Doing the dirty … work

Written by Amy Sciutto, Collections Management Intermittent

I realized today that 5 a.m. is way too early for anybody to be awake. I came to this realization when the alarm clock, the courtesy wake-up call from the hotel and Michele’s cell phone alarm all went off at 5 a.m. Awesome. I then realized that 6 a.m. is way too early for anybody to try to work. I came to this realization when I tried to pee in the field, and happened to pee all over myself. Awesome. It was at this point in the day that I also realized that I was in for one dirty day. Little did I know just how dirty I was going to get. After I peed on myself, Michele laughed at me, and on we went, excavating away.

The first thing we did was try to figure out how to use a ladder. You would think that two highly-educated people would easily be able to figure out a ladder, well think again. It was like the blind leading the deaf. The darn ladder was folded in half and then once unfolded it continued to extend from every angle. Once the ladder could no longer be unfolded, and folded and extended and retracted, we haphazardly placed the ladder against the cliff that we were working on, said our prayers, and repelled to our destiny.

Around 7:30 a.m., the Field School from IU got to the site and began their work. By this time Michele had already began to excavate her feature while I was on water screening duty. If you want a fun task on a dig, water screening is perfect for you. I was responsible for dumping buckets of dirt onto a screen, then dumping water on the dirt, in the hopes of finding artifacts. What I discovered, however, was that when you mix dirt with water, you get a mess. Now I do want some things to be a surprise for when you go on a dig and get to do some water screening for yourself, but I will tell you that a sunburn, soaking wet shoes and socks, and bending over until you forget how to stand lead to an immense hatred for your life. But believe it or not, there are rewards for doing such a labor intensive job.

After lunch I found myself peeing all over myself again, but this time I was covered with Michele’s boots, so the joke is on her! That’s what she gets for laughing so hard, and not teaching me proper techniques for keeping dry when nature calls. After I laughed to myself, we went back to work. By this point we had finished excavating the feature on the cliff, and we had bagged all the artifacts to take with us. The next task was simple: to cut back the bank. If you thought water screening sounded fun, oh boy are you in for a treat. I stood on a 6-inch ledge with a pick-ax and had to pick away the face of the cliff. I was nervous at first because our rickety ladder was attached to the cliff I was ordered to pick at, but Michele reassured me that in the worst case scenario we could swim across the Ohio River to the Kentucky side, and easily make our way back to civilization. We picked away until our hands were calloused and bleeding, then called it a day. If I am able to walk tomorrow, I assume we will continue picking away at the face, in order to take samples, and all that jazz.

We gathered up our tools, ascended the stairway to heaven, also known as our trusty ladder, and went home for the night.

Now, I have to go wrestle the alarms out of Michele’s hands before she does something crazy again!

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The Crew Arrives!

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager

The Yankeetown field crew arrived … shovels in hand, sunscreen a-plenty and ready for hard work. But I figured they would be, since they came highly recommended by the Taswell Community Center.

OK, they aren’t from Taswell, but I think that might be OK. The crew that joined the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites field season is from Indiana University Professor Susan Alt. They had been working at another Yankeetown Site and thankfully had agreed to join the museum for two weeks. In 2008, we found evidence of a possible house that had been burned. One of our goals for this year was to try and find more evidence of structures and associated features. Our other goal was to attack the riverbank and get good profiles while excavating riverbank features that were eroding out of the bank.

The IU field crew attacked goal #1. As you may have read from last week, Gaby and I placed a location marker on the site based on another marker that we use as our permanent datum (like a permanent pivot point from which all measurements are referred). The IU field crew immediately began cleaning out the trench that the back-hoe had left.

By the end of the day, interesting things were starting to appear in the floor of the trench. House floor? Pit features? Both? We shall soon see! At the riverbank, a crew from IU and I had located some excellent features and had begun the tedious task of excavating those features. At the end of the day, we were mid-dig on a great pit feature that was yielding good amounts of ceramics. The feature was expanding into the bank, so we didn’t get to finish — but it gives us something to look forward to first thing in the morning!

Until next time!

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Archaeology! It’s all about the toys …

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History Collections Manager, and Gaby Kienitz, Textile Conservator

We hereby christen this the maiden voyage of our fabulous new dig-mobile! We set sail Tuesday afternoon with the sun at our backs and the wind in our hair. With the Admiral and his trusted crew, the ship sailed safely to its harbor off the shores of the mighty Ohio …

Gaby tries out the new equipment.

We had all the toys — ooops! We mean equipment — loaded inside to set up the Yankeetown site for two weeks of exploration. Good thing we have all this equipment, because we needed it.

As it turned out, the bridge to get to the site was closed! The only way to traverse it was via a quad (the one we purchased came accessorized with a Canuck).

The trailer and quad easily made it to the site, where we set up our area for this season’s excavations. This was a bit more trouble than anticipated. Lots of flooding over the last two years (when we last excavated at this location) has greatly altered the landscape and most of our location markers were long gone! Thankfully, we were able to find and use one of our permanent markers, hidden below some 6 or 7 inches of newly deposited sediment.

The quad and the trailer were not our only toys; we made use of a generously-loaned backhoe and operator to remove the thick, top layer of dirt that did not contain artifacts. Otherwise, we would have had to do a huge amount of shoveling under a cloudless sky with witheringly high humidity and heat that drenches you in sweat by 8 a.m.

We also spent time driving around cavernously bumpy mud-track roads along the edges of farm fields looking for alternate routes into the site. But the storms were coming! Luckily, we were able to go back to our excavation area and cover our freshly opened trenches with plastic sheeting before being chased back to the trucks by lighting strikes.

From the Yankeetown dig … until next time!

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Fresh from the Lab

Written by Michele Greenan, Natural History and Archaeology Collections Manager at the Indiana State Museum

Archaeology requires a lot of patience, sometimes tedious fieldwork and perhaps a little guesswork. So finds like this one are especially exciting and fun to work on.

The house basin and vessel fragments.

The house basin and vessel fragments.

We recovered a ceramic vessel in southern Indiana last year during excavations at what is often referred to as “the Yankeetown Site.” It is about 900 years old and was made by one of the first groups in Indiana to incorporate corn as an important garden crop. The fragmented vessel was recovered in the corner of a structure, possibly a house.

Back in the lab, after the sherds (pieces of broken pottery) were cleaned and analyzed, we realized that we had enough sherds to reconstruct about ¼ of a vessel! Getting only ¼ of a vessel might not seem all that fantastic, but it’s pretty good news to archaeologists who are typically in the business of ‘all things broken.’ In fact, this is the largest portion of this particular vessel type that has been recovered thus far from this particular culture.

101909_fresh_from_lab_03So … we wanted to get this vessel reconstructed just right. The edges were consolidated with a special material that soaks into the edge and solidifies, giving it the strength and stability required to hold a join without destroying the sherd’s edges. Then we glued everything together and added a bit of plaster to help support the vessel.

Note the darkened burning in the interior base of the vessel.

Note the darkened burning in the interior base of the vessel.

One thing you don’t want to hear from your project partner when you are on your way in to see your project is “don’t freak out …!” After having totally reconstructed the vessel, my partner-in-crime took a look at a particular angle and realized that the dense, heavy sherds had slightly shifted. Any amount of shifting can distort the entire shape of the vessel, so … we took the entire thing apart. The second time around, we were much more creative in how we stabilized it while drying —we became experts at foam sculpture! The vessel proved to be a unique form of cooking pan, possibly used like a ‘skillet’ (note the darkened burning in the interior base of the vessel pictured above). If complete, this large pan would have been about 23 inches in diameter!

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