A Little Afternoon Excavation

So a couple of friends of mine moved into a new house a few months ago (New to them, but the house was built in the 40s and oh boy it’s a rabbit’s den of old and new additions, cubbyholes, and questionable wiring), and in the back yard, once they’d cleared away about a decade’s worth of uncontrolled blackberry growth, they found what looked like a little pet grave marker (This is the point where pretty much everyone who’s ever read “Pet Sematary” would get a little creeped out)

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Since they know I’m trained in archaeology and love working with bone, they asked me to come check it out, so I got out my trusty flat-nose trowel and started carefully digging (Many archaeologists prefer the pointed-nose trowel, but my flat-nose is my very first trowel and it’s served me well through four field seasons and I love it. Archaeologists get very protective of their trowels).

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I dug down about a foot and didn’t find anything at all, nothing but loamy-clayey dirt, and we started to wonder if maybe the grave marker was a prank or maybe a raccoon had already dug up whatever was down there, but I decided to keep going just in case, and at about 18″ (Archaeology is always done in metric but I forgot to bring my metric tape measure) I saw a little hint of blue fabric, which you can see at the top of the photo above, as well as a little peek of the side of a skull, which you can see in the photo below just to the left of that leaf.

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I carefully scraped away the rest of the soil and found a perfect intact cat skeleton, carefully wrapped in a pillow case and a t-shirt with a baseball team logo on it (couldn’t read the team name, unfortunately). I set the bones on top of the dirt pile to keep them together and did my best to be sure that the hole was clean of all materials. You can see the very dirty, moldy bones at the top of the photo below.

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Now if you’ve done any archaeology fieldwork you’ll probably notice that my walls look terrible. In my defense it was VERY sandy clay, and quite damp, so my walls were crumbling all over the place, plus I am FAR more careful on official digs (I can cut a damned gorgeous profile, if I do say so myself) and this was pretty casual and exploratory, with no expectation of finding culturally or historically significant materials.

I took the newly unearthed CT (Since those letters were painted on the grave marker we decided to keep that as his name. I’m only guessing it’s a male from the size of the bones, but I’m really not an expert on feline skeletal anatomy) back home with me and carefully washed him in clean water and cleaned off the remaining dirt and mold with a soft toothbrush, and here he is in all his glory. Such a beautiful set of bones, and nothing broken! (Usually the bones I use in my art come from road kill, so I typically end up with a lot of fractured and broken bones, and they can be a real pain to piece back together). I’m missing most of the tail vertebrae, foot bones, and teeth (probably got lost in the fill dirt, though some of the tooth loss could have occurred before death), but otherwise it’s a pristine skeleton, and I look forward to using the bones for making beautiful new art, always keeping in mind that this beautiful creature was loved, and deserves respect and care every step of the way.

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So This Is Archaeology – Part III

At last, the long-awaited conclusion to our field school adventures (Here is Part I, Part II, and the Birthday addition). What a great four weeks, and an awesome crew. I can’t wait for next year 🙂

So as I think I’ve mentioned before, archaeology happens in all kinds of environments and conditions. Sometimes you’re going to get very, very wet….
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And sometimes you will get very, very muddy.

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Here’s a collection of some of the lovely bits of chert we found scattered in the sand along the river bank we were exploring (Including the lovely point I found on my birthday). These have clearly been worked by human hands, and a couple of pieces appear to be broken bits of completed tools, but we never did find exactly where they were coming from. We suspect that the area may have been looted, possibly multiple times over the years, and the bits we found were the pieces that looters dropped on the beach as they worked, but we will probably never know for sure. Looting is unfortunately common in many areas, and there simply isn’t the money or manpower to keep watch over everything.

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After spending a good few days in the muck and heat, we took an afternoon to tour around Fort Vancouver. Many of the original buildings have been re-created according to historical records and archaeological evidence in order to make them as accurate as possible. Here we’re talking to a volunteer in the Blacksmith’s Shop. I believe he’s demonstrating how one of the old handmade beaver traps worked.

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Every summer there’s a field school at Fort Vancouver, and they have never yet run out of places to excavate. The fort has a relatively long history with multiple different eras of occupation, so there are sites galore here. If I remember right the students here had just dug down to the floor level of a cabin from the early 1800’s. It’s fun to talk to students from other field schools and trade war stories.

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For the last day of the school a group of us went out to a small island that we’ve been wanting to explore for years. We didn’t excavate, but we did screen the dirt from mole hills (Sometimes moles will dig up bits of charcoal or flint flakes as they tunnel). We didn’t find any evidence of human activity, but it was still a beautiful place and a fantastic day.

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All around the edges of the lakes and rivers we were finding these bizarre clear jelly blobs. Nothing visible inside of them, very firm, no odor. Couldn’t figure out what on earth they were! Then when I posted a picture on Facebook a friend knew immediately what they were: Bryozoans!

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Some sites are just plain difficult to get to when you’re doing field work. We needed to get to the other side of the island, so the kids took the water route, slipping and sloshing through mud and goo. I took the overland route, which ended up being me plowing through Thorny Bushes Of Doom with my face. We all made it to the other side alive (And didn’t drop any of the equipment) and that’s what matters 🙂

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As we were breaking for lunch I spotted a little pile of very dry coyote poop. Now, some people want nothing to do with any kind of poo, but in archaeology waste can sometimes be a fantastic source of information (And it was VERY dry. I’m not messing with fresh poo. Yuck). Here are the crunched-up bits of bone from a single coyote poo. I think I see rabbit and baby deer in there, but I’m not up on my animal bone identification (I always did horribly in that class).

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And the final day is done. Back to the lab to clean and store all the gear. This really was a great season and I miss this group a ton. I hope some of them come back next year for more mud, mosquitoes, heat, dirt, and exploration 🙂

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Another bryozoan colony, because they are TOO COOL!

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