Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Sadness and Woe for Summer 2018

I am sorry to have to report that there will be no Smiths Island Archaeology field school this summer. This is largely due to our inability to secure affordable accommodations in or near St. George's to house the staff and students, despite the multiple valiant efforts all spring of various friends of the SIAP.  Instead, I will be shifting my energies across the pond to our other UR field school based at Cape Coast in Ghana, where I'll be lecturing on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Portuguese, Dutch, and British activities on the Gold Coast, as well as teaching and supervising laser scanning, photogrammetry and ethnographic research in and around Elmina Castle along with University of Ghana faculty. I won't be entirely alone though - Ewan from the 2017 Bermuda dig will be taking up this new digital archaeology work as well.

We hope next year to reposition the field school back to July and early August, which will make participation available to UK students as well as to secure reliable accommodations. I guess we will all have to wait another year to see what those five new sites at Smiths Island's west end will reveal, as well as seeing if we can firmly attribute the large cluster of post holes at Smallpox Bay to Governor Richard Moore's brief 1612 town  -  and find the hypothesized Captain's House near the Oven Site kitchen site.

Monday, January 22, 2018

2018 Field School and a video from the vault

Hard to believe, but we are just five months from the start of the 2018 field school! If you are interested in participating, click on the new Field School tab above for information and how to apply.

I will be spending the spring at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island, working on making an interactive GIS map of Richard Norwood's 1663 survey of Bermuda, and if all goes well, a walkable 3D version of the island in 1663 in Unity.

In doing housekeeping among my many old hard drives, I came upon a video we shot on the last day of the 2010 reconnaissance, showing the very first unit we excavated, and our three-person field crew!  "From small acorns mighty oaks grow..." (Benjamin Franklin)

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Guest Blogger Karemy Valdez - “What am I doing here, and who do these people think they are?"

‘What am I doing here, and who do these people think they are?’: Reflections on my time in Bermuda and my coming-of-age as a historical archaeologist

It’s orientation week for incoming graduate students at Yale University. As an event organizer and facilitator this year, I’m getting to mingle with a lot of eager, bright-eyed scientists, doctors-to-be, and library fiends. I love meeting people, but I dread the moment I hear, “So, what do you do?” directed at me. My academic existentialism kicks in and the only answer I can muster is usually somewhere along the lines of, “Well… I’m a professional, certified, 100% free range ancient dumpster diver.” That usually gets a bit of a laugh and a comment about how dinosaurs are really cool and Indiana Jones must be my idol. But, all jokes aside—really, what do archaeologists do?

I set out to find the answer to this question five years ago, during my first trip to an archaeological site with a professor from UC San Diego. Out in the Peruvian desert, where shade is scarce and avocados are plenty, I found that archaeologists dig carefully mapped square holes, and they take great care to keep the trench walls straight and the profile maps legible. This wasn’t much different from the Mayanists who work in Belize, as I discovered two years later with Texas Tech. The only difference may be the addition of a pickaxe (tears through limestone much more efficiently than a Marshalltown trowel) and blood-starved mosquitos and territorial monkeys. When I arrived at Yale last fall my answer to the “So, what do you do?” question was based on my experiences in Peru and Belize. If someone had asked me that same question at the end of my spring semester, though, I wouldn’t have known how to answer, because, as I finally came to accept a mere two-and-a-half months into my program, the archaeology I am most interested in is… historical. This isn’t really much of a betrayal to what I thought I knew and having to start on a clean slate; it’s more of a reconsideration of what I thought I wanted to learn and having to start on a slightly murky slate. I wasn’t trained as a historian, and my experience with prehistory couldn’t fully translate to the experience I then sought as an archaeologist dealing with a much more recent past.

So, we’ve reached the point at which we must amend the question: What do historical archaeologists do? I set out to find the answer to this question almost two months ago, when I arrived in Bermuda with no idea what to expect from a crew of (mostly) historians. Apparently historical archaeologists like to play Dungeons and Dragons. But they also dig, just like regular ol’ archaeologists, and they spend a lot of time in the National Archives, unlike regular ol’ archaeologists.

What historical archaeologists set out to accomplish is to fill in the blanks where history fails us, or where archaeology is unable to unearth the whole story. All in all, historical archaeology is a field of study in which different modes of interpretation mingle and inform each other in the hopes that we’ll be able to paint a much more coherent picture of our recent past. I have found that my role as a historical-archaeologist-in-training is to straddle the line between two disciplines that, quite frankly, could use more straddling. I also feel a responsibility to incorporate what we call community archaeology into my research goals—that is, figuring out ways to involve the general public and groups with an invested, and often deeply personal, interest in a site in the gathering, dissemination, and preservation of the knowledge I and my colleagues seek to uncover.

Attendees of the BNT/SGF public site tours
Whereas the methods of community archaeology may not always be employed with regular archaeological research, they are often embedded in historical archaeology research because our projects deal with personal and family histories on a more direct level than many archaeological projects do.The work of a historical archaeologist, then, is situated in the present just as much as it is in the past. Knowing and understanding the effects of history on different groups of people, and how these share a symbiotic relationship, is what inspires society to keep moving forward, to keep reflecting on the events and issues that are responsible for shaping its future.

Although my research deals with the history and cultures of Mexicans and Afro-Mexicans in the gulf coast of Mexico, and not with Bermuda’s early history, I joined the Smith’s Island team to learn about the methods and theoretical underpinnings that make up study of colonial English America and can inform the ways in which we study colonialism in Spanish America.
Now, it’s been three weeks since the end of the field school. You’d think I’d moved on to more convoluted trains of thought, what with my thesis deadline a mere seven months away, right? But my mind has been stuck in Bermuda for three weeks. Not only have I been experiencing daily bouts of reflection on what I learned on Smith’s Island, I’ve also been mulling over what I’d like to incorporate into my own research. There’s much to learn about the Atlantic system that gave us slavery in the first place, and fostered an intricate multiculturalism in the second. It’s also got me thinking, more than ever, about my role as a researcher and a future educator. And I now feel more confidence when providing an answer to that dreaded question.

So, what do I do? I’m a semi-professional, half-certified, 100% free range historical dumpster diver, and I sift through the hottest gossip of the 17th and 18th centuries. I aspire to teach what I learn to others, and to have others teach me in return. And when not in the field, I enjoy being in the library, reading or typing away on a clunky laptop.

Karemy Valdez is a second-year graduate student at Yale. She enjoys Dark and Stormies, bonfires on beaches, entertaining fellow diggers with fun stories and putting chili powder and lime on virtually every food she encounters. Yes, even watermelon.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Baby Teeth and the Elusive Manor House: The 2017 Season in a Nutshell

Apologies, dear readers, for the long gap in posts. Digging in Bermuda in August is brutal, we've found, and exhausting and the last weeks of the dig were a frantic crush of activity. Work hard, play hard and all that. When the typical day is a high of 86 and a low of 82 and high humidity, it's hard to muster the energy to regularly blog! The students were troopers, though, and pushed through the whole season with no heat stroke casualties and good morale through the end.

We have now completed our 2017 field work and I can report that at Oven Site  we excavated 54 contexts in two areas. Our initial exploratory trench 35 feet north northeast of the cistern straddling two courses of a dry Bermuda stone wall (Oven Site B) identified apparent footing of a now-lost wooden structure dating to the late 19th or early 20th century (right). 

Most of the season’s focus was on the Cistern, which was stratigraphically connected to the rest of Oven Site through a clearing excavation and was spatially defined through strategic clearing excavations to reveal its four corners.  The tarris-lined cistern measured 3.4 meters by 1.5 meters and was 0.9 meters deep, surrounded by a 30 cm-wide flattened area cut into the bedrock in preparation for its construction. Given these dimensions, the tank when filled would have held 1,300 gallons of water. Plaster samples confirm it was composed of a quicklime/mortar/brick dust slurry which set as a water-impermeable surface.  Its last use was in the 1820s, as revealed by stoneware sherds found in situ in a concrete lime mortar mixture left in place when the feature was abandoned, presumably associated with nearby 19th-century quarrying activities.
3D digital model of the extent of 2017 excavations. North is to the right.

Two meter-square units of cistern fill were excavated in late 2015 and this year, yielding more than a thousand artifacts (mostly bone but also numerous Raern stoneware and North Devonshire coarse earthenware sherds) otherwise consistent with the 17th-century date attribution of Oven Site.

To the southeast of the cistern and cut into the bedrock construction cut of the cistern, we excavated two primitive oven-like features similar to those found in vertical walls elsewhere, which presumably were made and used for cooking by the craftsmen who made the cistern.


A six-meter long exploratory trench was excavated perpendicular to the cistern’s north wall in search of the foundation of the main house, which was presumed to resemble that of Oven Site: a horizontal flat plane cut into native bedrock. Excavations instead revealed a natural sloping bedrock surface, but punctuated by at least four deep postholes.

Two of these postholes had Devonshire coarse earthenware at their bottoms as well as fragments of Bermudian stone daub with imprints of wooden/palmetto leaf wattle, which apparently dates them to the 1630s/40s rebuilding and expansion of Oven Site to the south.

All told, we recovered 1,667 artifacts were recovered at Oven Site B and the units adjoining the cistern, including 742 bones, 416 coal/charcoal fragments, 110 shell, 64 ceramic fragments, 18 pipestem/pipebowl fragments, and one 1878 Victoria half-penny.

The cistern feature we uncovered is the first of its kind yet found and is much larger than originally thought. It seems to have had a long lifespan and was in continued use long after the 17th century structures of Oven Site farm had vanished. Continued recovery of 17th-century ceramics in and near the cistern and far from Oven Site suggest we are quite near the main house. Fieldwork next summer will hopefully locate it through additional targeted testing to the northeast and northwest of Oven Site and the cistern.  As Cubs fans used to say, "we'll get 'em next year!"

Smallpox Bay

Our work this summer aimed to recover additional quarantine site cultural material to shed more light on the mixed-use occupation of an ostensibly military site and to reveal additional postholes that show distinct architectural patterning. 

Excavations at Smallpox Bay started with a quite recent and highly datable artifact: I wonder who could have written that???

Field work this summer totaled 62 contexts, 50 of which were associated with feature fills and feature cuts, exposing numerous new post holes.

3D models and orthophotos reflecting the feature plan for Smallpox Bay reveal some patterning to past and recently exposed postholes, particularly a six-post linear series set at 80 cm centers that bisects the later stone ruin wall, but further clearing is needed to definitively expose the full extent of various overlapping buildings though to have occupied the site.

In terms of assemblages, we recovered twice as many artifacts from Smallpox Bay than Oven Site, reflecting the general proliferation of capitalistic material production and global networks of circulation and distribution between the 17th and 19th centuries. A total of 3,227 artifacts were recovered from the site this year, including 185 ceramic sherds (127 refined earthenware, 42 coarse earthenware, 11 stoneware, and 5 porcelain.) One sherd of Surrey Borderware and five sherds of a sand tempered unglazed coarse earthenware were found within a posthole, indication of the very early occupation of the area.

Three large flakes of deliberately worked knapped English flint were recovered from the bottom of another deep posthole. This is an intriguing find not connected our evidence of late 17th-century stone tool-making at Oven Site associated with Boaz Sharpe's nine Native American slaves, and is hard to explain given our current conjecture that the postholes at this site are associated with Governor Moore's short-lived 1612 town. There were no Native Americans on the Plough and the first firmly documented arrival of an Indian in Bermuda is 1616 (a single pearl diver, likely from the Venezuela coast). The stones are clearly worked - long thin fluted flakes exhibiting deliberate preparation and not retouched or chipped in ways that would suggest they were used to light fires. And found as they were at the bottom of deep, early postholes indicate a presence at the construction of these early earthfast timber buildings. Let's hope we find additional examples associated with artifacts that can more firmly date the post hole buildings next season.

Other artifacts further reinforce our current interpretation of the site as a 19th-century refuge for British Army regimental soldiers and their families. With the recovery of a 26th Regiment button, we have now have a high correlation between garrisons hit by Yellow Fever (1843, 1853-54, 1864) and buttons found on the site - and a complete absence of buttons from regiments not afflicted with Yellow Fever.

The presence of children on the site was strongly suggested in past seasons through the recovery of toys such as marbles and a miniature cast brass cannon. This year, we found the arm of a porcelain "frozen Charlotte" doll and a human deciduous tooth - an upper canine "baby/milk tooth" according to Katrina, whose mother is a dentist.

In the end, this season’s findings at Smallpox Bay are consistent with and further support the ongoing interpretation of this site as potentially Governor Moore’s brief 1612 town and as a refuge for 19th century military personnel and their wives and children in times of yellow fever epidemics. While marbles and children’s toys such as a cannon barrel and ceramic doll’s arm have suggested the presence of children on the site, the recovery of a baby tooth now definitively establishes their presence. Future excavations will focus on expanding our window into post hole configurations to the east and north of the stone ruin and perhaps definitively establish the site as Moore's first capital.

Field School Activities

Awed by the Hall of History
This year's curriculum was somewhat abbreviated, since the season was only four weeks rather than our usual five and spanned Cup Match. Sadly, this was the year without a Seventeenth Century Day (perhaps a blessing, since hearth cooking and sleeping rough in an 80-degree wattle and daub cabin would no doubt have been trying), but we did many of our usual favorite activities thanks to the generosity of our many Bermudian supporters. These included touring the National Museum of Bermuda's many excellent galleries...

... and exploring nearby Fort Cunningham and taking on the Paget Island ropes course thanks to the Bermuda Police Outward Bound staff's hospitality.

Xander and Sean try to take home a little souvenir -
an 800-pound RML cannon shell.

Students also did (and did well!) the usual lab work in Reeve Court and documentary research in the Bermuda Archives.

And we enjoyed an unforgettable last night with a bonfire on the little beach at the end of Grenadier Lane, listening to the Cup Match concert in Fort St. Catherine and swimming by moonlight.

We were fortunate to be joined by Lisa Wright from the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library Digital Scholar's Lab for a week, as well as nine Bermudian volunteers who earned their shirts. Lisa photographed most of the diagnostic artifacts (ceramics, some glass, small finds, and unique or distinctive objects) recovered since 2010 to link with our databases, help site analysis, and enable collaboration with other researchers, as well as students doing fieldwork.

Jim returned to help out for a bit and did a celebrity cameo dig at Smiths Island's western bay to test whether Christopher Carter and company may have built their shallop there. He and Karemy fought through two very densely packed feet of stratigraphy to rule this possibility out, although they did find evidence of a forest fire many hundreds or thousands of years ago, before settlement, in their bottom-most layer. 

Their one-by-two meter-square unit looked remarkably like a grave when it was finally excavated...

Finally, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many people and organizations that made this successful field season possible. Ty Stewart, Ted Pagano, Jacqui Rizzo, and Heather Morens at the University of Rochester helped me throughout the previous year to set up and enroll students in the field school and navigate the red tape of administering it. Dr. Deborah Atwood and the members of the Bermuda National Trust Archaeology Research Committee provided essential help in securing immigration permission and authorization to dig, as well as essential equipment and lab space and resources, without which our work could not have been done. BNT Executive Director Bill Zuill and St. George’s Foundation Director Peter Frith organized one public talk and two public tours of our sites, which helped disseminate our findings and get Bermudians interested and invested in their cultural heritage. Board of Trustees Governor Garth Rothwell and Principal Mary Lodge generously allowed us to stay in the St. George’s Preparatory School during the field season, and Garth continued to allow us to use his dock and cottage on Smiths Island. Geoffrey Redmond provided the use of two workboats in July and early August, which were vital for commuting across the harbor to work daily. Karla Ingemann and the staff of the Bermuda Archives provided advice and support to field school students undertaking historical research and made available important maps of early Bermuda and Smiths Island. Phillip Anderson gave us a fantastic historical boat tour of St. George’s and Castle Harbours to expand students’ understandings of maritime Bermuda, and Dr. Atwood also guided us through earliest Bermuda’s history at the National Museum of Bermuda. Mr. Ramotar and Chef Ryan at Somers Market contributed truly vital resources to fueling the field school – calories in the form of PB&J bread and numerous dinner dishes, while the Cook and Zuill families gave us welcome late-season respites from our usual fare at their Crow Lane and Flatts houses. My greatest thanks go to the staff (Leigh Koszarsky, Katrina Ponti, Jim Rankine, Lisa Wright), students (Ryan, Ewan, Fengyi, Sean, Karemy, and Xander), and volunteers (Clementine, Charlie, Luke, Laura, Lisa, Evelyn, Jade, Hannah, Adrian, Tatiana) who worked hard in physically quite demanding conditions in field and lab alike to make our discoveries possible.