A few Swamp-related articles


AU just posted this short article about the swampscapes project:


If you haven’t seen it yet, do also read this great article in Smithsonian Magazine about my doctoral supervisor Dan Sayers and the Great Dismal Swamp.

Why all the fuss right now?  The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in about 10 days.  Dan has worked hard with the curators over the past several years to create an exhibit about maroons communities in the Dismal.  It will feature artifacts from his dissertation work and will highlight one of the many ways Africans and African-Americans resisted enslavement.  Congratulations, Dan!

For more information about the Masters of Arts in Public Anthropology program at American University where several MA students (including yours truly) have conducted research related to the Dismal, click here.




*Thanks to Jill Scott for first using that phrase in a FB post today.

I’d intended to write


I see two distinct soil zones in this test pit, plus a root and 3 artifacts.  Large pieces of charcoal suggest we’ve caught the western edge of a fire pit.

today about ‘reading’ the soils in the swamp:  feature soils versus living surface soils versus just dirt, and what is up with that orange patch of soil crossing the trench.

Then, Facebook reminded me Homo naledi was announced one year ago today.  The fossils are from an ancient human relative and were found deep in a cave in South Africa.   I’ve been privileged to be part of the Rising Star team as one of six scientists chosen in 2013 to excavate the then newly discovered fossils.  Rising Star now includes scores of scientists all over the world specializing in exploration, geology, skeletal morphology (hands, feet, pelvis, vertebrae, teeth, etc.), reconstruction, 3D scanning, ecology, education…too many


Full-sized 3D printed Homo naledi hand in actual Becca hand.

to list here.  Their analyses have revealed, and will continue to reveal, many details about what Homo naledi were like in life (bipedal with tool-capable hands, for example) and how they died.  I hear more papers are coming out soon from the team and look forward to reading them.

A journalist came to visit me in the Swamp today.  It seemed fitting that on the anniversary of the big H.naledi reveal and the ensuing media frenzy, I could put my Rising Star science (and archaeology) communication training to the test.

Happy Anniversary to Homo naledi and to the entire Rising Star team!




Wildlife Encounters



One does not often get the chance to see an osprey so close.

Today’s wildlife encounters started at the entrance gate.  I hopped out of the truck and climbed through the big iron gate to reach the lock box.  There, on the ground, was a lifeless osprey.  I reported the bird to Refuge HQ and later heard the law enforcement ranger and biologists were investigating cause of death.  Critters die in the Refuge all the time but it is unusual to find them in such public areas.

I’d been wondering about my bear friend.  We saw no sign of him back in July and the site remained undisturbed while we waited out the heat.  Didn’t see any evidence of bear last week either.  Arriving on site today, though, there was no doubt the bear is still in the neighborhood.  Tarps were strewn all over the island complete with a few claw tears.  And, the bucket was crushed.  Looks like the bear tried to sit on it!


What a mess!  One tarp was about 10 meters away in the woods.

In early afternoon, I noticed increased rustling in the tops of the trees.  Soon, dozens of birds (alive this time) came from the swamp north of the island and settled in the trees around the excavation.  They moved on after a few minutes but we’ve never been a stop on the bird tour before while working.

The last encounter of the day came on the walk out when a very, very tiny eastern kingsnake (not venomous) was in the path.  It was alive, too, but didn’t seem anxious to go anywhere.


I was not willing to put my hand or foot in the photo for scale.  The leaves and sticks give an idea of the tiny snake’s size.



The glass has been heat-affected.  It looks like it melted then cooled on an uneven surface.

For all the lithics and pottery we’ve found in historic soil layers, we have been a bit thin on ‘outside world materials.’  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  Good thing: we don’t expect maroons or others seeking refuge in the Dismal to have much access to manufactured ceramics, white clay tobacco pipes, iron implements, glass or other consumer items so prevalent in the daily lives of people participating in the economy outside the Swamp.  Not finding many (compared to lithics or pottery) at the site bolsters that theory.

Bad thing:  We want to find them because many outside world materials can be diagnostic, or easily date-able, artifacts.  We know when certain decorations on plates were manufactured or most popular, for instance.  Their presence on the site would carry important social implications, too.  Were they trade goods?  Did someone bring them when they fled into the Swamp?  Were they acquired through other means?


The enamel-like layer is a product of weathering and decomposition.  I’ve not seen such thick and full-coverage crust.  Do you know about such weathering?  Message me!

Ella found the first bit of glass- a tiny shard of olive green glass- in the screen.  Then, I came upon a large piece as I troweled the unit.  It was so exciting I had to cover the fragment with my glove so I could clean up the unit for in situ photographs without being tempted to poke at it or pick it up.  Must. Do. Good. Science.  (even when you’re anxious to pick up the super-cool thingy)



What’s in the unit today?

IMG_0155update 3 Sept: made the video viewable and gave it a soundtrack

After waiting out the summer heat, we’ve been anxious to get back to the Swamp to expose more of the artifact-rich feature we were working on at the end of July.  Ella and I left DC early this morning with plans to dig a new unit or two by dinner time.  After bailing out the trenches and happily finding dry soils under the tarps, we experienced a slight delay in the form of a young, very grumpy snake.  Our new friend seemed quite content in the trench but our lack of fluency in parsel-tongue made negotiations difficult.  We gave it a wide berth but managed to get some nice shots using the video camera’s zoom.

Oh yeah…we opened those units.  Find of the day: a large piece of burnt olive green bottle glass.  More on that later.  😉