AWOL

We’re sorry.  We’re very sorry indeed.  In fact, if you could see our faces right now, they would probably look a little something like this:

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A little over a month ago now, we brought this blog back from the dead and for about a two-week period gave you, our devoted readers, a fair chunk of fresh content (albeit from last field season).  And then we just up and went all incommunicado after the first week of July.  And for that we apologize.

The thing is, right after Canada Day, our field season kicked into high gear, and has remained there for the past month.  Because of that, we’ve had to place blogging on the shelf for a little while.  And now we’re (hopefully) going to make up for it.  While our field season is by no means over, with the rest of August and some of September yet to play out, we are going to attempt to make a concerted effort to get some new material posted.  And when I say new, I mean stuff that’s been happening this year.  We won’t make you wait so long this time.  Pinky swear.

I won’t spill the beans here, but I will say that there should be some good posts coming your way soon, including an update on our second field season at Orwell Corner, an investigation of a shipwreck, and a brief (and perhaps somewhat inglorious) return to Pointe-aux-Vieux, with a few odds and ends tossed in along the way.  I might even start harassing some of our other crew members to provide us with their own commentary on the field season, and their research.  We’ll see how it goes.

Well, I guess that’s it for the moment.  See you guys in the next post!

P.S. – About the title:  As I’m sure you know, AWOL is an acronym for Absent Without Leave; however, I’ve also decided that it can stand for Archaeologists Will Occasionally Lag (when it comes to writing).  It kindasorta works.

We’ve Got the Moves Like Quixote: Tilting at a (Acadian) Windmill

Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.”

“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”

The 17th century work Don Quixote by Cervantes is a literary classic.  But what the heck does Don Quixote have to do with PEI archaeology?  Well, it was in the dog days of August last year when we decided to go looking for an Acadian windmill not that far removed from our site at Pointe-aux-Vieux.  It was noted on period maps of the area, and the landowner was more than willing to have us take a look.  Although we did not have any previous experience with windmills in an archaeological context, we thought that finding evidence of such an important community structure would be a nice addition to our work at PAV.

On a Wednesday (15th), we piled into our rental, along with all our field gear, and hit the road for the Low Point region.  After being shown to the site by the landowner, we set up a base line, after which we marked off two areas, a 5m x 1m trench parallel to the line, and a 5m x 3m grid (broken up into ten 1m x 1.5m units) perpendicular to the line.  We decided to begin with the 5m x 3m area, and after struggling to remove the sod, we struggled even more to trowel.  PEI had been experiencing a bit of a heat wave at that time, and as a result, the soil was baked almost to the point of impenetrability.  Even when it was decided to bring out the shovels to move past this baked layer, we quickly discovered that 1) the going was not much faster, and 2) that the stratigraphy of the soil was showing it to be completely sterile, reflected also by the lack of artefacts uncovered.  By the end of that first day, we were dirty, sunburned, and completely worn out.

The next day (16th), we were back at it with more shovel testing, but the situation had not improved, and with essentially nothing to show for our work (aside from blisters), it was decided to wrap up the project until a later date, when conditions might be more conducive to excavation.  We took records of our work, packed up the gear, and set our sights on the Gold Cup Day long weekend.

It might seem strange to write about a project that was less than successful, but in archaeology, as in life, you just can’t win them all.  We went looking for a windmill and came up empty (although the futile shoveling was pretty dang character-building, in my opinion).  In the end, you simply have to take an experience like this and learn from it, put it behind you, and move on to the next project.  But now I’m just rambling, so here are a few pictures to put a stop to that.

P.S. – In case you’re wondering about the title, it’s a take on the song title “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5.

Collaboration in Stanhope

For the first week of August last year, we were given the opportunity to collaborate with Parks Canada on a site of theirs located in Stanhope, a community on PEI’s north shore.  I won’t say too much about it here, because you can read all about the project on the Stanhope Historical Society’s website by clicking the link below.

http://www.stanhopecovehead.pe.ca/archdig.php

(There’s nothing about last year’s work yet, but it was basically a continuation of what was done in previous field seasons.)

It was great to be able to partner with Parks on this excavation, and a good time was had by all.  Here are a few pictures of our field crew in action.

Orwell Corner Historic Village, 2012

While we worked on a number of smaller projects last summer, our big one was an excavation at Orwell Corner Historic Village that spanned nearly two months, beginning in July and wrapping up at the end of August.  If you’ve never been, Orwell Corner (part of the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation’s museum system) is a fantastic site that provides a glimpse into life in a late 19th c. agricultural community on PEI, complete with general store/Victorian-era home, blacksmith’s shop, and working barns, and an awesome interpretive center that focuses on the history of agriculture in the area.  It’s a very popular site, and a must-visit if you get the chance.

The site we worked on was located behind the interpretive center, and just outside the village.  It was brought to our attention by the site director, who had been keeping his eye on it for some time.  Consisting of a large depression obscured by vegetation, it certainly looked like a promising site, and although we had only planned to spend 1-2 weeks excavating, we quickly changed our minds when we began to dig in and realized that it was chock full of artefacts.  We don’t have an exact number yet, but it’s definitely in the thousands.

At the outset, we weren’t exactly sure what we were excavating; however, subsequent archival research helped to determine that the depression was associated with a house dating back to the 1870s.  I’ll spare you the nitty gritty of the research, and say that the house was occupied by numerous families between its construction and the late 1920s, when it looks to have been abandoned.  Here is how the property appeared in Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island (1880):

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Aside from the wealth of artefacts uncovered, this site proved unique in two other respects.  The first is that, for the first time, we’ve actually been able to conduct archival investigation into a site and its occupants, attaching names (no faces…yet) to it.  It might seem a strange thing to say; however, the other sites we’ve worked on (Acadian and aboriginal) simply do not present this opportunity.  We might know who the people were in a general sense, but with the site in Orwell, we were able to take things to a whole new level.  Knowing the names of past inhabitants really helped to enhance the experience, and although we didn’t find any artefacts we can attribute with confidence to particular individuals, the artefacts we’ve found have taken on added significance because of it.

The second thing that makes this site unique is its location.  Not only is it situated in a historic village, but it is also extremely accessible to the public, being just off the road on the way into the village.  As a rule, the sites we’ve worked on have tended to be in the middle of nowhere (yes, even PEI has those places), and as a result, the public has been largely cut off from archaeology.  But at Orwell, this barrier has been smashed to pieces.  In the time that we were there, there was almost always a constant stream of visitors stopping by to see what we were up to.  Many were content to watch us work and ask questions, but for those who wanted more, we managed to get a bit of a public archaeology program set up, albeit an ad hoc one.  Still, it was a great opportunity for us to present our craft to the public, which ranged in age from young children to seniors, our oldest visitor being my then 95-year-old great-grandmother.

This week, we resumed excavations at Orwell for 2013, and have opened it up to the public again.  We’ve already had people stop by to visit and try their hand at archaeology, so if you’re interested, be sure to check us out!    Here are a number of pictures (field season 2012) to give you a sense of the site and the artefacts uncovered.

Pinette 2012

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This gallery contains 8 photos.

One of our objectives last field season was to complete several archaeological survey and testing projects across the Island. Here are a few snapshots from our work in Pinette. We were hoping to find the site of one of the … Continue reading

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Hog Island, a.k.a “Mosquito Mordor”, 2012

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This gallery contains 13 photos.

On May 28th, 2012, we kicked off our field season with a week-long excavation of a shell midden site on Hog Island, also known as George’s Island and by its traditional Mi’kmaq name of Pitawelkek. If you’ve ever spent any amount … Continue reading

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Good Things Come in Small Sizes

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I’d be “lion” if I said that I drew this myself.

The old saying “size doesn’t matter” couldn’t be more true when it comes to the artefacts excavated from an archaeological site.  Thanks to Hollywood and romantic notions of archaeology, people in general are under the impression that bigger is always better.  But while large artefacts might seem like they’re more important to the overall understanding of a site – and depending on what they are, they very well could be – the small stuff often seems to go unnoticed and under-appreciated in the grand scheme of things.  I suppose it makes sense in a way, given the fashion in which the human brain is wired; however, if you’ll recall your Aesop, it was the mouse that rescued the rough and tumble lion from the net.  And the lion was pretty dang grateful for it.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this.  Well, this time last year I came to learn just how valuable teeny tiny artefacts can be in the interpretation of a site, and how much information you can actually extract from them if you’re willing to give them a chance.

If there were two artefact varieties that characterized our final season at Pointe-aux-Vieux in 2011, they were faunal and lead shot, both of which were uncovered in (exceptional) abundance from an uber-organic patch of soil first exposed in 2010.  Whether we were finding them in situ or in the countless bags of soil we waterscreened, there just didn’t seem to be any end to them.  It’s almost as if everyone one that we found spawned about ten more.  Anyway, following what I can only assume was a hectic fall/winter/spring of cataloging thousands of artefacts (since I managed to escape that task), the next step was to divvy up the different categories of artefacts and compile an analysis for the site report.  That’s how I ended up dealing with everything arms-related (eg. Gunflints), including a few thousand pieces of lead shot.

I was going to say that I got “stuck” with everything arms-related, but I was only too happy to have that be the focus of my analysis.  The study of weapons, especially firearms, is a big passion of mine, so it was a natural fit; however, I really didn’t have any experience with analyzing lead shot, and had to spend quite a bit of time reading up on it.  I have to say, it’s fascinating stuff, and my new best friend in the world of artefacts.  It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

The thing about lead shot, however, is that it is a term that encompasses literally anything made of lead that is fired out of a gun barrel, ranging anywhere in size from a diameter of less than 1mm to a cannon ball fit for Mons Meg.

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Me ‘n Mons Meg (Edinburgh Castle – 2012)

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Lead shot fit for Mons Meg (Edinburgh Castle – 2012)

The lead shot I have been asked to analyze is the really small stuff, sometimes referred to as “buckshot” or “swanshot” or “birdshot”.  When you think projectiles, it certainly isn’t the first variety that comes to mind, unless you’ve grown up with BB guns.  Many people don’t think of projectiles being much smaller than the standard .69 cal musket ball, but they do exist, and they have a fascinating history to boot; however, if I get into that topic we’d be here all day, so to save on time, here’s the skinny:

Pre-1665:  Firearms (and their ammunition) have been continually evolving since the advent of the hand-held cannon in the 14th century, and are becoming increasingly popular on the battlefield.  As time has gone on, gun bores have become smaller, as has the ammunition.  The oldest variety of the small shot as we know it seems to have been made by cutting lead into small cubes, and then tumbling them in a barrel to (attempt to) get a more rounded shape.

1665:  Prince Rupert (yes, the Prince Rupert) devises a new and improved method for making small shot.  His idea?  Pour molten lead through a sieve, letting it fall into a container of cooling water.  Thanks to gravity (something they wouldn’t realize until after it was “discovered”), much more rounded shot was now able to be produced.  This process gave rise to the term “Rupert” shot.

1782:  William Watts, of Bristol, decides that he likes “Rupert’s” method.  He likes it so much, in fact, that he decides to take it to new heights – quite literally.  Realizing that the more time the shot is in freefall, the more spherical it will become, he builds the first shot tower, and thus is born “drop” shot.  Prince Rupert probably would have sued him for copyright infringement if such a thing existed at the time – and if Prince Rupert had still been alive, of course.

1665 and 1782 are really the key dates in the history of small shot.  In fact, not much has changed in the manufacturing process since 1782, and shot towers are still very much in use today.  Contemporary with “drop” shot was another method (or two depending on how you look at it): moulds.  If this was your method of choice, then you had two options.  You could either pour molten lead into a gang mould, which would make “stem” shot, so called because of the stem created by the manufacturing process.

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This isn’t the “stem” shot recovered from PAV. I got it from the Internets.

Or, you could use a two-part mould that would leave your shot with a seam around its circumference, and thus referred to as “seam” shot.

On the other hand, here's an example of actual "seam" shot recovered from PAV.

On the other hand, here’s an example of actual “seam” shot recovered from PAV.

As with shot towers, moulds are likewise still in use.

Alright, time to flash forward to the present.

Although our work at Pointe-aux-Vieux has finished, we’re still working on fine-tuning our artefact analysis for the final report, to be completed (hopefully) some time before 2013 comes to a close.  After last summer’s work with the lead shot from 2011, I thought that would be it; however, last October Claude, our most intrepid of volunteers who continually monitors the site, discovered on the beach directly in front of the site an enormous cluster of small shot, somewhere in the vicinity of five thousand pieces.  Because of the large amount found essentially in one spot (even if it wasn’t within the excavation proper), it was decided that they warranted analysis.  That’s where I came in, and where I’m at right now as I type this.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  Five thousand pieces of lead shot?  What the heck does that look like?!  And how would you ever go about getting information from it?  Well, to answer your first question, here’s a picture of Claude with the lead shot:

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Lead shot, anyone?

And as for your second question, one piece of shot at a time.  You might think it painstaking, but as Marcus Aurelius was fond of saying:  Σπευδε βραδεως (that one’s for you, Shalen).

When I first found out that I would be taking on this analysis, I came up with a methodology to keep things organized.  A quick examination helped to determine the presence of at least three varieties of shot (“drop” shot, “stem” shot, and “seam” shot), so I decided that I would break the collection up according to type.  And because I’m a masochist, I then thought that it would be even better if they could be further divided according to size, so on top of the three categories of type, I added 7 for size:

Diameter of:

<1mm

>1mm – 2mm

>2mm – 3mm

>3mm – 4mm

>4mm – 5mm

>5mm – 6mm

>6mm

If you’re keeping track of the math, we’re sitting at

3 (shot varieties) x 7 (size varieties per shot variety) = 21 different categories

(I have absolutely no idea if this is how it’s done by professionals.  All I know is that I’m anal about organization.)

When I started back in April, I decided to tackle division according to size first, given that it seemed to present a more daunting challenge than division according to type.  And I was right.  In fact, it was only at the end of last week that I was officially able to start on phase two (type).  While I’ve had to split my time between other projects along with this analysis, individually sizing five thousand pieces of shot takes some time, as you might imagine.  Especially when you’re using a homemade set of calipers:

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Post-It Notes to the rescue!

(Note:  We aren’t so impoverished that we can’t afford actual calipers.  It’s just that I didn’t have them at my disposal at the outset, and by the time I got my hands on them, I had become quite attached to my Frankenstein creation.)

Anyway, like I said, I’ve recently moved on to the second phase, and dividing by type is proving far easier than size.  I still have a ways to go yet, and with our field season just around the corner, I don’t think it likely that I’ll be working on my analysis much in the next few weeks.  I also don’t find it likely that you’ve appreciated having to read all of this, so I’ll finish this post by captioning a few pictures of my work with shot.  I promise my next entry won’t be as long.

Sincerely,

Isaac

a.k.a “General Danger”

a.k.a the guy from the 2011 pics with the bucket hat and God-awful tan lines.