Monday, June 29, 2015

Fill-In... Saturday? .. and Sunday!

Apologies, dear readers, for the long break in posts. Today is my first day off in more than a week and its been incredibly intense finishing up Oven Site and then starting - and finishing - the other three sites. Plus, the crew inevitably hits a physical wall in week five as the hotter and more humid  Bermuda days take their toll. I am happy to report that all the students survived their ordeals (and, for some, self-inflicted wounds) and half of them are now safely home. The excavations are not finished - Cave Site and the new Cistern Site at Oven House are still open and active - but Smallpox Bay, Kiln, and the main Oven Site are now filled in - about which more later.

The Tragic Tale of the Iron Plate

The last week started with our valiant attempt to raise intact the iron plate we discovered at the end of last season in unit N5 E5, which waited patiently for us to remove the four feet of stratigraphy lying atop it in N4 E5. On Monday the final layer of char and rubble related to the expansion of Oven Site in circa 1630s came off and the full extent of the plate was exposed. I was hoping for something resembling a breastplate or other piece of armour, which would have fit the c. 1630s period (brought in with the first settlers, but cast off by that date as superfluous now that forts protected against a Spanish invastion) and have been consistent with the home of the commander of Smiths Fort, but alas the actual shape was much more ambiguous...
Since we determined that the plate has no actual intact iron left in it and is more a rust stain where once a plate had been, we had to develop a field conservation plan that consolidated and strengthened what was left but at the same time was reversible. Returning Field School veteran Kristina brought in some microcrystalline wax with which to impregnate the surface and act as a binder, which we first used to treat the exposed northern half of the plate.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Public Tour TOMORROW, Saturday June 20th!

Yes, you can come out and see our work in person! Please contact the Bermuda National Trust Tour link here for tickets and more information! Or look at the St. George's Foundation page.

It's hard to believe we are approaching our last week in the field! Time flies when you are having fun (and exhausted... and excited ... and excavating...), and we've made tremendous progress on Oven Site. We are now down through the circa 1640-1705 floor layers and the c. 1640 construction layer associated with expanding the original one-room house into two rooms. Within a day or two, we will finally reach the enigmatic iron plate we discovered at the end of last season and begin field conservation on it to attempt to recover it intact (thanks, Kristina, for the Renaissance Wax).
The north cut of the earliest phase of Oven Site, with a multi-course stone wall adjoining. The dark gray layer
to the south dates to circa 1640, when the house was expanded west. The iron plate is in the upper left corner.

Two additional new finds at Oven Site spring from sheer luck. In order to map the extent of sheet refuse deposition in front of the site, we undertook a series of small (50 cm x 50 cm) test pits radiating out. One came down on a 30 cm-diameter posthole some 40 ft. north of the house - an incredibly lucky placement.  

And then another test pit bisected another feature, which appears to be a mortar and plaster lined water tank or trough constructed closer to the house. The latter warranted new units to expose its dimensions and stratigraphically excavate the feature fill. Here's hoping it's related to the 17th century, rather than the 1970s hydroponic farmers!

In preparation for Saturday's tour, on Thursday we paused work at Oven Site to open up the three other sites (I had planned to do this on Wednesday, but we lost that day to rain squalls - but not before a very wet half-ride across the harbour on the barge!). 

The students gave their all clearing brush, taking up last year's backfill, mapping, and laying out new units.

Leigh and the Smallpox Bay crew ingeniously rigged up the shredded remains of a spinnaker sail I found thrown out as their tarp, making the site look like the home of some shipwrecked sailors. They also cleared up the midden we found at the end of last year and are now ready to continue digging it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Best Seventeenth-Century Day Everrrrr!

Experiencing/Surviving Seventeenth-Century Day is a rite of passage in the Bermuda field school. Rumours and retellings have blown the day up to epic proportions for new students, especially when told by returnees. My original intent is/was to put us all into more direct contact with the realities and activities of the earliest Bermudian settlers who lived on Smiths Island and built and occupied Oven Site - a blending of experiential history and experimental archaeology - to give greater relevance to our daily excavations hereafter and provoke thoughts about how the artifacts we recover reflect things that we simulated on Seventeenth-Century Day. But I appreciate now that there is a further ethnographic component to it, a leveling of supervisors, veterans, and newbies and a bonding through shared stories, explorations, and common experiences. 

This year's group were told horror stories about sleepless nights on concrete floors and toxic fish chowder, and three of the returnees chose artifact data entry in the lab over the "ordeal." Seventeenth-Century Day is not a required part of the field school and new students had the option of taking the day off, but not this bunch. Perhaps my issuing each of them with a hammock tipped the scale, but most everyone took on the challenge, including Katrina and especially Heather, who came back this year specifically to carpe diem. 

Departing from past years' routine, we did not go to Tom Moore's Jungle and the cave-strewn landscape there resembling Bermuda in 1609. Instead, we spent the entire day at Settler House/Carter House in St. David's, rotating through stations learning crafts and traditional skills. At 10:15, we caught the Number 6 bus and left 21st-century St. George's behind. After a walk up the hill (the government discontinued the bus directly there), we set to taking stock of everything we needed to do - like gather firewood, start a fire, and make lunch using only period foods. Ethan and Cameron had a good long go with flint and steel - damp wood and high humidity didn't help - but eventually got a fire going.

 John jerked a dozen cahows (actually chicken thighs), which took a really long time to cook on trivets over live coals. We were very fortunate to have Ronnie Chameau demonstrate how to make a traditional palmetto basket and Larry Mills, the builder of Settler House, share his expertise on timber framing, stone quarrying, and early modern house construction. The students learned a lot and very much enjoyed the insights they gained into how Oven Site was built and practicing the sorts of female crafts that went on inside.

After a thankfully salmonella-free lunch, we hiked to Cooper's Island Nature Reserve to commune with the spirit of our illustrious Smiths Island resident Christopher Carter, who chose this place among all others in Bermuda to make his home in 1622. We swam on his beaches, scrambled over his rocks, and stared seaward as he must have done countless times. We returned as the sun went down to boil the pea soup and salt cod we had set to steeping earlier, and roast the ham (earlier in the day, I had hunted down a Spanish Hog and smoked it for all to enjoy). While the food was cooking, Heather demonstrated how to spin wool using a traditional drop spindle and also how to knit - at both of which Jim excelled. We also sampled traditional drink - Adam's Ale and others a bit stronger, like sack and port. Our communal drinking of German wine from a German stoneware jug came to an abrupt end when one student discovered a cockroach drunkenly swimming in it the hard way...

Several hours and many stories later, we tested the sturdiness of Settler House by slinging hammocks athwart the interior. Others with less faith in its architectural integrity slept outside under the stars.
We had a surprisingly good night's sleep, especially Bailey who seems capable of sleeping through a cannon barrage, until an early morning dog-walker who couldn't believe we'd spent the night there loudly questioned us (and our sanity) around 6am. All in all, a really good night out. Despite their best efforts trying to convince Mimi, Alice, and Leigh that they had missed out, the students failed to get them to swap their movie night for another trip back in time.

More recently (Friday), we toured the National Maritime Museum and got an excellent behind-the scenes tour by Debbie Atwood, which included the archaeology conservation lab. The museum is only now recovering from the double whammy of hurricanes Faye and Gonzalo last October, which unroofed all the upper keep buildings. As is our tradition, we stopped off at Church Bay to swim, snorkel, and kill ourselves playing surf-zone Frisbee.
In between Seventeenth-Century Day and the NMB tour, Oven Site yielded some pretty spectacular new finds - but more on that later...

Monday, June 8, 2015

End of Week Two

Ethan and Alice, showing off
U of R pride
Students wearing this year's official
dig t-shirt

It's hard to believe how quickly time flies during a field school. Seems like just yesterday everyone was getting off the plane, but we've fused into a well honed team and have made tremendous progress, both educationally and on Oven Site. And we just completed Seventeenth-Century Day, which will get its own blog post a bit later.

Since the last installment, We took much of Oven Site down on a plane to the surface of the late 17th-century floor layer. En route, we discerned from among the later quarry rubble a 2-3 course narrow stone wall which had toppled inward - apparently the footing for a wooden sill that supported the frame of the second-period timber frame house.

17th-century floor in foreground, with fallen wall just to the north, looking north
This was an important find, since we have not thus far found exterior postholes (as one often finds on 17th-century Chesapeake sites). There is a messy interface between the interior floor (Master Contexts 006 and 009) and the exterior yard (Master Context 122), but hopefully another few days of excavation will sort this out.

House exterior trench,
Excavations in the front yard of Oven Site have proved disappointing - very shallow deposits with few artifacts, but we did recover some North Devon plain coarse earthenware and a chert fragment. We will likely have to extend the trench further north, toward the big yellow tank, which seems to always end up where we next need to dig. A one-ton dowsing rod, so to speak!

The students have learned a lot and are now fairly proficient at context recording, drawing plans, taking elevations, and discerning layer changes. Having Mimi, Sam, and Alice and returnee-mentors has been a great help!  Saturday was the first tally of scoring for the Gelato Cup, and Team Leigh prevailed by a narrow margin (180 to 171). Jim vows to take it back next week, though!

Besides the work on Smiths Island, we've had many other adventures. Our collective viewing of Game of Thrones (Season Five) has become a field school tradition, attracting everyone except Ethan, who isn't caught up yet and doesn't want spoilers. Last week, Officer Norman again invited us to Paget Island to see old Fort Paget (circa 1612), Fort Cunningham, and to let the brave and crazy among us try their skills on the ropes course. A great day out!

Our Leigh-der on the zipline

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

First Week and Then Some

Apologies, dear readers, for not posting as often as I should; it's been a busy, productive week but also exhausting - and the evenings I hoped to blog were spent either sleeping or playing the highly addictive game of One Night Ultimate Werewolf...

The field school officially started last Sunday with a new assignment - a visual St. George's scavenger hunt. Pairs of students (one new, one returnee) each had to find the modern locations of a dozen old late 19th/early 20th century street scene or house photographs, with a few 1810s sketches thrown in for good measure. Jim and Bailey won with nine matches, but every team got at least four, and learned how much (or often how little) St. George's has changed in a hundred years.

Gabby, Ethan, Me, John, Cameron, Sam, Bailey and Jim. Mimi, Alice and Leigh were hiding in the Oven...

That pesky yellow tank always seems to be
where we need to dig!

Since Bermuda Day's history class and equipment move, we've made tremendous progress on Oven Site. The first few days were laboriously spent removing the backfill that protected the units through the off-season - a bonding experience that also often reveals students' personalities and temperaments. I'm happy to say that all went very smoothly, with no talk of mutiny or desertion despite pretty hard labour, and by Friday we broke ground on new units.


Profiling the trench
Since the pairings for the scavenger hunt were so successful, we kept them for digging partners this first week. The students learned stratigraphic sequencing first-hand by recording the profile of the southern trench face, which will soon be destroyed as the adjoining units are excavated. With this accomplished, we progressed through the surface layer to early 20th-century quarry debris (Master Context 018), a 19th-century layer reflecting quarrymen's activities (Master Context 003), and a long, thick quarry layer dating from the early 18th century to the mid-19th century (MCxt 005) to bring us to the top of the 17th-century earthen floor (MCxt 006).

The top of the 17th-century
floor layer

And then... I made everyone start new squares adjoining the ones they just excavated. Because one of the principal aims of this season's dig is to determine how the two phases of the Oven Site house intersect and how the interior and exterior of the house join, we will expose the entirety of the floor in the northern half of the house and bring it all down together. Happily, the students accepted the rationale for this exercise in delayed gratification and, as of this afternoon, have brought the new units down to the 18th-century quarry layer.

The finds thus far have been interesting - mostly 19th- and early 20th-century material. The workmen did a lot of drinking and cooking, reflected by the number of bottles, bones, and charcoal we found in MCxt 003. The bottles included a small square bottle marked "Hamilton Coffee & Spice" and an intact Pabst beer bottle - pre-Blue Ribbon! - which Jim dates to circa 1910.

We also opened three units to the north of the house in order to test the hypothesis that the occupants discarded larger articles of trash in the front yard. Natural bedrock was very close to the surface and, in the first unit, no early material was found. Hopefully units further north will reveal occupation evidence, or we will need to change our thinking on trash deposition, and perhaps look for a midden.

Besides work, we've had several nice surprises. The response from my call for Bermudian volunteers has been very strong - more than a dozen - and we had our first one out today (thanks Ryan!). My start-of-season talk at the World Heritage Center was very well attended, and I had the pleasant surprise of being presented with a signed copy of William Zuill's new book, The Pirate Menace, by the author himself. Katrina, my future U of R graduate student, joined us and was the first to earn our exclusive 2015 dig shirt by completing three days of work.

We also visited the Bermuda Archives on Friday and had an excellent sampling of early documents.

 And coming home from work last Thursday, we had the great pleasure of seeing an 18th-century naval frigate docked by Penno's Wharf - L'Hermione, and then saw her depart the next morning, complete with a cannon salute.

Life in Block House has been fantastic and everyone in St. George's has been so friendly and supportive. Somers Market is keeping us well fed, both with Salad Bar fare in the evening and bread for our ubiquitous PB&J sandwiches. I also bought 40 lbs. of bananas and 12 bags of apples to keep us all scurvy-free in the weeks ahead.

Finally, we announced today the members of Team Jim and Team Leigh, which broke down along gender lines. Let the Gelato Cup Games begin!
Team Leigh: Ethan, John & Cameron

Team Jim: Gabby and Bailey
Returnees Alice, Mimi, and Sam

Katrina, Heather, and Ryan

The Alice Death Stare