From the Swamp to NYC

Swamp display

View from the Dismal Swamp display at the WINGS gala, Chelsea Pier.  Note the two amazing 3d printed artifacts courtesy of the DCPL FabLab.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Manhattan to participate in the WINGS WorldQuest Gala and Forum.  The Gala was a celebration of scientists-and-explorers-who-are-women, especially the six new WINGS fellows (Beate Liepert, Sheila Ochugboju, Kristen Marhaver, Juliana Machado Ferreira, Marla Spivak, and Hope Jahren- read about them here).  Six of us Flag Carriers also officially returned our expedition flags (you can find our expedition reports here).  The Forum gave us all a chance to learn about each others’ work, to chat, and to have a robust conversation about sexual harassment many women face in research and higher education (see, for example, #SAFE13 and Hope’s piece here).



Flag Carriers Return!  (photo credit

Interestingly, despite the event not being advertised as “women-only,” the only person at the Forum who did not identify as a woman was the man managing the sound system.  It is absolutely critical to have men (researchers and not) in attendance at events like this one showcasing women in science as we all work toward greater gender equity in research environments.  At the same time, there is a special power and magic in women discussing their work and work environments with fewer gender-based issues to worry about in the moment.  Both are necessary and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the latter.


I left the Forum so inspired, emboldened and fired up that I walked right through Times Square, and even paused long enough to take a few photos, on my way back to the hotel.  (Trust me: for me, that’s a bigger deal than you think.)

Thanks to WINGS WorldQuest, the Fellows and the Flag Carriers!

(I’ll post the video from the display in a separate post.)


After the Floods

Earlier this month, Hurricane Matthew churned its way up the east coast after devastating Haiti.  Coastal communities from Florida to Virginia experienced flooding and storm damage, but perhaps not as badly as anticipated.  The flooding in inland North Carolina, though, was massive, killing at least 26 people, and damaging crops, homes, and cultural resources.
As the Matthew-spawned rains in Virginia rushed downstream, off the Scarp and toward the ocean, the water level in the Great Dismal Swamp rose and rose and rose.

That’s what wetlands are for, right?   Access to the Refuge was cut off for several days and the Refuge crews have since been working very hard to clear roads and trails of downed trees, stranded fish, and  washed out spots.  Much to my surprise and delight, Ella and I got the go-ahead to try to visit our site over the weekend.  I say ‘try’ because nobody knew whether the canal roads as deep into the swamp as we wanted to go were passable, or whether our ‘island’ was still an island.

could be worse

It really could be a lot worse.

As it turns out, the roads were in pretty good shape, apart from a couple of rather large trees blocking the way.  Not knowing what we’d find, we carried minimal equipment, scrambled rather inelegantly over the trees, and wandered up the road to our “trail.”  It was more like a “wade” than a trail: the Swamp at its swampy best.  More downed trees (we must check out the root masses) and few unexpectedly deep holes later, we arrived on the island to find the site in better-than-expected condition.

The soils were wet to be sure (Suffolk received upwards of 10 inches of rain in a day during the storm), and a few large branches had fallen (one skewered itself more than a foot into the ground!) but the tarp was still covering the units and the walls were very much in tact.  Our island’s status as an ‘island’ is confirmed, even in times of very high water!  Yay!

Ella cleaning up

Ella cleaning up.

We did a little clean-up work in the main excavation area and managed to open one new unit.  Pushing the still-wet soils through the 1/16th inch mesh screen was slow-going indeed but worth the effort for the artifacts we found.
While we wait for the soil to dry a bit more, swampscapes goes on the road this week to a different kind of wild place: New York City.  Stay tuned!

Now in 3D!

If you’ve heard me talk about a certain set of fossils in the last year or so, you’ve probably also heard me rave about the DC Public Library FabLab and the amazing bones they’ve printed for me.  Today it was swampscapes turn in the FabLab – creating 3D digital models of artifacts.


A bottle glass fragment on the scanner.  Thanks to Adam for all the help!

The NextEngine scanner and software did most of the work: directing a laser to generate point clouds with tens of thousands of points for each artifact and processing the data into a nifty image.  This is not a speedy endeavor.  One large stone tool required almost 2 hours to scan and process.

It’s worth the wait, though.  Some small details stand out more clearly in the scans.  (Check out the net impressions on the outer surface of the tiny handmade ceramic rim fragment below).  And, the scans can travel to conferences and events while the artifacts themselves rest safely back in the AU lab.

Plus, it keep us entertained while we wait for the Swamp roads to dry out after rains from Hurricane Matthew last week.  More scans to come…stay tuned.

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.  😉


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.