Sunday, May 3, 2009

Would you like some dirt with that?

Archaeology, even after a week in the trenches, has a magnificent Romantic air about it. The amount of patience it takes to do it well seems as though it should be tedious work but throw in mystery and treasure and no amount of time could deter the best of archaeologists! The natives weren't chasing us, there was no need for whips and fedoras, and the site didn't require measuring out sand to equal the weight of a golden statue... but the past gave us quite the stir none the less.

The group of Archaeologists at Montpelier made the week of digging absolutely wonderful. Even with masses of tourists, weeks full of amateur volunteers, and weeks swarming with Field School students, this group of Archaeologists have not lost their enthusiasm for sharing about their work. Dr. Mathew Reeves, the Director of the Archaeological program at Montpelier, set up the volunteer week very well, with a lecture, tours, and plunging us right into the field and lab work, trusting that we will learn more as we work, even calling us staff for the week. There were four volunteers this past week and there are four archaeologists in the field so we were treated to one to one instruction.

As usual, I loved being in the dirt. I felt right at home being covered in the red clay and connected well with my fellow dirt lovers. I think there is something to working closely with mud likens the world of archaeologists to the world of potters. At least with this group I had that similar sense of realism, earthiness, and understanding that I get so often with potters. Both require that physical labor and no bull about getting down and dirty... and anyone (almost) willing to actually do that is at home in the community. I asked Hope, one of the archaeologists, about their experience with volunteer groups. She said that they haven't really had bad experiences with it because they all at least start out on one similar playing field: an interest in Archaeology. I think the connection deepens when there is a realization that you work with similar materials, there is an unspoken understanding. And I think anyone willing to get that dirty has to have a certain flexibility about life and possessions that I admire. But that's another thought for another time.

There are lots of stories and technical details but one of the best moments for me was a puzzle. After troweling and digging in the site, the dirt is brought in buckets to large screens. The dirt is sifted through these screens and large clumps are broken up to find artifacts or, as one of the archaeologists simply explained it, "cool things". And that is exactly what we did, found cool things. Glass sherds, ceramic shards, bone and teeth (animals, don't worry), shell, nails, decorative hardware ... Some from the 20th century but a lot from the 19th and 18th too! Over the first two days I found the two ceramic pieces I am holding in the picture to the left in the screening process. This pattern color are recognized as from Madison's childhood era, the late 1700s! It didn't stop there.

After a layer or section of the site is through being screened, the artifact bag for that part is "closed". We divide and count up the spoils (or artifacts) and record everything. As I emptied and divided the artifacts from a particular layer, I noticed that I had three pieces of ceramics from Madison's childhood era. I picked up the two larger pieces and turned them over and over to see if, by chance, they fit ... and as you can see in the next picture, they did!! They slipped right into place beside each other as if 200 years and mounds of dirt had never separated them.

It was so interesting to look at pieces of old ceramic ware knowing that a potter made it by hand, a family used it and loved it, and there I was, decades later, finding it, handling it and loving it again.


  1. What a cool experience, Sarah. Glad you got to go!

  2. So glad you're back! Missed reading your blog. I can't wait to read more about your adventure. K

  3. Thanks Katie and K... I'm glad you are reading and enjoying!