ruins and archaeology sites.

Anyone want to buy me a UAV and a GoPro Black for Christmas?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

2013 Season Summary

Google Map of Smiths Island sites (Green = 17th c.; Blue = 18th c.; Red = 19th c.) 

I am now back in Rochester, recovering from a very intense six weeks of excavations, tours, research, teaching, snorkeling, and assorted boon-doggles - for all of 24 hours before we board a jet to Ireland and the UK - but thought it fitting to sum up the 2013 season as a last entry for a while. We had a spectacularly successful field school. By the end, the students were basically carrying out all the routine steps of excavation, from filling out forms, taking elevations and opening photos to digging sensitively and noting layer changes and features on their own. I am confident that they could now join any ongoing excavation elsewhere in the world and fit right in (OK, so our Archimedes water level is a bit on the primitive side compared with the EDMs used elsewhere, but it's tried and true technology and doesn't need batteries). Our volunteers (Krystl, Chloe, Khari, Jillian, Suzann, Sara, Matthew, Alaina, Jason, Scott, and Kelsey) were also wonderful and helped us greatly expand the area we were able to uncover. Many of them were frustrated by the minimal amount of Bermudian history they were taught in school and really appreciated digging into their collective distant past - and I was happy to help them explore the rich heritage all around them and beneath their feet. We had a wonderful turn-out for both the Historic Heartbeats tours and the evening talk at the World Heritage Center - both apparently sold out within a day of being publicized.

In terms of research questions and discoveries, we also fulfilled our primary aims. We determined the front of the Oven Site house, revealing it to be a 24-foot wide structure which was two rooms deep where our trench bisected it. A collateral expansion unit (N2 E7) revealed a worn set of stairs, a deeper floor portion to the south of our trench, and perhaps a front porch room, which would make the building cruciform in shape. Three deep and deeply buried postholes date to the earliest phase of construction, but then were buried by a renovation episode when the brick lining of an oven and hearth was removed, at about the mid-17th century. In the upper layers of the subsequently deposited floor (dating to the late 17th and early 18th centuries) we found both West Country English pottery consistent with the origins of Godherd Asser, the first historically known tenant of Smiths Island, as well as many more flakes of chert, which is consistent with the documented presence of nine Native American slaves at the site in 1707. Next year's excavations will help determine the northern and southern wall boundaries of the house, reveal the deeper floor layer to the south, and articulate the postulated porch room in front. We also hope to test to the north and east of Oven Site in order to find the privy, midden, outbuildings, and (perhaps) well one would expect to find associated with a 17th-century homestead.

Even with limited time available to investigate the Smallpox Bay cottage, we determined an active use span from mid-18th to mid-19th century through a surprisingly wide array of ceramics. The discovery of three postlholes in the three units we excavated suggests that there may be an earlier structure that predates the standing ruin, with an orientation about 45 degrees different from the stone wall configuration presently there. Again, testing in an arc radiating out from the site may reveal associated features, including the graves of patients who did not survive their stay (assuming this to be the quarantine site mentioned in 18th-century laws)

The final goal of the season was to find new sites - which we did in spades. They ranged from the puzzling modern styrofoam-lined drum buried a mere 30 feet from Oven Site to a very promising nearly filled in cave toward the center of the island which would have been a highly attractive site to Carter, Chard, and Waters upon their first arrival but also to generations of slaves and smugglers who followed. The cluster of stone foundations on the Bermuda National Trust's Western Bay property suggests a small hamlet - perhaps where the Forbes family slaves lived apart from their widowed mistress. On my last day at the Bermuda Archives, I did a little digging to see if I could connect James E. Forbes, a quite successful and well-known black pilot who was kept as a salaried retainer by the Royal Navy to bring in their warships, with Smiths Island, since growing up on Smiths would have been wonderful training for a future pilot. As luck would have it, a parish assessment listed "wooden house (Smiths)" under Forbes's property - before he moved to nicer quarters in St. George's. Given how few houses there were on Smiths Island in the late 18th century and how poorly documented the cluster of houses at Western Bay is, it seems highly likely that one of these was Pilot Forbes's childhood home - and thus of major historical significance to Black Bermudian heritage.

And as important as it is to make discoveries, we also made a significant contribution by NOT finding anything - when we tested at Mike Dickinson's proposed house site above The Narrows. Would that all Bermudians building houses had archaeologists verify that no irreplaceable archaeological sites were going to be destroyed through modern construction! An afternoon's work was sufficient to reveal the absence of human occupation of the site, so Mike can go ahead and build with confidence.

So now comes the hard task of artifact analysis and preparing the formal site report through the fall as I resume teaching. I will be advertising next year's field school, which will run from May 24 to June 29, 2014, this fall and early spring, with the goal of recruiting eight academically strong and motivated students. For this coming year, I will be accepting students from other universities and colleges and can also make arrangements to grant academic credit (undergraduate or graduate) to Bermudian students. Please contact me directly by email ( if you wish to be notified when the 2014 applications become available.

Smiths Island may be a very small place, but there's a vast amount of history to explore there in the years to come.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ending on a High Note

"She moves through the air with the greatest of ease..."

Well folks, the last posthole has been dug and the last rubble layer removed for the 2013 season - how quickly five weeks has flown by! We've been quite busy since Tuesday, finishing off the last units in Oven Site and backfilling the features and finishing up the three units we laid out at the Smallpox Bay site. The latter yielded a wide range of mid-18th to mid-19th century pottery and glass, dating perhaps back to the documented 1731 act when Smiths Island was first mentioned as one of Bermuda's two quarantine sites for smallpox-infected sailors and passengers. Unfortunately, we found no medical-related artifacts but the likelihood of this was always slim. What we did find surprising is that in all three of our (rather small) units, we found a posthole - two large (around 25 cm in diameter) and one smaller (15 cm diameter). Although we recovered no 17th-century artifacts so far, the find does raise the possibility that an earlier post building stood on the same site, predating the current small stone cottage we're investigating.

After we finished our modest testing at SPB, we returned to Oven Site for one final clean-up and to take down the tarps. The site will remain open for another three weeks in order to accommodate public tours during the Plough anniversary weekend on July 20 (contact the St. George's Foundation for tickets!), but we weather-proofed it to minimize damage between then and now. This final stock-taking was very satisfying, seeing the entire area open again in the light of day and comparing it with its state five weeks ago. There have been numerous surprises - the staircase and deep fill layer next to it, suggesting a deeper cellar; the two new layers of destruction rubble beneath what we thought was bedrock, the extra-deep possibly corner posthole - but out basic research design questions were answered: the house really is two 12-foot-wide rooms deep and much larger and more complex than originally thought AND we now have quite firm evidence of Native American presence in the upper part of the floor occupation layer.
Group Photo at the edge of our trench...

...and at the bottom.
I was able to share this and many other revelations about the Smiths Island Archaeological Project with Bermudians on Thursday night at my first public presentation about the past three seasons at the World Heritage Center in St. George's. Thanks, Luci, for videoing the talk - it will be posted to YouTube, so look for a link to it in this blog and on the St. George's Foundation website. We also mounted an impromptu museum exhibit of some of our noteworthy and significant finds (many of which have been mentioned in this blog), which will be on display for the next few months at the WHC - thanks, Kristina, for helping with this!

The nicest surprise for all of us on the last day was an invitation from Officer Norman to return to Paget Island and have a go at his ropes course. Jonathan and Kristina were especially keen to defy gravity on high wire and crossing a log 35 feet up -and I can tell you it the stronger wind up there made it especially challenging.

Then all five of us did the zip-line to finish off our last day. So, while no Russian spies tried to steal our pipestems and no Nazi U-boat surfaced off Smiths Island to dispatch a boarding party to contest our sites, we did manage to add an element of Indiana Jones danger to the summer.

My crash landing

I sign off for now from our private island. Due to a mishap, our condo was double-booked for tonight and we were left homeless with a day to go before the students fly out. Thankfully, Rick and Geoffrey's private island - Great Oswego - was available between charters. So we're spending our final hours in Bermuda in a magnificent modern mansion in great comfort, looking across the sound at Smiths Island's southern shore and enjoying a fine curry complements of Arup and Somers Market. Thanks Rick and Geoffrey for making our final stay very memorable!
Private islands - I highly recommend spending the night on one... Not your typical archaeology digs!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Historic Heartbeats II and other visitors

Walking the (Kristina F. memorial) Plank, about four feet above the house floor

As we enter the last week of the dig, we've had many visitors come by the site - lots to see, actually, since my students and volunteers have moved an INCREDIBLE amount of dirt - more than 70 contexts in nine units and eight test pits at three different sites AND helped discover seven new sites for future investigation. On Sunday, we had two groups of visitors come by as part of the Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs' Historic Heartbeats series - this time a field trip instead of the usual lecture. Both groups were very enthusiastic and asked lots of great questions of me and the students. Thanks to Kim Dismont-Robinson for organizing it and making it possible for so many interested students of Bermudian history to get out to this wonderful island! (Also a big thanks to Smiths Island residents who put up with this temporary invasion!)
Geoffrey and son

Today we had another group of much younger visitors - 24 six-year-olds from St. George's Prep and their teachers - who heard about what it was like to live here in the olden days. Several boys couldn't believe that we had dug the whole site with only a trowel - which led to a bit of confusion because they thought we only had one trowel and shared it between us... At least one child asked Jonathan if he was a pirate - but whether this was because of his roguish look or the pirate flag on our boat was unclear... Several of them said they'd come back when they were old enough to volunteer (16) - and I look forward to seeing them in the future - and maybe some of their teachers a bit sooner!

In cleaning up the entire Oven Site for the public visits, we took stock of the various sequences of post holes and other features. In taking off the final lowest layer in unit N4E6, we discovered another post hole about where the corner of the house should be and began excavating it.  Unlike the other nearby large round postholes, this one went down quite a ways. Anima dug it until it was too deep for her arm, then Khari took over. When it surpassed his wingspan, I took it down the final six inches or so - in total 30 inches into the stone floor and more than ten feet below our site datum point. It is the deepest posthole we've found yet, another indication that it might be the corner - so deep to structurally anchor the framing of the whole house. It was really useful to get an overview of the whole layout as excavated - the better to plan for various extensions next summer.
Trench looking west - note the three large central post holes in the lower left, center and right below
the semicircular cut in the back wall
With only one or two days left, we removed the final (and thankfully thin!) rubble layer at the bottom of the trench and attacked the area that students have resorted to calling "Hell Hill" due to its mass of roots and sloping surface. A fair array of 18th and 19th c. artifacts came from this area, which it turns out does not go all the way down to ground level or cover a vertical wall, as originally thought. Instead, the beginning of yet another of those odd oven-like circular cuts has started to emerge - and will have to wait until next summer to get dug!

And finally, two more new post holes appeared when we were cleaning up the area in front of the hearth - formerly hidden by the large dead cedar tree abutting the wall. This post probably supported the lateral mantel in front of the fireplace, which rested in the groove we excavated last summer. With any luck (and no new surprises!) we should have the last of this year's digging at Oven Site done tomorrow and then move back to Smallpox Bay cottage to finish our investigative dating units there in the afternoon.

AND another Bermudian volunteer earned his t-shirt today - congrats Khari and wear it well!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Stratigraphic Resolutions and Manning the King's Castle

Sunset tonight, from Charles Island
With less than a week left in the field school, we're at crunch time trying to tie up the loose ends at Oven Site and also get some basic dating and function assessments of the new Smallpox Bay site. Except the Oven Site is refusing to cooperate - yesterday we found YET ANOTHER packed limestone rubble layer where a nice firm bedrock floor should be. The layers we had just taken out were classic remodeling material: broken bricks, mortar fragments showing where the bricks had been held in place, and a very dark silty matrix with lots of charcoal - dismantling the lining of the oven for which the site is named. But nooooooo... The layer seals two large postholes in a line and at 12-foot centers, which presumably were the first structural supports for the house before later remodeling shifted the framing techniques AND the packed layer at least one of the postholes cuts through is actually the new compressed rubble layer, fill of a trench about 6 feet wide with parallel sides. But I believe we're close now - we have the front and back of the house - now we just need to firm up the middle...
From left to right: up high a 19th c. fence rail, cut into stone floor at a slight angle, posthole with a round stone cap, middle unit LOOKS like bedrock but isn't, dark brown layer at right end is the bricks/mortar/charcoal destruction layer and in the lower right corner the newly revealed  posthole at the house front by the stairs.
Examples of the brick and mortar fragments
coming out of the dark brown layer
 We have also been establishing our site grid for the Smallpox Bay cottage site. While the students and volunteers worked at Oven Site yesterday, I was stringing up the new units when a downpour inundated Smiths Island - about 2 inches of rain fell in about half an hour, and I know because there was no shelter at SPB! (I almost brought a tarp with me, but figured a student would bring it later!) I did make one important discovery - I sheltered under a palmetto and learned that its leaves naturally channel water into rivulets - I filled my empty quart water bottle from one such leaf-channeled stream in about five minutes, demonstrating how effective early settlers would have found palmetto thatching for rain catchment. After the sun returned, mapping, paperwork, elevations, photos and actual digging commenced - under the newly installed tarp.

Tomorrow is the Bermuda Government's Historic Heartbeats public tour of our sites, so we spent much of today making everything look pretty and taking out ankle-height stumps and roots that might trip people up. People who visited us this time last year will hardly recognize the Oven Site - so much bigger than expected, and we still need to define how long the house was - thirty to forty feet long would not be unexpected, but that's next summer's project!

On the social side of things, we attended a wonderful dinner hosted by Margie Lloyd and took the opportunity to dress up. Jonathan and I took a stab at formal Bermudian...

But tonight's outing was truly epic in scale. With light winds and calm seas, we were able to take our little boat out around St. David's Head and Cooper's Island to get to Castle Island - planned but never achieved last summer. A big thanks to Drew Pettit for granting permission for us to land and study the sites! The complex of fortifications on Castle Island is perhaps the most impressive in all Bermuda, considering that the platforms and buildings were essentially built between 1619 and 1621 and remain largely as they were designed nearly 400 years ago. 
Looking out (and down!) from the ramparts of King's Castle toward Southampton Fort, we could quickly appreciate how foolish an enemy would have been to try to force entry into Castle Harbour... 

Devonshire Redoubt a little to the north was also impressive, a hexagonal tower with guns that would rake any ship that got past the King's Castle's two gun platforms.

Impressive as these fortifications are, I was most interested in the two oven features by the King's Castle. Dating probably to the 1610s, these look remarkably like the ovate cut-outs and ovens we've found at both Oven Site and CHB - note the smoke-hole/flue above the two shallow ovens.

Afterwards, we anchored the boat by nearby Charles Island's beach and had a wonderful snorkel and picnic as the sun was setting. We found several very cool caves at the waterline of Castle Harbour and saw some very impressive-sized jacks and snappers.

 The trip home as the moon rose was magical, something I won't soon forget! 


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Guest Blogger Jonathan Zeleznik!

In our second installment of guest bloggers, Jonathan dishes up the dirt on a student's view of the dig...
Jonathan, taking it a little too easy at the end of a long, hard day of digging in N2 E7...
Coming to Bermuda has been an adventure and a blessing.  Being able to take a hands-on approach to learning has been a great reward for working hard in the classrooms of Rochester for three years.  On the other hand, observing a new culture, taking part in local activities, and learning about the rich Bermudian history has fulfilled the abroad experience I wished to experience while in college but have been unable to do so during the regular school year.  Slowly, I am learning the theory of archaeology in person and understanding why we dig and what we are looking for. Earlier in the trip I was merely bent on learning the simple mechanics of pulling a trowel and how to see stratigraphy and the changes in soil layers, but have adapted to thinking harder and answer the questions that the site continues to create.  There is very little you could offer me to give back this experience and take another road. It has been a wonderful trip.
Descent into madness?
That being said let us take a look at the past few days since Professor Jarvis last posted.  They have been full of new developments on site (as well as one much-needed day off).  Tuesday we returned to the Oven Site on Smiths Island after our day of adventures at the Maritime Museum and South Shore beaches.  I cleaned up the second to last layer in the Eastern-most square (unit N2 E7) on site where we believe the entryway to the house once stood.  The layer has seemingly been endless, but bedrock appears to be sloping away from the foundation for a once standing stairwell that entered the home.
Newly revealed rubble layer and cut into the bedrock floor.
Charcoal and broken bricks and mortar in this layer hint at a destruction phase
  Kristina and Anima cleaned up the main trench of squares that we have been digging down into this season in order to prepare them for pictures and the excavations that would take place today (see notes further below) while Professor Jarvis continued laboring on with the squares from last season that were determined finished and down to bedrock. These squares held another few layers of tricky soil and stone that blended in appearance with the bedrock in squares further west, resulting in the conclusion that they were previously finished.  The bedrock slopes down and away towards the front of the home in Professor’s squares which lie near the middle of the home.  This development paired with the depth of the square that I have been excavating near the front of the home leads us to believe that the site was created to be deeper in the front of the home than it was in the rear; a possible cellar feature once being present in the deeper foundations of the front of the home.  One thing we can now say is that there was a second occupation layer in the home below the first destruction layer that fooled us for bedrock.  At some point it seems the house was destroyed or renovated and then rebuilt - exact years of occupation yet to be decided.
Volunteer Jillian and Kristina dig a test pit
We didn’t have much time to work on the Oven Site on Tuesday because Mr. Spurling met us on Smiths Island around 11:00 AM, wielding his metal detector so we could survey a future house site on Smith’s belonging to the Dickinsons before it is built.  We surveyed the area to make sure that the soon-to-be home will not cover up/destroy a historical site worthy of excavation. [In the US, this is usually referred to as a Phase I Cultural Resource Management assessment] Metal detection only turned up a few results, all which were recent artifacts from the 20th century. Six out of eight test pits turned up zero artifacts while the other two only turned up clear glass from a recent bottle and a bit of wire. The pits themselves ranged from 6-20 centimeters in depth before hitting bedrock, revealing that no previous housing foundations were present. The Dickinsons can go ahead and build with the confidence of knowing that they won't be destroying any of Bermuda's history as they do so.  
After our adventure across the island Monday and a sweltering day on Tuesday we all enjoyed a day off yesterday. Nobody (other than Professor Jarvis) was very adventurous in their activities in hope of recovering and preparing for the four straight days of digging to come.

Chloe clearing a Mexican Pepper tree whose
roots were undermining the
Smallpox Bay Cottage's foundations
Today were we blessed with the return of one of our most consistent volunteers, Chloe.  She is returned from her graduation from The University of Waterloo in Canada. Congrats Chloe!  We were also joined by two new volunteers, Khari and Suzanne. From the time of our arrival around early this morning until lunchtime we split into two groups: Kristina and I working on excavating the last remaining occupation layer in the main trench of oven site while Professor Jarvis, Anima, Leigh, and our 3 volunteers continued on clearing out the Smallpox Bay Site which will become our new main site starting tomorrow. 
Khari and Suzanne clearing the interior of
Smallpox Bay Cottage

Kristina and I found a number of artifacts that are consistent with those which have been turning up in previous occupation layers excavated.  A couple fragments of Spanish red-earthenware, charcoal, glass, and animal bones were the main finds.  Unfortunately, Professor Jarvis ran out of nails today and the second group was unable to lay out a grid at Smallpox Bay, ruling out excavations to begin there today.  After lunch, the larger group of archaeologists returned to the oven site where our new volunteers got their feet wet on “Hell Hill” which lies above the oven feature.  Anima graciously helped our rookies remove rubble and learn basics of troweling.

Oven Site is coming to a close. Tomorrow is a new day set to be full of clearing roots in the topsoil levels of the new Smallpox Bay site.  We are looking forward to a nice dinner at Margie Lloyd’s home where we will all dress to the nines!  Stay tuned in for photos of our fancy attire...