Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fame and Metal Detectors and Crime Scenes, oh my!

What a busy day! We started with a visit from Rick and Luci Spurling. Rick brought out his metal detector to perform a controlled methodological experiment on the new CHB site. Luci brought out a cameraman to interview us and film footage of us excavating. We marked the "hits" that Rick got with colour-coded flagging tape: blue for "quality" or strong signature signals and red for weaker/less discriminated signals. There were few blues - i.e. no Hog Pennies lying about! - and relatively few overall - a maximum of five or six per meter square, relatively evenly distributed across the whole site.  We mapped them all and will compare Rick's plottings with metal artifacts we actually recover to assess the accuracy of metal detectors as an archaeological surveying tool in Bermuda and the depth of penetration (or, how far below the surface of a marked hit does the actual metal artifact lie).
Leigh plotting Rick's hits
It will be interesting to see how closely this correlates with the three meter squares we plan to open at this site to help date its occupation. While Rick worked, Luci interviewed the students about their experiences thus far, with the thought of making a documentary in the future should we find Great Stuff here on Smiths Island. Quarin and Kristina continued to dig the northernmost part of the site, targeting the corner and a round cut into the bedrock. By the end of the day, Quarin had figured out that this cut was spherical and bowl-shaped, perhaps a sink of sorts or a cistern?

Meanwhile, back at the Oven Site, a thorough cleaning of the top surface of the stones we found under the topsoil layer revealed them to be very thick building stones rather than a deliberately set stone floor or platform. An absolutely enormous rock with two dressed faces (but not perpendicular to each other) was removed, under which was Master Context 003 - the earthen floor layer dating to when the house stood and was in use.
Mimi measuring the stone blocks - lots of them!
Removing the very large irregular one on the left top part of the above unit revealed a feature cut horizontally into the northern wall - perhaps a seating for a horizontal post or platform. The Artifact of the Day came out of this layer - a shoe or breach buckle in fantastic shape:

After taming the backlog of paperwork and photographing the various new units we had opened up, I was able to excavate in the hearth for a whole FIVE MINUTES, filling one bucket with soil before we had to knock off for the day - I use pencil, paper and camera a lot more than my trowel  these days - the price to pay for being in charge.

Artifact Interpretation Exercise

After we returned to St. George's and washed and processed our artifacts for the day, I capped off our week-long discussion of artifacts and how they both help date layers and features and also how they (as an entire assemblage) reveal activities, connections, and site function. I brought the students to a site I had stumbled upon last weekend near the ruins of the old Club Med property near Fort St. Catherine. The site was of very recent vintage - a dumping ground in a corner of a parking lot on government property - to get across that historical archaeology is as valid and enlightening on recent sites as it is on ancient ones. I challenged the students (divided into two teams) to present the best interpretive scenario for the "site" and its artifacts.
Most of this deposition would not survive in the ground - the clothes, shoes, paper, etc. - but I was most interested in their reasoning as to who these objects related to, how they came to be here, common patterns in the types of artifacts present, and inferences about their deposition in this spot. 

The assemblage included many small bottles of toiletries and makeup, pens, a keychain (but no key), packets of half-used medications (many of the typical tourist variety), bright and fancy female tops and pants, airplane/hotel mini-bar size liquor bottles (some full, Dewars, Grey Goose, Sapphire, etc.), many pairs of shoes (high heels and sandals), several phone chargers, many small purses that were empty and with their zippers all opened, a fair number of CDs, and some domestic trash (like a Christmas tree stand, a punching bag, and toilet tank). There were a couple of empty beer bottles mixed among them as well.

After very intense study and fairly long team conversations about interpretation, the students presented two well-reasoned scenarios - one involving a woman possibly evicted from her house suddenly, whose stuff was dumped here (the many bags and shoes, domestic ware, and female clothes).
In the other scenario, chamber maids from the defunct hotel nearby or another hotel obtained items that had been left in hotel rooms over time and had dumped them here (emphasizing the tourist-associated toiletries, makeup, and other travel items, vacation clothes, and shoes). They debated with each other over the contending interpretations, but it was great to see them "thinking with stuff" and using it to reconstruct past behavior, values, and activity.
Team MLK studying the scene

At least according to my interpretation, what is missing is as important as what is there. The site can't be easily accessed by car but is easily reachable by bike/scooter. I thought it significant that all the many purses were empty and had been riffled through, that there were no wallets but various personal effects, and phone chargers but no phones. I recall how pairs of riders on decked out bikes sometimes cruise at night and snatch bags out of the baskets of unsuspecting tourists on their slow rental scooters. The vacation clothes and shoes likely came from swiped suitcases or burgled apartments. It would seem we have a dumping site for stolen items with no resale value - with the culprits having a few beers as they divided up the loot. Alternatively, homeless individuals may have scavenged the various items from tourist spots (beaches and parks) and brought them here. In the end, I judged both teams' interpretations well-grounded and gave Klondike Bars (the prize for best scenario) to all.

Archaeologists are often likened to detectives investigating a crime scene, but with half the evidence missing and no ability to interview long-dead eyewitnesses. It would seem our archaeological interpretive exercise was an actual crime scene, where illicitly acquired and incriminating items were dumped after valuables were removed. On a final note, I was struck by the profusion of CDs, slides and negatives, and a slide projector at this and an adjoining dumping ground and reflected on the world's recent shift to mobile digital music and image devices. With movies and songs now predominately purchased and managed as files, physical objects like CDs become increasingly redundant and disposable. Ditto the slides and projector in an age of digital images - so they wind up thrown out. The trend of old technology or popular culture items being tossed as times change is as true today as it was in the 1790s-1810s, when younger families dumped stacks of Creamware and Pearlware plates, bowls, and serving sets - either old fashioned and no longer prestigious or tainted (in the United States) with their British association through origin. Like VHS tapes, CDs, it would seem, will serve future archaeologists well as TPQ markers with a fairly tight range of production dates.

The shipwreck we pass on the way to work each morning


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