More artifacts


Creative, meaningful repurposing?  A soapstone nugget with a clear groove all the way around it.

We’ve been back in the field since Saturday with the goal of exploring the areas around two promising shovel test pits.  From the artifacts we’ve already found, it’s pretty clear people have used this island for a very long time.  They’ve had fires, created and sharpened stone tools, used clay pots and even held something together with iron nails.  That doesn’t even get us up to the US Civil War.  Post-war and 20th century (and 21st century) artifacts are present too.


I’m most interested in figuring out what was going on here during the 17th to 19th centuries.  We know from Dan Sayers’ work in the southern Dismal that the maroons and others found, reused and repurposed artifacts left behind by earlier inhabitants.  The artifacts from this week’s trenches suggest the same thing was happening way up here in Virginia.  One clear example is the little grooved soapstone nugget shown at the top of this post.  It appears to be a fragment of a large soapstone vessel that was repurposed- into what might be a pendant or charm.*  Based on a quick search of Virginia geology, one of the nearest sources of soapstone is about 75 miles away.  Who brought it here?  When?  Why?  How long did it take to make that perfect groove?  Who was the person who last held this object?  What did it mean to them?

Meanwhile, we’ve also started finding a different type of ceramic.  It’s more red than it looks in this photo.


Pottery Fragment

And, huge thanks to fellow AU PhD candidate Justin Uehlein for braving the Swamp’s biting flies for a few days of excavation.



It was a brisk 85 degrees today so Justin wore his hoodie (as armor against the flies).

*It could be something else, too.  If you have any ideas or have seen something similar, email me!



Lab Days


an assortment of artifacts from a shovel test pit

For every day in the field, one must expect at least 2 days in the lab.  So, after a seven day run in the Dismal last week, processing data in the evenings in the hotel room, it was time for a break from the bugs and a bit of lab work.  (I also had final exams and essays to grade.)

Washing artifacts, especially those covered in mud like Swamp artifacts tend to be, is pretty exciting.  We do the best we can to ID objects as they come out of the ground but sometimes you give a “lithic” a bath and it turns out to be grit-tempered pottery.  Yay!   Or, you pick blobs of “hematite” off the magnet, rinse them and discover a few are actually iron fragments.  Woohoo!  Even flakes and stone tools which are readily identifiable reveal new details after a gentle scrubbing.


wee bits of ceramics (pottery)


On these remote islands, we don’t expect to find loads of artifacts, or very large ones.  Our model suggests people who inhabited these places in the 18th and early 19th centuries did not have ready access to manufactured goods.  And, much of what has been found on maroon sites in the southern parts of the Swamp is tiny indeed (hence the 1/16th inch screens).  What we uncover might not be as charismatic as what the researchers at Victoria’s Dustbin find (amazing artifacts from their rubbish dump excavations!) but each little piece gives us clues to what life was like for the denizens of the Dismal Swamp.



Core profiles, shovel tests, artifacts in the screen…archaeology is happening here!  And, it’s nearly end of term for the two courses I’m teaching so there hasn’t been a lot of time for blog posts.  Here’s a quick video of Emily screening the other day.  The soil was wet after the rain making the process a bit tedious.  What appear to be globs of mud at the end are actually artifacts.  After washing, they turned out to be a piece of ceramic and a couple of lithics.

What’s beneath the surface?



After mapping the microtopography of the island’s surface, we’re finally looking beneath leaf litter into the soil.  Coring, poking ~3cm diameter holes into the island along

Wmnson North Cores

Soil Profiles

transects, gives us a quick peak into what the soils look like.  We carefully record the small variations in the soil color (using the legendary Munsell color chart*) and texture (sandy? silty? loamy? clay-y?).  These profiles can help us figure out where the edge of island really is, how much above the water table the island rises and, along with other data,  they can help us determine which spots would be best to open an excavation unit.


Here in the Swamp, we also screen the soil.  It’s rare to find an artifact in a core.  Seriously:  what are the chances of bringing up an artifact when you randomly pop a 3cm hole into a 42 square mile area?  Out here, with the thousands of years of human interaction with the changing landscape, it happens often enough to be worth the effort.

We have found bigger artifacts (not in the cores) as well on the islands like the fire cracked rock and stone tools in the photo.


*punk archaeologist Andrew Reinhard riffs on the joys of the Munsell in that article


It was the end of the day.  I was at back at the truck, in the middle of the Technu bath and tick check ritual.  In the distance, I heard a deep voice shouting.  Odd.  No other vehicles were parked along the road (it’s a straight road and one can see quite far).  Then, bushes crashing.  The frogs and birds in the neighborhood erupted into a cacophony of warning calls.  I threw my pack into the truck, hopped in and scrambled for a camera expecting an imminent stampede of I knew not what.

Nothing came.  The birds and frogs settled down but the shouting continued, this time from above.  Apparently, the local black bear didn’t approve of my music choices (or maybe it was my singing).  It was up a tree some distance away expressing its discontent.  I opted to  finish my business elsewhere.

If you’ve ever wondered what a grumpy bear sounds like, here you go.

Note: We know we are working in a bear area and we do take appropriate precautions.

A New Phase of Fieldwork

We’re back in action in the Swamp!  A brief scheduled break grew in to a couple weeks of waiting for an unexpected bureaucratic speed-bump to resolve.  It was a ‘now’/’just now’/’now now’* sort of situation.

The Swamp has embraced summer in our absence.  It’s hot and humid, to be sure.  The real indicator, though, is the return of summer residents like biting flies (the black and white jumbo jet variety AND the orange and black stealth fighter kind), mosquitoes, gnats and ticks.

With the mapping largely complete, we move into a new phase of fieldwork.  This week’s goal is a soil profile of the islands.  We’re poking holes in the ground at regular intervals along transects, bringing up a small column of soil in order to understand the stratigraphy (soil layers).  We’re also using the evening hours to wash and catalogue artifacts.  More on those later.  😉


Bear tracks in the mud.


*South African phrases indicating how far into the future something will happen.  None of them mean ‘in this very instant.’