Excavating our Feature 2

Throughout the time we’ve spent at Morven Farm, we’ve uncovered some interesting artifacts. These artifacts help shape our knowledge of how the previous residents of Morven lived and interacted with one another.
The inhabitants of this farm, George Haden and his family, were tenant farmers for William Short. They most likely lived on Morven during the late 1700s/early 1800s. Throughout this time period, white cultural groups were making a name for themselves. They believed themselves to be superior to the Indians and black slaves. Judging by some of the artifacts we’ve found, the Hadens could fall into this category. Although they were only tenant farmers, their ethnicity allowed them to feel like they were part of a higher social class, on the same level as their landlord, William Short, and his friend, Thomas Jefferson. Some of the ceramics we’ve found on site, such as the Royal-edged whiteware, could point to this feeling of belonging to a higher social class. The inhabitants of Morven might have tried to show off their status by buying imported ceramics, so guests that came to their farm would be impressed.

Throughout the field school, we were looking for the foundation of the house. We were unsuccessful in that endeavor, but, however, in one of the units, we discovered a feature. A feature is a discoloration in the soil that could indicate the presence of a previous structure. Examples would be a post hole, the foundation of a house or maybe a cellar floor. We subsequently decided to follow the feature, opening up two units on either side of the first in order to see more of it. After mapping the floor and the profiles of the unit, taking Munsells of the difference in soil color, we divided the feature in half using small, hooked poles and string. We marked the feature in half so that only one side could be excavated at a time. This allowed us to see and map the profile of the feature. We took opening elevations with the total station, then began excavating the feature as a separate context.

Instead of shovel-shaving down a few tenths then evening it out with trowels as our excavating method, we only shaved off the dirt with trowels, thus allowing us to determine the exact shape of the feature. When excavating a large artifact, such as cow bone, we shave around it with a trowel, making sure the entire feature is kept even, then pedestal it and lift it gently out of the unit. We used this technique when excavating the pieces of the Dutch oven and cow bones.

Inside the feature, we discovered multiple shards of window and bottle glass, pearlware, creamware, stoneware, earthenware, nails, pieces of barrel strapping, copious amounts of charcoal, cow bones, an animal’s tooth and parts of what appears to be a Dutch oven. It’s possible that the feature was caused by a naturally occurring ravine in the field. We think that the previous inhabitants of Morven might have used the ravine as a midden, throwing their refuse into it then later covering it up. Because the ravine is a natural feature, it is not cultural. However, the artifacts inside and the way people used to use the ravine are cultural.

-Kira Sedberry ’14


Excavating our Feature 1

In our last week of field school we had a number of exciting discoveries that have expanded our understanding of the site’s history and excavation in the future. As we wrapped up the final units, excavation of the connected test units 29 and 37 allowed the entire group to experience their first major feature excavations. As is procedure, the large stain in the middle of the unit was bisected and excavated in halves. The feature is bisected so that the excavators can get a clean profile of the entire feature from top to bottom.

Throughout the excavation, we were most interested in the number of large artifacts pulled from the unit. In situations like this, it is assumed that the feature is possibly an old trash pit, but definitely from an area that was not disrupted by plows. To mention a few of the items, the feature included two large bones, three large pieces of metal and a large piece of ceramic.

While we were hoping to find more domestic features, this discovery helped us with understanding the landscape of site D. When the entire unit was excavated, it became obvious that the unit was on top of a trench that was most likely naturally made. In many cases, these naturally occurring trenches are used similarly to a landfill today. While this helps us with the artifacts and landscape, it tells us little about the types of people or buildings there.

While the stain was a successful excavation, it helped us more for practice than for solid information. Hopefully with continuing work we will be doing there this summer, we’ll be able to discover more solid evidence of George Haden’s home and possible outbuildings.

-Caroline Huber ’12

No Site is an Island

“No man is an island” John Donne once stated, referring to the idea that no individual can ever truly live in isolation. We each constitute and actively participate in our society; we each have complex and strong ties to one another. The same idea could be applied to archaeology and its role in interpreting the past.While each individual archaeological site can reveal a great deal by itself, the true value and beauty of archaeology comes from the ability to use information from many sites and sources to discover broader connections and gain new insights.

Examining a single site can reveal a great deal about the individuals who lived there, such as how they spent their income, how they used their resources, and how they performed daily tasks. However, using multiple information sources such as other sites and historical documents can present a richer picture and greater understanding. An intriguing example is the main house at Morven Farm, a structure built for merchant David Higginbotham, who was wealthy enough to rival or at least draw close to many of the local gentry. Higginbotham was able to even hire the same architect, Martin Thacker, who built Redlands for the Carters. Building one’s house in the latest style and decadence of the time was the perfect display of power and affluence, but social customs constrained Higginbotham. Despite his wealth, Higginbotham was still a merchant, and custom dictated he build his house in a manner befitting his social role. Thus, even though he had the means to construct a house similar to the Carter’s, Higginbotham had to limit his design to one befitting a merchant. Without documented evidence and information from the Carter house, the story of the Higginbotham house would be incomplete.

Juxtaposed against the decadence of the main house is the George Haden site, also on Morven Farm. A white tenant farmer living in the 1790s and 1800s, Haden and similar tenant farmers formed a social class of which we know little. The daily life, material culture, and even living spaces of such farmers have been poorly documented and ill-studied. Our work on the Haden site has showed promise by revealing a little of how tenant farmers lived, through artifacts such as nails, buttons, glass, lime, and earthenware. We can compare such findings to similar sites and to other, perhaps better-studied sites, such as Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. For example, in many of the test units at the Haden site we found a great deal of lime, a fact that in isolation offers little information about its function or history. However, letters and various documents show that Thomas Jefferson was experimenting with plaster and lime as fertilizers for planting, and that he and William Short, the owner of Morven Farm, were discussing and implementing such procedures. Excavation at Poplar Forest also shows large amounts of lime in the soil. Thus, it is very possible the lime at the George Haden site, far from being an anomaly, was the result of Short’s and Jefferson’s agricultural experimentation. Focusing on a specific site can be beneficial, but just as with their human occupants, archaeological sites are joined by networks of society, family, and history.

Had John Donne been writing of archaeological interpretation, he might have revised his maxim to “No site is an island.” Just as their human occupants were embedded and woven into a network of customs, rules, and relationships that render individuals never truly solitary, archaeological sites are rich with connections to other sites, documents, and even oral histories. To focus on one site and ignore such associations would be attempting to fashion an island from a continent, and disregard a broader, more vivid picture.

Historical information for the Higginbotham house and Haden site from Laura Voisin-George. Information from Poplar Forest from the Poplar Forest Archaeology Team.

Blogging for Archaeology

The blog is a modern tool in comparison with the field of archaeology and the tools that it usually employs. The factor of time difference may be enough to put the two at odds because archaeology does not have a history of being utilized with blogging and sometimes new and different combinations just do not work. But when blogging and archaeology are combined they create profound and useful analysis and they complement each other while covering a board spectrum of topics in short but thorough passages. I believe that this year’s W&L field school has done a great job in presenting new and old information for a public audience. Reading all the blog posts that the class has written is eye opening because it clarifies some confusion I had over sampling methods and it also points out ideas that I had not though of yet about theories on the site. I also appreciate all the detail that everyone has put into explaining how archaeology actually gets done and why the methodology we used at Morven Farm on Site D works. When someone who may have never visited a historical archaeological site reads the blogs that we have written they will gain a sense of what an archaeologist does and how they think about things. But then I would have to recommend that they get themselves out to a dig site ASAP, because it is a great experience and there is nothing quite like it.

Blogging overall is a fun way to examine topics that we talk about all day long on site. When we get a chance to sit down and sort through all the thoughts, theories, and knowledge that have been swimming in our heads and write it down for others to read it is rewarding. Upon placing our blog posts online they become basically permanently public and that is great for reaching audiences that one would not normally reach. Blogging helps to make the field school experience much more real because the assignments are not just for you to dig, read, write, and be graded. The assignments are for you to understand why and how you are digging, read and make connections to your experience, ask questions, write about what you have learned, share what you have been thinking about with a lot of people, and then be graded. Through the sharing that goes on with blogging you are held accountable for the information that you need to gather and comprehend. Technology in an academic setting can sometimes just be a hindrance but blogging has proven itself to be an aid to enhancing the experience of digging at Site D. It is a better writing assignment than an essay because it is less pressure than cramming in a paper after being in the sun for eight hours a day and being away from a library. Also blogging can be more informative than a paper could be because although the posts are shorter they are more in depth and focused on one subject of interest and they are more fun to write and I think that comes across in the end product. The readings that get assigned for class helps to inform the background knowledge that we need to make sense of the framework and history of our methodology in the field and make for a better post. Blogging also allows the blogger and digger to be proud of their work and share what the field school has been uncovering and learning while the experience is still unfolding. I for one was happy to be able to blog about what was going on at Site D while the field school was still in the midst of finding fascinating artifacts, perfecting our troweling techniques, learning to working as a team, and considering and debating upon the yet unknown past of Site D at Morven Farm. Maybe our lab buddies will help us learn more.

Comparing presenting to the visitors that we get on site including archaeologists, researchers, fellow university students, and children, blogging does not get to be as interactive but it is much more permanent. There is also the difference between what the blogger wants to talk about and what the visitor wants to learn about, and questions often times depends on how much they know about archaeology of a plow zone site to begin with. So subjects change depending on who is in charge of the discussion but there is usually overlap of interests and then a discussion can really get going. And if there is one thing that our field school likes almost as much as troweling or shovel shaving of a tenth of a foot it is talking about the field school. So please feel free to leave a comment on our blogs.

-Victoria Cervantes ’14

White Ceramics, White Tenant Farmers

There have been many interesting discoveries and a lot learned in the four short weeks of the field school. From learning the tools of the trade, to how and why archaeologists dig the way they do, it has been a very rewarding experience. However beyond learning the day to day operations of the field school, it is important to remember that as archaeologists the goal is to better understand the past. Therefore it is important to know how what is found on the dig contributes to the greater knowledge of the area.

The population that is of interest to the field school is late seventeenth and early eighteenth century tenant farmers living on Morven Farms. The goal of the field school is to better understand this segment of early American population that has received less attention than the two extremes of the population; the extremely influential, such as Thomas Jefferson, and the extremely mistreated, such as the slaves. While there are many theories surrounding this population, and many facets of their lives that are poorly understood, one interesting facet of their life that the field school helped illuminate was how they self-identified, and what other members of the population they considered their equals.

The information most useful to helping establish how the tenant farmers may have viewed themselves is the kind of earthenware found on the site. The earthenware and the refined earthenware especially, can help determine how the tenant farmers may have viewed themselves because of the social indicators that much of the refined earthenware plays a role as. For example by finding polychrome pieces or cream-ware and pearl-ware that has a stamped pattern which is indicative of a piece made in a factory in England, one can deduce that it was important for the tenant farmers to maintain the most current forms of earthenware. While it may have been cheaper to buy or produce plainer wares, the need to identify with the Caucasian ethnic group led the tenant farmers to value the finer forms of pottery. It was important for the tenant farmers to recognize an identity that is framed within their ethnic group, so non-white populations, who were being used as slave labor, could become viewed less as people and more as another means of production. While the tenant farmers themselves may not have benefited as greatly from the slave system as the larger plantation homesteads, by playing into the social roles of the time they could gain a higher social standing than by the wealth they produced alone. There is much still to be learned about the middling classes that existed around the founding of our nation, but by working at sites like Morven more is learned every day.

-Zachary Huey ’13

A Brazilian Archaeologist’s Thoughts on Virginia Historical Archaeology

The field school in Charlottesville has been an amazing experience in multiple ways. All archaeological projects that I have been involved with before this one have been mostly focused on ancient Brazilian pottery, especially from the Amazon region.

I came to join the W&L spring dig with a great expectation about the methods and techniques applied in the field in a different country, and I have been learning a lot. Even more than that, I am developing an interest in a new archaeological area – Historical Archaeology – which I had not encountered before.

Digging a historical site in Virginia is different than digging a pre historical site in Brazil, but the principles are the same in both places and I found it pretty familiar around here. The way that we string the units, get the elevations and make meticulous records describing everything that happens in each context are pretty much the same. The way that we built carefully straight profiles, paid attention to every change in the soil (like color and texture changes), and look for features are also similar. However, in my country, we don’t use the shovels that I enjoyed learning how to use (they’re so practical!). We also usually dig in artificial 10-cm levels in the Amazon, while here we are following the three natural layers of this particular area (topsoil, plow zone and subsoil, respectively).

Also, the artifacts that we are finding here are completely different. We found buttons; nails; table, window and bottle glass; beads; pipe stems; burned bones; refined earthenware and stoneware that made us pretty excited, even if we did not find any house structure yet (we still have a few more days and we are keeping our hopes up).

1. pipe stem, button and bead
2. window glass
3. wine bottle glass
4. window glass
5. utilitarian stoneware
6. table stoneware
7. creamware
8. pearlware
9. shelledge blue pearlware
10. shelledge green pearlware
11. polychrome pearlware
12. nails
13. phyllite

I’m very glad that I could come and see how people are doing archaeology around here and at this point of field work I have made not only new colleagues, but also a lot of good friends. I hope I can dig with the Washington & Lee crew again someday (maybe in Brazil, who knows).

Plow Scars and People

In the past weeks we’ve focused more on the items found and the methods used in order to find them. But, what’s the bigger picture? While we know the brief history of this site, the excavations here will, in the future give us a better story. So far, we are aware that this land, when owned by William Short, was used as an experiment. William Short was against slavery, so his dream for Morven was to prove that white tenant farmers’ work, and not that of slaves could run America. At site D, we are attempting to find the home of George Haden, one of the tenant farmers whose home was mapped there.

Long after the time of George Haden, Morven farm was owned by the Kluge family and used as a stud farm. When the Kluge’s owned the farm, the field at site D was plowed for years. The years of plowing churns up the soil and therefore the artifacts in it, creating the thick artifact-rich layer we call the plow zone layer.

The plowing displaces the artifacts in a vertical manner allowing for multiple years of artifacts to be in the same stratigraphic layer. This creates an artifact and stone rich layer that can be multiple tenths of a foot deep. While we know of the plowing from the appearance of most of our second contexts, the first solid evidence of plowing was unearthed this week in unit 28. We found two plow scars in the Eastern side.

A plow scar is a feature left by the uneven movement of the plow through the top and sub soils. The plow scars were excavated separately from the other contexts, but no artifacts were found in them. However, while they lacked artifacts, the fact that we had plow scars means we were correct in our assumptions of post-Haden-era plowing. While we haven’t found any domestic features yet, it will be interesting to see if anything pops up in the final week. Perhaps units 29 and 37 will provide us with something!

-Caroline Huber ’12

May 2018
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