Saturday, June 14, 2014

A gathering of facts and friends

It's quite strange to be alone, with near silence, in the middle of the day. For the past four weeks, nearly every daylight hour has been spent with students (authors of the previous blog posts), volunteers, and colleagues. But goodbyes have been said, the last student has left for home, and the kitchen at Land Hall is dark. I'll elaborate on my thoughts about the group later in this post, but I'd like first to review the archaeology that was accomplished during this field school at Fort Tombecbe.

At first, one month seems like ample time to get a lot done. But when broken down into just twenty-one days of digging, leaving room for rainy days and learning curves, it becomes clear that not every research goal will be met and that creative time management is essential. As outlined in the May 18 blog post, our goals were to recover more evidence about the French buildings themselves and what it was like to live there. Our excavations of the palisade trench confirm that the initial 1730's palisade was made of cedar posts set about two and a half feet deep into a trench cut into the chalk bedrock. Pieces of cedar posts, just as reddish brown as the day the trees were cut down, were found near the bottom of the trench. An interesting adaptation to the chalk bedrock was seen in the numerous rust stains on the bottoms and sides of the trench. It appears that posts were nailed directly into the chalk bedrock to help hold them in place. At some point, probably shortly after the English took possession of the fort in 1763, repairs were made to the palisade wall. The trench was widened toward the interior of the fort to accommodate new posts and rubble such as chalk blocks and bricks were sometimes thrown into the hole and around the posts as fill. After the English abandoned Tombecbe in 1768, whatever was not salvaged by local traders was left to rot. Eventually, there was little left of that thin cedar line that protected "civilization" from its enemies. The palisade would have become a long, linear depression, into which the surrounding soil would accumulate with every rain. Fortunately for us, that soil was full of the debris left by thirty-two years of French and English occupation. In addition to post fragments and rubble, the trench fill yielded clay pipe stems, bits of ceramics, nails, green wine bottle glass, tiny beads, and other items. 
A cross-section of the trench for the palisade wall. Orange spots on the floor and near the sides are stains from nails that held cedar posts in place.

Excavations at the bakery proved to be a bit of a puzzle this year. In 2012, we uncovered a portion of a wall that was made of square chalk blocks. The wall is located approximately where historic maps indicate the front wall of the bakery would have been. This year, we widened our view of the wall by another three feet. The wall itself is just cool to look at, as a substantial, intact architectural feature. Taken individually, each block of chalk may seem rather mundane, but looking closely, one can see chisel and saw marks on its sides. I love to point this out to visitors, most of whom find the marks as interesting as any artifact. I suppose it's not difficult to imagine a couple of guys with long saw, alternately pulling and pushing the teeth of the blade back and forth against a large chalk boulder. Each mark on a block represents specific actions of men from the eighteenth-century. But who were the men working so hard to make blocks for a bakery? Were they French? English? In the unit opened this year, the ground underneath and around the chalk wall was not the usual grayish white of the chalk subsoil. Instead, it was bright orange and brittle. Our trowels clanged when they hit it like they were knocking on metal. This is a tell-tale sign that the ground had been subjected repeatedly to heat. The orange chalk seems to have been contained within short berms of chalk, and in places, it was covered by a thin layer of ash and charcoal. We discovered a hearth! The fact that there is hearth -underneath- the front wall of the bakery demonstrates that the bakery had been rebuilt at least once. The first bakery and its hearth were destroyed and a new one built, though clearly not on the same alignment of the first. I suspect that the hearth served the original French bakery, and the chalk wall represents English efforts to rebuild it, though with considerably more substantial walls. A fascinating glimpse of everyday life was found in the bakery excavations. Within the ash associated with the hearth were numerous pieces of scrap lead and misshapen lead shot. As noted in the blog post from June 11, we think that soldiers, or someone with access to the bakery, was either making lead shot there or recycling wasters by melting them down for reuse.

We were very excited to open excavations in the area where the French and English barracks would have been. The building, intended for enlisted men, was about twenty by eighty feet long but most of its remains were covered over when the Spanish constructed Fort Confederation here in 1794. Previous excavations (Parker 1982) indicated that the Spanish earthworks, at least in part, were made by scraping up the remains of Fort Tombecbe into heaps and covering all with a layer of chalk rubble. We excavated a long trench, just one meter wide, that ran from the base of Confederation's earthworks and cut across where the original barracks was located. It was confirmed, as seen in the June 12 post, that a cap of chalk boulders made up the upper layer of the earthworks. Underneath, there is a confused jumble of chalk rubble, burned soil, and artifacts. Even within just the one meter "keyhole" that we had excavated, we could see individual loads of fill that had been dumped onto the earthworks, one bucket-full at a time. In the unit excavated further from the earthworks, we encountered a layer of soil that was absolutely full of nails. As they were found within the soil laying on their sides, rather than vertically or at any other angle, we determined that this portion of Fort Tombecbe's remains had been located underneath the barracks and may not have been disturbed by the construction of Fort Confederation. The nails may represent a burned roof. Directly under the layer of nails was a layer of dirt full of bones, including deer and cow, the remains of many meals that accumulated under the building. Further from the barracks, we opened a unit that held few artifacts, but did expose a portion of a small trench. Too close to the edge of a ravine to be a building, we suspect that this trench may have been for a small palisade wall erected there by the English. 

We have completed investigations of some parts of the site and opened new questions in others. I want to make it clear, however, that we do not plan to excavate large portions of Fort Tombecbe. Archaeology is, after all, a destructive process. As the students and volunteers, and hopefully our readers, have learned, it is a very careful, systematic, and well-documented destruction, because once these portions of soil are excavated, they cannot be put back or reassembled. Preserving the context of artifacts by keeping notes, measurements, photographs, and other records is critical to their value for informing us about the past. At this point, we have enough artifacts and records to assemble a a story about the construction and history of Fort Tombecbe that is not found in any library or archives. As with most archaeological projects, many of the big discoveries are yet to be made in the laboratory. We have many months of washing, labeling, and analysis.

None of this would be possible without the aid of students, volunteers, and a committed staff from UWA. Students can always be found, sure, but we are fortunate to have assembled another group who have plenty of cheerfulness, energy (even when the heat and humidity read 90), and curiosity. The challenges of dirt, bugs, heat, pinched nerves, dorm life, and paperwork were met with humor and creativity, if not full acceptance. If you have been reading this blog, you have probably already picked up on the strong camaraderie that kept this bunch going. Many thanks to Eleanor, Jean, Natalie, Lee, Tori, and B.J. And a big thanks to Boone, who didn't have to blog since he was a volunteer, but was no less a part of the group and had even the Texas Aggie saying "Roll Tide!" by the end of the project. The intrepid Ron "Rattlesnake" Stafford was his usual pleasant, helpful self, and I feel fortunate that he found his way to our dig. Tina Jones, the Dean of the Division of Educational Outreach, and Rob Riser of the History Department, have been among our biggest supporters, providing budget assistance, brisket, and the best pickled pears in the Black Belt. Black Belt Museum staff--Brian Mast, Emily Boersma, James Lamb, Monica Moore, John Hall, and Rosa Hall--were fully committed to this undertaking and deserve a lot of credit for its existence. A huge shout-out to Rosa for waking up before anyone else to get the coffee going and for often staying later than anyone else to see that the last fork was clean. She provided good food, expert first aid, and love. The Halls, Monica, and Tina ferried my children to daycare and helped make them comfortable with this crazy schedule, for which I am deeply grateful. To the residents of Sumter County, like Kay Stephens and Butch Watkins, whose welcoming hospitality and support make working here such a pleasure, thank you. 

The crew mugs for a final photo. Left to right: Brian Mast (UWA Black Belt Museum), James Boone (Alexander City, AL), Eleanor Kolb (Texas A & M), Tori Rothe (Cornell College), Brian (B.J.) Tingle (UWA), Lee Reissig (Texas State University), Jean Lammie (Univeristy of South Florida), Natalie Mooney (UWA), Emily Boersma (UWA Black Belt Museum)

And, finally, to our readers: we'd love to hear what you think about the project and the blog through your comments here. Thanks for reading!

-Ashley Dumas

Friday, June 13, 2014

Today was our last day on the site so we finished up profile drawings and back filled. There was a lot left to do so it was a busy day filled with screening and packing up the site. Also some last minute mapping was done and pictures were taken.

 Light Horse finishing his unit in the barracks!

Mapping the bakery on the last day!

Jean diligently mapping out units.

Back filling is rather simple you just put down your tarp as close to the edges in your unit as you can and then fill it with sand. You just have to be careful to leave enough slack so the sand does not pull the tarp all the way down and then spill into the unit. It’s important to back fill because if you want to come back to that unit at some point in the future it is well preserved.

The past four weeks have been an amazing experience with people I will never forget. Thank you to anyone who took the time to read our blog posts, we all appreciate your support! 

Love you guys :) 

- Foot

Day XX

This Thursday is the twentieth and last dig day. Everyone is busy finishing up their units, writing their paper work, and the weather was great. My unit, # 201, is about seventy centimeters deep now. I've found a countless amount of artifacts since hacking away the large grey chalk piece (that was the bane of my existence for about a week) that revealed a sealed layer of French and British era material. These finds include: green lead-glaze ceramic, reddish orange Choctaw earthenware (as well as charred pieces), charcoal, A LOT of bone (and burnt bone), blue on white faience, creamware, German salt-glazde ceramic, at least twenty nails and larger stakes (some of them perfectly preserved), copper wire, brass hardware, glass, brick, mortar, and multiple chalk pieces with quarry marks.

 From what I've found in my unit as well as the units to the south, we can speculate that as the Spanish took over the old Fort Tombecbe they most likely burned the barracks structure, or what as left of it, while salvaging what they could to use as a foundation for Fort Confederation's earthwork-walls. In addition to the artifacts and chalk pieces, river gravel, peculiar fossils, and an orange-brown clay was discovered. This leads us to hypothesize that while the Spanish we're definitley salvaging what was left of the old fort for their own purposes, they were probably bringing in fill material from farther south (possibly from near present day Mobile) as well.

This month has been a blast, and my first field experience is one I'll never forget. Dr. D (aka Diesel) has been saying the whole month that the last few days hold the best artifacts and, while the Shroud was an awesome find, me and Diesel came across an epic piece of a white ceramic dish while troweling through the southern end of my unit. The pictures from today are endless but here is my favorite.

White ceramic dish.

- Lee Light Horse Reissig

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Endings and Archaeology

The sun is setting on our time at Fort Tombecbe and while I miss my family, I am also sad to be leaving. It has been a most excellent four weeks of hard work, exciting discoveries, and moments of hysterical laughter for no reason whatsoever. For the next few days we are all busy wrapping up various tasks and closing our site. Today I finished all the paperwork for the unit I’ve been working on in the bakery area and tomorrow morning I will finish up with a light cleaning so we can take a final picture.
Bakery wall. The red tone area at the bottom might be a hearth

                It has been a productive field school and there are finally enough artifacts to begin to reconstruct some aspects of daily life at Fort Tombecbe. Analyzing artifacts is a large part of the archaeological and historical process of developing a cultural narrative of Fort Tombecbe. I decided earlier today that for this post I wanted to attempt to create a snapshot of how a man garrisoned at Fort Tombecbe might spend part of his day. Before I start, I would like to thank Brian Mast for patiently providing me information about French marines and his understanding of fort life.
Brian and Ron working on the palisade wall
               Day begins at sunrise. Various noises would have filled the grounds: animals, the sounds of cooking, popping fires, and men mustering for roll call. After a headcount the men would have gone on to their various duties. This could include anything from guard duty on the palisade wall to hunting and foraging. At some point in the day the Choctaw probably came to trade and most likely share and gather news. Beads, Colonoware (a type of earthenware pottery made by Native Americans to replicate European products), and a stone tool discovered under the barracks illustrate the types of goods that flowed between the French and Indians.
Trade Bead
             Based on items discovered during the 2014 field school reconstructing free time is a bit more accessible. In the bakery area both BJ and I found sprue inside ash deposits. According to Brian and Dr. Dumas, this is the byproduct of making shot (a heavy ball of lead ammunition). None of the traditional sources concerning the fort discuss this project, yet within a trowel of soil the story unfolds a bit and it is possible to imagine a man far from home sitting around, possibly in a small group, shooting the breeze while making shot. What is puzzling to me is that we found these objects inside the bakery. Our best hypothesis at this point is that the bakery had a hearth and fire which is necessary to melting lead (and probably smelled much better than many other parts of the compound).

                Bread constituted a staple part of a French soldier’s rations. Soldiers also hunted and foraged the local area and a variety of bones found under the barracks and inside the bakery indicate that the men fortified their diet with fowl and venison. Large sherds of Indian pottery as well as green lead glazed earthenware indicate that the French soldiers cooked and ate in the barracks.  Traditional histories present the barracks area as a sleeping space, but the presence of pottery, and animal bones complicates this narrative and provides a richer understanding of fort culture.
green lead glaze ceramic
Choctaw pottery

                By far the most exciting discoveries this summer involve textiles. Lighthorse Lee found a rather significant scrap of fabric in his unit in the barracks area. Coupled with the colonial pin discovered by Natalie in the bakery area indicate that to some extent the soldiers at the fort mended and patched their clothing and bags. Textiles are very rare and finding a pin is a bit like, well, finding a needle in a haystack. Though the objects are from different areas of the fort, they once again provide a window of understanding in how free time was passed at Tombecbe.

Colonial Pin
Textile from Lee's unit

                I hope that this very basic sketch of Eighteenth century life at Fort Tombecbe helps all of our faithful readers understand what we have been up to this summer. As for the Twenty-first century field school students we pass our free time launching water balloons and chilling around the UWA campus.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Au Revoir

Hello All,

This is the last time that I will be writing as unfortunately Fort Tombecbe Field School is coming to a close. Today we arrived after a stormy night that appeared to have cleared up. We bailed the water and removed the protective tarps and begun excavating or screening our dirt. Soon (around 2 and a half hours after arrival) another Storm Cloud of Doom rolled in and we rushed to cover our units. I have never seen us pack up so quickly these last few weeks!

When we returned to the base of operations (Livingston), we took a fifteen minute break and then headed to the laboratory. Instead of washing artifacts, we were introduced to a new procedure. Sorting! It is pretty much what it sounds like, you organize the material into different groups. This is only done after the material has been washed. The organizations can be separated by numerous methods, but the method we chose was distinguished by what the artifacts were made by. There were several different distinctions such as Kaolin (the material used to make clay pipes), brick, charcoal, coal, beads, glass, unidentified metal, silver, etc.

You separate these artifacts from the matrix. The matrix is all the other stuff. I know that's not very descriptive, but it is highly varied because the matrix is technically everything that is not culturally significant. This includes all the chalk, pebbles, fossils, and mineral inclusions. After it's all separated then you place each collection of artifacts into distinct bags. On each bag it has the information of the area it was found and what it is. Then all of the bags you have just collected will go in a singular bag with the overall information. It's a lot of repetition, but this way you won't lose any information which is so precious to the archaeological process. If you feel like you're doing the same thing over and over that's a good sign!

After almost six and a half hours of lab work, we ended the work day. At night after dinner we were in for a fun treat. We got to create glass mosaics with Rosa Hall. It was a great day and I'm going to miss waking up at 6:20 a.m. and going to work! (OK maybe I am exaggerating, but hey I do enjoy the work!)

Signing off, (For the last time!)

Natalie Mooney

Monday, June 9, 2014

Week 4 Day 1: Death by Cows, Pipe Stems and Musket Balls!


Our day started off calmly. Each of us is focused on completing the units that we've started as we enter our last week.
Team Bakery hard at work

Light Horse (Lee) and Little Foot (Tori) screening dirt from their units

Boone found a molar in his unit in the barracks
As for me, today was extremely surprising (in many ways)! As I finished up Layer A of my unit (about 25-30 centimeters below ground surface), I came across a wonderful artifact: a pipe stem!
Pipe Stem
Pipe stems are very important in historical archaeology sites because they can be dated fairly accurately. The pipe stem bore (or hole) is measured to pinpoint the pipe to a certain date range. Overtime, the size of the bore decreased. The pipe stem that I found had fairly large bore, indicating an early date.

A collection of artifacts from Layer A, including a white bead, Choctaw pottery, bone, and a nail

After I finished Layer A, I started on Layer B, which is composed more of clay and chalk. Right before we packed up for the afternoon, I found a musket ball! It was extremely exciting!!

The Musket Ball
As we left the site, a few of the cows escaped the pasture where they were penned. We tried to round them up, and successfully got the female back in the pasture. However, the male, a bit too attached to my voice, decided to charge. I won’t go into details about what went through my head at that moment. But that cow definitely got within a foot of me before cantering off.  I just thank my lucky stars that I’m here to write about it! 

-        -   Elle, signing off for the last time! It’s been a blast!!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Final Saturday

Captain's Log:

Today was open house and we had some honored guests and a few parents come out to the site for a tour and a glimpse into the inner-workings of archaeology. It was a little foreign for us to give up our air conditioner and late alarm clocks on a particularly hot Saturday, but I think everyone managed to keep it together and impress everyone who visited with our findings; and if not, Brian definitely entertained everyone with his British musket, which I must say was the highlight of the week.
Dr. D looking like a pro.

 Other than that, we believe that Jean has found a rather spectacular hearth. We're speculating (only because we cant prove it with absolute certainty) that it is the original French Bake House hearth. The chalk block wall/foundation that we've found runs over it, meaning that the hearth is the original first hearth and the chalk foundation that we've found is most likely the British reconstruction of the building.  That also makes sense when taking into account the lay of ash in the unit adjacent to hers. That unit happens to be mine and I find it ironic that in the first week I was digging through 20th century charcoal and fire debris, and now i'm digging through a layer of (suspected) 18th century ash, charcoal, and fire debris.  Apparently, this particular spot attracts fire.

 Sadly, this happens to be our last weekend together as a group. We finish up our work on Friday and depart for our post-field school lives.  I don't think anyone came to small-town Alabama expecting or even intending to forge life-long friendships in just a few short weeks, but that is exactly what has happened. It has been a privilege and an honor.

p.s. shout out to everyone who came to visit the site; it was nice meeting new faces and seeing familiar ones.

p.p.s. Happy Birthday to Littlefoot's Mom.

Broadcasting for the last time from Fort Tombecbe,
Stardate 114.7.7
Tingle out.