death positive

10 Weeks of Excavation: Masters Research & Negative Results

This post could have been written ahead of time, since I was pretty aware of what we were going to do on site today, but I was delighted when I realized that the 2017 Day of Archaeology fell on the last day of my excavation in Ferryland, Newfoundland. Not only the last day of the dig, but the last day of the second (and final) season of fieldwork for my Masters degree!

Sitting at the top of a new trench with my Death Positive shirt. Photo by Ian Petty, 2017.

I’m Robyn Lacy, and I am an MA candidate in Archaeology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. I am a historic mortuary archaeologist, and sometimes something of a landscape / geo-ish archaeologist as well. Basically, I rarely examine material culture in my research unless it comes in the form of a burial carving or sculpture (gravestones) and spend most of my time looking at maps, aerial images, and stratigraphy. My MA research explores the spatial relationship between 17th-century colonial burial grounds in British settlements in North America, looking at how the burials were situated with relation to the settlement area itself, and structures and spaces that it might be associated with. I used that information build a statistical frequency analysis model to look for patterns in the placement of burials in similar settlements, and applied that information to Ferryland, Newfoundland to aid in the search for the early 17th-century burial ground at the enclosed settlement. The so-called ‘Colony of Avalon’ was founded in 1621 by George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore, and my project was to be the first systematic attempt to locate the burial ground from that first group of settlers.

In 2016, I ran an excavation at Ferryland for 6 weeks over the summer. The excavation locations were guided by the statistical analysis, archaeological evidence from the past decades of research at the site, and a 3 day GPR survey to narrow down areas to put our trenches. While we tested a load of the site, covered much unexplored ground, and learned a lot about how Ferryland was constructed, we didn’t manage to locate any evidence of human burials to the east or the south of the settlement. I resolved to return in 2017, as we didn’t have a chance in 2016 to excavate in the most highly-probable location, according to the statistical model: Inside the fortified settlement itself!

Map made by Robyn Lacy and Bryn Tapper, 2017. Excavation area for 2017 indicated by the circle. Excavation also extended directly south.

This year I once again called for the aid of volunteers, and readied myself for the additional 4 weeks of excavation! This was a big choice to make, since waiting to do another season of fieldwork would delay when I could finish my thesis and push back when I could submit to reviewers by several months. Doing this means I’ll also have to pay continuance fees this fall (which is the really unfortunate part), but I just couldn’t leave those areas untested!!

View from the bastion at the Colony of Avalon, Ferryland, Newfoundland. Photo by author, 2017.

Within the first two weeks of the dig this year, we had already covered all of the areas that I’d planned for the entirety of the 4-week excavation, and with no sight of burial shafts in the subsoil, I was left scratching my head for a while. It would be a long shot, but it was decided that we would sink two trenches into the side of the bastion, the large artificial mound in the southeast of the settlement that once held cannons to defend the area from marauding pirates! This was very exciting, since the bastion itself had never been excavated other than a small portion on one side so we had no idea how it was constructed. What we did know, however, was that stacked up layers of sod were in some way part of the construction. The reasoning was this: If the mound was built from sods and loose soil, it would be easier to bury the bodies of people we know died in the winter in a freshly thawing previously-dug mound than into the hard, rocky ground that Newfoundland has become famous for, right? Fingers crossed??

South wall of unit E88 S23, showing very pronounced layer of sorted stones. Photo by author, 2017.

The trenches we dug were very soft to begin with, nearly no rocks to be found…but that quickly changed. Within a few cm from the surface, my volunteers in the trench west of my unit were coming down on a layer of well sorted, quickly deposited cobbles and boulders. It was a quick deposition, with next to no sediment between the rocks leaving spaces large enough to sink your hand into! This was either part of the fill for the bastion, in which case there wouldn’t be burials in it by a long shot, or something was made of a pile of rock on top of the mound that had later been pushed over, in which case there might be burials underneath it…either way we’d have to dig through to find out!

Yesterday, we reached the bottom of the rock layer and in the unit pictured here, E88 S23, we were met with a layer of clay, with black decomposed sod underneath it. And guess what? There was a piece of wood in the middle of the layer too, burned on one end and nearly decomposed, but wood none the less! This was amazing, organic material doesn’t survive well at all in this region because of the acidic soil! That was the highlight of yesterday as we finished up the trenches an prepared them for photography.

Day of Archaeology:
It’s Friday at the dig, and the very last day of my Masters excavation. The trenches on the bastion had gone down as deep at 1.5m in several places with no sign of subsoil beneath the fill; instead we only found layers upon layers of sod and clay, with loose-packed stones between them going endlessly down. It would have been unsafe to keep digging down with such loose walls, and I resolved that we should call it on Thursday afternoon. While this tells us a lot about how the handful of settlers built this massive earthwork in the 1620s, it doesn’t tell us where they were burying their fellow settlers’ corpses. Yes, the bastion was negative for human burials…

Trench 7 refilled. This was the deepest of the trenches dug during my project! Photo (and replaced sods) by author, 2017

Today was spent, instead of madly recording a last-minute find as is often the case in archaeology, by back-filling the trenches on the earthwork in the morning sunshine. This is always the worst part of an excavation. Not only is back-fill pretty physically demanding, but you have to slowly watch all of your progress vanish before you very eyes. I find back-fill a bitter-sweet end to an excavation, but there is definitely a feeling of satisfaction when you did good job (or a mediocre job) getting all of the sods back in place.

With the help of my amazing volunteer team and a few extra hands from around the site, we had the trenches back-filled by lunchtime and after surveying our work with a sigh of relief that it didn’t take any longer than a few hours, headed off to Ferryland’s ‘Tetley Tearoom by the Sea’ for a much deserved Friday lunch!

After lunch, I had some paperwork to do, which isn’t very exciting so I didn’t actually end up taking a photo of it for this post, and my team measured some of the backlog of artifacts from the excavation. There really weren’t very many artifacts to measure though, considering we’d found nearly nothing over the last two weeks. This was due to the bastion itself having been built so early in the European occupation of the area that there weren’t any historic artifacts to find! If we’d found the old ground surface, there may have been potential for very early indigenous artifacts, but we didn’t have that luck!

With that, my 10 cumulative weeks of excavation at Ferryland were finished. While I didn’t location the 17th-century burials, we know so much more about where they are not buried which has removed the questioning of ‘is there a burial ground here?’ from a lot of different places at the site. While of course I’d love this post to be photos of beautifully preserved graveshafts, my results are very useful to our understanding of the site and I’ve learned the true value of the phrase “Negative Results are Still Results” over my time at Ferryland and throughout my MA program!

If you are interested in reading more about my excavation, check out my research blog ‘Spade & the Grave‘ and follow me on twitter @robyn_la

-Robyn Lt