Science! and Next Steps

We managed to get some science done before the weather got the better of us.  With the film crew in tow, we wandered out to one of the ‘new’ Virginia islands on a remarkably productive excursion.


I do not think that is what you think it is.  😉

Sure, the first artifact Dan discovered in the large tree root mass turned out to be… a dried out root.  It is the most well-documented root fragment in the entire Refuge, filmed in situ in 4K HD from every possible angle.

We’ll just call it  a practice run for the nifty quartzite tool we spotted nearby.


Do you see what I see? (the film crew didn’t either)

The real excitement came as we extended Trench 1 to expose more of a potential feature.  On my last visit to the island, I had uncovered an artifact-rich dark soil stain in the corner of a unit.  As we troweled down the neighboring unit, it became clear we were dealing with a roughly circular pit complete with charcoal, fire cracked rock, A BURNT NAIL* (early 19th century)!!, lithics and ceramics.  Could this be a fire pit?



Collecting little chemical clocks from the feature soil.  (an OSL sample)

Before exposing the entire pit, we seized the opportunity to take an OSL sample.  Optically Stimulated Luminescence is a dating technique that can tell us when the quartz in the soil last saw daylight.  Like the Nameless site where Dan used OSL with great success, this Virginia site is on a sandy island with plenty of tiny quartz grains.  One just has to ensure the soil is not exposed to the sunlight during collection.  We pound a capped length of PVC into an unexcavated wall of feature soil.  Securely capping the second end of the tube proved a bit tricky but we managed not to contaminate the sample.  Eventually, the OSL samples will go to a specialist lab and tell us the age of the pit.

The rest of the pit and the other Virginia islands will have to wait.  With temp indexes of 105-109 all week and thunderstorms in the forecast, the heat wave won.  We’ll come back in 6 weeks on a mission, ready to ‘move some dirt’ here on this island, map and test an island we visited back in the spring and expand our knowledge of this fascinating landscape.


Stay tuned.


*Fire/heat preserves iron and limits rust.  This nail fragment looks practically new.


South of the Dividing Line

Film crew JU

The film crew learning about the Nameless Site.  photo credit Justin Uehlein 

This weekend, we gathered a small who’s who of Dismal Swamp maroon archaeology to revisit the Nameless Site (that’s its name) in the southern Refuge.  Prof Dan Sayers, pioneer of archaeology in the Swamp interior,* organized the shindig and brought along a film crew for an upcoming TV documentary about maroons.**

Jordan Riccio, Justin Uehlein,  Karl Austin and I each excavated at Nameless over multiple seasons.

Emily and I have been concentrating our efforts over the last few months 32 km away in the northern Refuge so coming south was a great chance for comparative observations.

Great swamp view JU

A classic view of the path to Nameless.  photo credit Justin Uehlein

Nameless, at about 20 acres, is significantly larger than the northern islands.  It rises a bit higher out of the water too and boasts a more open understory.  Yet, the islands in the South and North have similar soil profiles, similar artifacts and similarly remote positions in the historic swamp.

Even though this was not a day for collecting hard data, the trek to experience the place again, to walk through the location of a large 17th-19th century maroon settlement and to catch up with colleagues was well worth the effort.

And, the film crew and all their equipment made it out of the swamp only a little worse for wear.


*Elaine Nichols (one of Joan Gero’s students) was the first archaeologist to study a site associated with Dismal Swamp maroons.  The island she investigated lies in a drained area of former swamp outside the Refuge, rather than in the extant morass.

**We’re told we can expect to see it in February 2017 for Black History Month.

Breaking trail


The WINGS expedition flag on an island somewhere in the Dismal Swamp with Becca Peixotto and Emily Duncan.

This week, we’ve been proudly carrying the WINGS WorldQuest expedition flag.  WINGS WorldQuest aims to

foster awareness of the contributions of women explorers, promote interest in the sciences, introduce exciting career opportunities and inspire people to be curious, thoughtful and engaged in our world.

Back in May, I wrote about how excited I am to be a part of these efforts.  The expedition flag took on an extra significance for me last week when we learned of the death of pioneering feminist archaeologist Joan Gero (Associate Professor Emerita, American University).  Throughout her career, Joan pushed boundaries of women in archaeology.  She challenged how gender was read and understood in the archaeological record.  She also interrogated archaeological practice itself highlighting gender bias in fieldwork and analysis, and the impact of those biases on how we interpret the past.  When Joan began as an archaeologist, women were rarely seen as leaders of field projects (see the many historical bios on trowelblazers for a sense of how women’s real work in the field was often marginalized).  Revisiting an earlier paper on the subject in 2008, Joan noted that gender disparities persist in archaeology even though

 [w]omen now participate more fully than before in collecting primary data in the field, and most excitingly, women show themselves to be excellent mentors for both female and especially male students. (1)

By all accounts, Joan was one of those excellent mentors.  She retired from AU before I started there but I was lucky to meet her on several occasions.  I am grateful to her and others in her generation of vocal feminist (social) scientists for breaking down barriers of theory and practice in archaeology.

Thanks to WINGS WorldQuest for recognizing how important it remains for women in field science and exploration to connect with each other, to reach out to and inspire young people, and to be seen as both women and scientists/explorers.


1  Gero, Joan.  Squeaks from the Underground: Archaeology by Gender.  Voices 9(1):25-27. p.26.

An Historical View of the Weather


Look before you sit down.  That’s a rattlesnake.

Let me be clear:  coming to the Swamp this week was not my idea. When we learned the trip was arranged for the last week of July, the crew’s reactions ranged from bemusement, to face-palms, to immediate stockpiling of frozen water bottles and cans of bug repellent.

Our wariness is supported by historical accounts.  In the middle of July 1781, the advancing British army reached Suffolk and the Dismal Swamp.  Along the way, enslaved people left plantations to join the British.  Everyone suffered from “‘heat so intense that one can hardly breathe'” (1).  The bugs must have been particularly bad that year because soldiers were described as looking “‘like people who were seized with smallpox'”(1).

We whine and wilt and and swat flies and try to drink as much water as we’re sweating out but at the end of the day, we go back to a shower and air conditioning.  The enslaved laborers who battled heat, humidity and thick undergrowth to clear only 1300 yards of survey path in a day in the summer of 1769 didn’t have that option (2).  The maroons who chose a life of relative freedom in the Swamp over a life of chattel slavery didn’t have that option.

To keep the temperature in perspective, I’ve been thinking about the winter of 1784.  That winter was so cold, it drove Tom and Lewis, two enslaved men who had fled the Dismal Plantation and been ‘lying out’ or marooning for several years, out of the Swamp.  They were jailed and punished at the Plantation but given shelter and rations even though the overseer admitted the men would flee again as soon as the weather improved (3).  It must have been a harsh winter indeed.

Going to the Swamp in its full summer glory gives all of us, I think, a better appreciation of the strength and determination of the people we’re studying out here.  We’ll never fully understand the experience of maroons like Tom and Lewis or the hardships they faced but a triple digit heat index does help develop our empathy and archaeological imagination.

1  Ewald Diary in Royster, Charles.  The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times (New York, Knopf 1999), 271.
2 Parker Papers in Royster, 149.
3 Royster, 290 and J. Collows to D. Jamison, 26 December 1784, DSLC Papers (Duke University Archives).

Lists and Tallies


Bear Resistant Packaging? (ha!)

When I proposed this project, I honestly hoped to find maybe a handful of artifacts to support an argument that people- ideally maroons but Native Americans, enslaved laborers, bootleggers, anybody- lived on islands I thought existed in the Swamp.  The islands are there for sure and the last few weeks of fieldwork have been incredibly productive.  We’ve opened two intriguing test trenches on one island (with features!), and cored and STP’d another island and its annex.  In the process, we’ve turned up a heap of artifacts.  So we’re back in the lab to make a little sense of it all.*

Numbers of artifacts without provenience or context don’t make for good analysis but totals and percentages can be fun.

Here are a few highlights from the catalogue:

The swampscapes catalogue currently includes more than 1000 artifacts (that’s two handfuls, at least!).

Princess Gloves b4

Disney Princesses vs Biting Flies.  They were the only gloves available in my size at the hardware store that day.

  • 52% are smaller than 1/4″ (that 16th inch screen is worth it!)
  • 32% are not “swamp available materials”
  • at least 14 different types of rock are represented, not counting variations in the quartz and quartzite categories (interesting because “no natural rock in the Dismal”)
  • faunal remains, including remnants of a possibly cooked turtle
  • grooved soapstone nugget and pottery sherds
  • modified stone tools
  • a variety of projectile points and other tools
  • glass bottles

On the surface (ha), we’ve got a multi-component site.  Digging deeper (sorry) into the catalogue, we can see similar patterns of likely reuse of ancient artifacts in the historic period as we see at other interior Swamp maroon sites.  Yay!

Fieldwork resumes with special guests the last week of July.

*Yeah, the lab also is an excuse to escape the heat and humidity and to give the fly bites a chance to heal.