Saturday, August 02, 2008

Honorary Archaeologist for a Day

Today I had the absolute pleasure of being an Honorary Archaeologist at the Beaubassin and Fort Lawrence National Historic Sites.
Our day started out at Fort Beauséjour in the province of New Brunswick with a brief history of the area between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Our hosts were a dedicated team of archaeologists and park staff, seen above.

After our history lesson we took a short drive across the border to Fort Lawrence, Nova Scotia, to the site of an old Acadian village called Beaubassin. 

At left, one of our archaeologists shows us what kinds of things have been found in the dig this summer. She holds up a shard of pipe which, remarkably, contains the maker's insignia. This mark will help the archaeologists date the object and determine its origin.

Next we move on to learning how to dig. Our group is divided into teams and assigned a unit. A unit, we learn, is the 3 metre by 3 metre square pit that is being dug.

Digging is a misnomer. It's more like scraping. Thin layers (about a centimetre or two at a time) are scraped away with a trowel. The dirt being scraped away must be looked over carefully for artifacts. Any artifacts or stones that are sticking out of the ground must be carefully scraped around to the level of the current 'scrape'. Only if the object is fully within this scrape are you allowed to remove it and catalogue it as part of this layer. Below is one of my unit partners scraping around an area of the unit which was recently inhabited by a groundhog.

As we scrape, we are told to take note of colour, texture, shape and hardness of the ground. We put potential artifacts into a separate container for reviewing later and we collect the loose dirt into green buckets. But the dirt isn't done with. Next we move to the sifting area.

Below, you can see me putting earth through a wire screen. I found more objects that I hadn't seen before.

Although our unit wasn't ready to move to the next stage, one of the other units was and so it was photographed to record the site's condition at the end of the layer removal. A step ladder was set up and the unit was photographed from overhead.

Below, are some of my finds which include chunks of hardened reddish clay that would have been mixed with hay and pressed between the stones of a foundation. It would have provided insulation. You'll notice that one of these chunks is blackened: archaeologists say that this indicates that the clay went through a fire. The smallest of the chunks shows clearly-defined lines through it. Apparently it is an excellent sample showing the impression of hay.

I also found shards of light-blue transparent glass, charcoal from burnt wood, and bone. The archaeologists say that the bone is likely from animals that would have been in the Acadian diet of the day. 

Lastly, I found a heavily corroded square-head nail. 

One of the most interesting finds of the day was made in an adjacent unit. At left, is an old coin which clearly reads "GRATIA REX" and shows the partial profile of a face. The archaeologists tell us that it must go for proper cleaning before its origin and significance can be identified. This stage of the process can take up to a year as there are few scientists that specialize in this type of work and the back-log is tremendous.

Some of the most interesting finds in our unit included beautiful shards of pottery; one of which was tin-glazed. Its glaze was thicker than the pottery layer under it! Pictured below, one of us came across an odd line running through her section of the unit. It was about 2 inches wide and definitely a different colour and texture -- it was compact and harder to dig -- than the surrounding earth.

Two of the archaeologists were very interested in this mark. They inspected it, then brought over a measuring tape. Apparently they'd found a similar mark exactly parallel to it in an adjacent unit and wanted to know the distance between them. They were attempting to determine where a previous archaeologist in 1968 had dug! This new line that was found might mark the dig from 40 years ago. If it's determined that it does, they can overlay his drawings and descriptions onto their units, helping them know where to dig next. Although not an object-based artifact, it was an exciting find! One that we hope turns out for them.

Unfortunately, our unit group and the others who have volunteered over the last two summers may never know how things turn out. People are discouraged from volunteering more than once in favour of giving as many opportunities to new-comers as possible, which I understand.

There is a waiting list for return requests but there is no method in place to keep in touch or monitor progress. Having finally lived a 20-year-old abandoned dream, I'm not ready to give it up again and really hope that I can somehow remain a part of this archaeological experience.

If you have any questions or comments about how to become involved, the history of the area or the experience of being an archaeologist for a day, don't hesitate to ask. I'll do my best to find the answers for you.

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