Teachable Moments: Ice Cream, the Corner That Wasn’t There, and a Half-Cooked Onion

We have our first Guest Blogger of the season - Professor Heather Kopelson of the University of Alabama is now safely back in NYC but was kind enough to send this post reflecting on her week and a bit digging with us!

I learned a lot this past week as part of the excavation team at the Oven site. Although I had read plenty of archaeological scholarship for my own research on Bermuda and New England, I had never been at a dig site, let alone participated in the excavation of one.

Mike has already explained much of the inner workings of a dig, and all the paperwork and measurements that go into recording the Context To Be Destroyed. As an archaeological novice, I found the combination of precision measurements (using the newly acquired laser level , seat-of-the-pants ingenuity (tape measure and levels taped onto a long stick to make the elevation stick;
using a sifter as a makeshift ladder to rig up a tarp over new squares--no photo of that one, I was busy steadying the sifter against the tree; overturned bucket to get the right angle for pictures and a tarp to prevent hot spots on said pictures), and brute force (to saw through, chop up, and otherwise dig out Roots and Rocks Of Unusual Size
fascinating and even addictive.

Although the dig as a whole is a collaborative effort, it has sometimes intensely individual aspects as well. Many of the archaeologists-in-training developed attachments to their particular squares and antagonism towards the intrusions (see above regarding R.O.U.S.es) that were in the way of troweling out the current layer to be sifted for artifacts.

A lot of behind-the-scenes work is required for a smoothly run field school. There’s the technical side and making the necessary arrangements for doing cool things like touring a nineteenth-century fort that a century later was used as classrooms for troubled youth 

Procuring a boat and teaching students how to moor it is also essential when the site is on an island.
  And then there are the scooter trips to the supermarket at Shelley Bay to keep everyone fed, which is a large part of keeping us happy. Friendly’s Celebration Cake ice cream, I’m looking at you. Morning and afternoon snack and water breaks were important for refreshing body and mind, even if students sometimes had to be reminded to call a brief truce in their fight against Context 005.

But no sooner did Mike issue said reminders than he was sidling over to a square to dust off the newly exposed profile along the vertical wall of a square, then picking up a trowel or shovel to clear away a wee bit.I think he just liked getting to dig for a few uninterrupted minutes without feeling like he was keeping students from their squares.

Working at a dig is a chance to see research in action in a way that doesn't happen as easily in the frequently solitary world of the archives. Case in point: the missing corner in the third square I worked on (N5 E5).
 The adjacent square had a posthole, so Mike expected that we would find the corner of the house in our square. Instead, we found the continuation of the wall, which meant that these newly laid out squares were inside, not outside, the house. He explained to the students how this discovery adjusted his theory about the function of that posthole, which now appeared to have been a middle, rather than a corner, support. It also meant that the house was much bigger than anyone had originally thought, an adjustment in working hypothesis that was strengthened by the discovery of some thin plate glass—potentially window glass—an indication of some level of wealth. We also found appropriately crude earthenware, which was a thrill to see laying on the top of my trowel.

 As a fellow professor, seeing how Mike integrated his explanations and challenged the students to apply their knowledge throughout the day was almost as much of a thrill as finding that sherd. The physical process and paperwork of excavation might be tedious at times, but students were never left wondering how their work fit into the overall findings, or how their readings connected to the excavation site.

Those connections also held true for Seventeeth-Century Day, even though there was some initial grumbling from a couple of students who contemplated staying in twenty-first-century comfort in St. George’s after lunch. Mike explained the vessels and cookware
 laid out in the thatch-roofed Settler House
where we were to spend the night approximating an early Bermuda living experience, encouraged us to lay out the supplies to see what they were, provided flint and steel, and decanted port from a bottle of eighteenth-century shape to one of seventeenth-century shape while sporting appropriate headgear.

Even the students with less cooking experience could taste the stew as it went along and notice that even after the potatoes, carrots, and pre-soaked barley were appropriately soft, the onion overwhelmed everything until the stew had cooked for another 20-30 minutes. Lest they fail to realize the implications, Mike pointed out that the experience of cooking over a fire should drive home the idea that women’s work required a lot of skill, technical know-how, coordination, and physical strength. 
 Toasting our success.
The warm glow of fire and candlelight stands out sharply from the night surrounding the Settler House.
It was also a treat to walk to the end of Cooper’s Island. The beaches were beautiful and deserted, except for our group of 13. Mike explained that Christopher Carter’s house was under the asphalt of a parking lot built for the former NASA Tracking Station. Some used the time to gaze across the water.

 Others competed in leaf- and pebble-throwing [5296] or continued to look for artifacts, while our fearless leader took a few minutes away from organizing us and taking photos to enjoy a solitary walk along the beach.

I’m tickled to be Licensed to Dig (TM), and will stay tuned to this blog for future developments. I’ve heard tales of metropolitan pottery that were hidden under an R.O.U.S. Exciting times!


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