Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Survey, Shell Middens, and Ceramics: Pensacola’s Prehistory

Day of Archaeology 2012 falls in the middle of the University of West Florida’s (UWF) 10 week long field school season. The university offers four archaeological field schools—three terrestrial (Campus Survey, Colonial Frontiers, and Arcadia Mill) and one maritime—and I am fortunate to serve as a supervisor at Campus Survey. Under the direction of Dr. Ramie Gougeon and graduate student supervisors, university students transform classroom knowledge into real world experience. Campus Survey teaches students about archaeological methods and techniques related specifically to cultural resource management (CRM). Students learn how to use a compass, read maps, and develop other field techniques while also sharpening their digging skills. After completing the survey portion of the field school, students also excavate a prehistoric site—named Thompson’s Landing– on UWF’s campus.

Campus Survey begins with students learning about archaeological survey techniques by digging countless shovel tests.

To begin this summer, we surveyed a portion of campus near Thompson’s Landing. Campus growth and general improvements may place a road within the survey area. As the students learned how to dig shovel tests, take notes, complete paperwork, and successfully navigate the woods, they also encountered what most people consider the most interesting part of archaeology—the artifacts!

Within the first three weeks, the students discovered and defined the boundaries of four separate lithic scatters. Two shovel tests revealed interesting features—one of shell and the other a burnt pit—that led to the first units of the summer. Unfortunately, the shells appeared modern and the other feature is likely a burnt tree. Despite these faux features, the survey portion provided great information about larger research questions relating to Pensacola’s prehistory. The lithic scatters suggest information about prehistoric peoples’ behaviors and activities while also providing information about site formation processes.

A completed shovel test– proof that a round shovel can dig a square hole 1 meter deep!

Research questions and excavations at Thompson’s Landing, however, focus more specifically on shells and ceramics. Last year, field school students unearthed a substantial shell midden with complicated, ill-defined chronology. This year we hoped to identify discrete shell deposits to better outline periods of use, to understand subsistence patterns, and to improve our knowledge of ceramic differentiation through time within the region. With the aid of auger test results, the completion of five units, and the use of student manpower, the site began to provide answers.

We exposed the shell midden in its entirety before bisecting it and excavating in levels.

Of these five units (three of which included shell midden), one proved essential to answering some of our questions with ease. The shells present included rangia and polymesoda, two different types of clams. Between the two, rangia usually serves as the dominant species, yet the midden primarily yielded polymesoda shells. The dietary shift caused new questions to arise: Did food preferences change? Did environmental factors affect the shells availability? Perhaps changes in salinity or water temperature affected the shells and enabled polymesoda to dominate?

Volunteer, Lianne Bennett, sits next to the exposed shell midden.

As we contemplated the significance of the shells, ceramic sherds began to appear in the midden. The sherds recovered were shell-tempered, consistently dating the midden to the Mississippian period. Despite modern trash, such as glass and iron fragments, resting a few centimeters above the shell midden, no modern artifacts appeared within the feature. The first half of field school enabled students to learn, provided a feature comprised of an intact artifactual assemblage, and the beginning of a fantastic answer to one of our research questions!

The material culture associated with the shell midden– from one level of one half of the unit from one day.

A shell tempered sherd with the incised and punctated decorations suggesting a Moundville Incised variety Bottlecreek. The small handle likely enabled people to hang the vessels while preparing the food.

Shell-tempered ceramic sherds recovered from the shell midden consistently date the midden to the Mississippian period. The sherds pictured above are identified as Moundville Incised variety Bottlecreek.

The archaeological process often follows a pattern in which the discovery of new information leads to new questions. I hope the next year fuses the information we have (or have unearthed) with the data and knowledge that archaeology helps to uncover. If you’d like to know more about our field school, like the UWF Campus Field School Facebook page.