Mortuary Archaeology

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

A Day of Archaeology on the MARBAL 2017 Project

Disclaimer: This post is a time-stamped “day in the life” of MARBAL (Mortuary Archaeology of the Râmeț Bronze Age Landscape) co-director Jess Beck, and is brought to you by approximately 17 cups of coffee.

6:40 am: Consume first two cups of coffee. Begin analyzing bones in home lab.

8:53 am: Two cups of coffee later, head out the door for the museum. Demolish  breakfast of Cascaval, bread, and delicious Romanian red peppers that project member Emilie Cobb thoughtfully prepared for me.


9:24 am: Arrive at our collaborator Horia Ciugudean’s lab at the National Museum of the Union. Emilie begins size-sorting fragments, while I finish entering  data on an adolescent pair of scapulae, clavicles, and innominates.


10:53 am: I continue my analysis, moving on to the fragmentary adolescent cranium. Please notice the binder clip I have fetchingly clipped to my shirt so that I do not lose track of it.

12:25 pm: The most important meal of the day! Cookie break as we pack up for the field.
The MOST important meal of the day
12:46 pm: Make a brief detour to the train station to procure tickets for our trip back to Budapest on Monday.

1:13 pm: Stock up on field snacks at local supermarket.

Important healthy snacks
1:33 pm: En route from the train station in Alba Iulia to our field site in the mountains. I nurse my current thermos of coffee on the ride.

Alba --> Teius

2:17 pm: Arrive at field site to find it only SLIGHTLY more glorious than morning lab setting.

2:47 pm: Project co-director Colin Quinn begins putting in shovel test pits.

4:06 pm: Colin bemoans not taking a charcoal sample two years ago after we hit multiple sterile test pits.

4:11 pm: After being (foolishly) entrusted with making a sketch map of our STPs, it becomes clear that I do not in fact know where North is.

5:01 pm: After a rough half-hour of realizing our own limitations, we switch locations, and begin putting in a 1mx1m to examine the profile of an area in which a modern road cuts through an Early Bronze Age tomb.

The 1x1
5:07 pm: Colin teaches Emilie how to package a charcoal sample.


6:15 pm: After taking some closing photos, we stock up on glamour selfies and pack out.


6:30 pm: Important car snacks are consumed in celebration of a stratigraphically informative 1×1.


7:30 pm: Return to the house to shower, eat, and load and label photos from the day. Next up: publishing this post, and then immediately copying this Romanian buddy I spotted yesterday:


Bones, teeth, isotopes and the Festival of Archaeology

Another year another Day of Archaeology! Big up the team that keeps this initiative going and sorry to hear that this may be the last!

My 2017 Day of Archaeology is typically varied. I’m a Lecturer in Archaeological Science at Cardiff University and am in the midst of a very busy summer! First up, writing, writing, writing. I’m working on a paper for a new Historic England project at West Amesbury, in the Stonehenge landscape. The site is only a couple of miles from Stonehenge and is Middle Neolithic, so a few hundred years before the stone circle’s heyday. We know that Stonehenge and nearby sites like Durrington Walls drew people and animals from far and wide in the Late Neolithic, but we know much less about the earlier phase. I did some isotope work on cattle and pigs from the site and results suggest that they were all from the local area, so perhaps the Stonehenge area was not such a hub in the Middle Neolithic. More information on the project can be found here:

https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/research/neolithic-farming-food-in-stonehenge-landscape/

Next up, a quick meeting with Katie Faillace, a dental anthropologist from the USA who is starting a PhD at Cardiff in October. She is coming in to look at some unusual teeth we have from a newly excavated cemetery in North Wales. They may have a very unusual trait that is rare in UK populations – but I’m eager for a second opinion!

After that I’m dashing up the road to the National Museum of Wales to give a family friendly and interactive talk on human bone analysis in archaeology, as part of the 2017 Festival of Archaeology.

https://museum.wales/cardiff/whatson/9633/Festival-of-Archaeology-Human-Bones-Why-do-we-keep-them-and-what-can-they-tell-us-/

The rest of the afternoon will be spent in the lab, preparing human bone samples from the Iron Age hillfort at South Cadbury, Somerset for thin section analysis. This involves cutting small pieces of bone, mounting them in resin and then cutting very thin sections to analyse under a microscope. By looking at how bacteria have attacked the bone, we can learn how the bodies were treated after death. The image aboveshows a poorly preserved bone, with lots of bacterial attack. This is very important for Iron Age Britain as we still don’t really know what people did with their dead. We don’t find many human bones and when we do they are often very unusual – odd fragments, skulls or other parts of the body, often deposited in disused grain storage pits. I’m working on this with two students, Lois Turnbull and Selina Trout, who are funded by the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP), see the link for more information.

https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/why-study-with-us/leaders-in-research/research-opportunities