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

Archéologie en outre-mer

Je m’appelle Thierry Cornec, pour ce « Day of Archaeology », je souhaite partager les particularités de mon travail de Directeur adjoint scientifique et technique (Dast) des départements d’outre-mer (Dom) au sein de l’Inrap.

Aéroport Félix Eboué, Cayenne. Point névralgique de l’activité du Dast Dom. Une fois par mois, lieu de passage obligé pour retrouver mes collègues en Guadeloupe et en Martinique, rencontrer des partenaires, des aménageurs, des universitaires ou pour rallier mon bureau au centre de recherches archéologiques de Guyane où je travaille avec une dizaine d’agents.
Depuis 2012, cette aire géographique déjà vaste (comme un trajet régulier entre Paris et Stockholm, l’équivalent d’un Cayenne-Pointe-à-Pitre) s’étend jusqu’à La Réunion et à Mayotte.

Mes horloges !

Mes horloges !

La fonction implique aussi de suivre nos différentes opérations de terrain sur tous ces territoires dispersés et, non des moindres particularités, organiser ce travail en collaboration avec les quatre services de l’archéologie ( !), gestionnaires des territoires où l’Inrap intervient dans les Dom ! L’avenir pourrait aussi voir ce territoire s’agrandir à Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon et aux Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (comme un grand écart climatique !).
Autre particularité, je dois jongler avec tous les décalages horaires que nous avons depuis la Guyane avec les autres régions, 1 heure, 4 heures, 5 heures, 6 heures, 7 heures ou 8 heures….selon les territoires et les saisons. Mon ordinateur et mes téléphones sont agrémentés d’une série d’horloges afin que je puisse m’y retrouver.

Le centre de recherches archéologiques Inrap à Cayenne © Inrap

Le centre de recherches archéologiques Inrap à Cayenne © Inrap

Heureusement que mes interlocuteurs savent où je travaille. Cela m’évite d’être contacté à des heures indues.
La technologie peut aussi parfois venir en aide, les courriels ne rendent pas compte du décalage horaire et la visioconférence, elle, ne connait pas les distances. Mais depuis 5 ans que j’occupe ce poste à Cayenne, ces inconvénients, mineurs finalement quand on a appris à travailler dans ce contexte, sont les plus faciles à surmonter. Les journées sont parfois un peu plus longues vu de Guyane : en heure locale, les collègues de Métropole commence à travailler vers 3 h du matin et ceux des Antilles finissent la leur vers 19 h  (sans parler de l’Océan Indien, qui s’endort plus ou moins quand je me lève). Ici, il est aisé de commencer ses journées tôt, entre 6 h et 7 h pour profiter des fraîcheurs matinales… et des routes encore peu encombrées !

L’essentiel de mon travail consiste à programmer les opérations de diagnostics et de fouilles. Pour cela, je travaille avec un assistant technique, une chargée d’administration et une assistante opérationnelle. Nous donnons corps, ensemble, à la programmation des opérations, pour lesquelles sont désignés des responsables d’opérations, eux aussi grands habitués des aéroports. Et quelles opérations ? Encore des particularités locales qu’il s’agisse de la chronologie, des cultures ou des vestiges…

Dans l’ensemble des DOM, la chronologie est marquée par la date de l’arrivée des colons qui bouleverse bien évidemment toutes les cultures antérieures. L’archéologie documente souvent  cette période de façon plus précise que ne peuvent le faire l’histoire ou les chroniques des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles.

Habitation Sigy, XVIIIe, Le Vauclin, Martinique © Inrap

Habitation Sigy, XVIIIe, Le Vauclin, Martinique © Inrap

Et si cette arrivée n’est pas la même sur l’ensemble des territoires, que dire des périodes antérieures ! Les chronologies ne sont pas encore abouties, diffèrent d’une zone à l’autre et sont sujettes à discussion.

Diagnostic, installations amérindiennes sur un cordon de la plaine littorale, Kourou, Guyane. © Sandrine Delpech, Inrap

Diagnostic, installations amérindiennes sur un cordon de la plaine littorale, Kourou, Guyane. © Sandrine Delpech, Inrap

Et évidement dans l’Océan indien le contexte est différent, pas d’installation connue à La Réunion avant l’arrivée des colons et on constate une présence musulmane à Mayotte depuis le IXe.

Mosquée de Tsingoni, XVIe, Mayotte © Inrap

Mosquée de Tsingoni, XVIe, Mayotte © Inrap

Mon travail consiste également à accompagner mes collègues archéologues dans des partenariats avec des centres d’expertises locaux, universitaires ou unités de recherche. Je suis aussi chargé, avec l’appui du siège de l’Inrap à Paris,  de ma hiérarchie directe à Bègles, et en collaboration avec mes collègues locaux, du suivi des travaux de terrain, de la mise en place des phases d’études pour la remise des rapports et de l’accompagnement des projets de recherches.
La valorisation occupe aussi une grande partie de mon travail. Qu’il s’agisse de faire valoir notre savoir-faire auprès de la communauté scientifique ou de sensibiliser le grand public.

Colloque de l'AIAC, Sint Maarten, 2015 © Inrap

Colloque de l’AIAC, Sint Maarten, 2015 © Inrap

En collaboration avec la chargée de la valorisation culturelle, nous travaillons sur des outils pédagogiques afin de diffuser nos résultats vers les Antillais, Guyanais et Réunionnais, pour qui notre discipline est encore nouvelle : autant de conférences pour expliquer nos métiers et nos résultats, autant de nouvelles frises chronologiques pour chaque région à créer, autant d’expositions à inaugurer, autant de visites de chantier à organiser.

Comment ne pas apprécier, aussi, car c’est important, un cadre de travail tel que les tropiques ? Même si les fouilles dans ces lieux exotiques ne sont pas toujours les plus confortables – chaleurs intenses, taux d’humidité records, cocotiers dangereux :-), la pratique de l’archéologie reste source de beaucoup de satisfaction, scientifique et humaine, où l’inédit domine toujours la routine.

Fouille de la plage des Raisins Clairs, en Guadeloupe © François Decluzet, Inrap

Fouille de la plage des Raisins Clairs, en Guadeloupe © François Decluzet, Inrap

Une journée de Dast dans les Dom? Une journée identique à celle d’un collègue de métropole. À cela près que je travaille sur d’autres continents, d’autres cultures… Tout ce qui fait le sel du métier est ici profondément différent et exaltant.


Thierry Cornec

High Crimes: Studying the Illicit Antiquities Trade in the Bolivian Andes

Painting of Santa Rosa

Painting of Santa Rosa stolen from the church of the Bolivian village of Jesus de Machaca and recovered on the London art market in 2011 (image via. Bolivia’s Ministry of Cultures)

Although I am a trained field archaeologist, I now work for a criminology department. I study the looting of archaeological and historic sites and the transnational trade in illicit cultural property. That is what I am doing now, in La Paz, Bolivia, 3700 feet above sea level, thanks to a Fulbright grant and a Leverhulme fellowship.

I am part of the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research’s Trafficking Culture project. My research group is approaching looting and antiquities trafficking from new angles to hopefully come up with interesting regulatory responses to this problem. Besides larger criminological and market analyses, our project is engaged in several regional case studies. That is where I fit in. I am looking into this phenomenon in Latin America and, right now, in Bolivia.

At the moment I am working on the looting of remote Conquest-era churches and the international market for stolen ecclesiastical paintings, sculpture and silver. The Andes are filled with rural churches: they were part of the evangelising mission of the Spanish Conquistadors. These churches are filled with spectacular and regionally-specific art. Most notable in Bolivia is silver work: for several hundred years the majority of the world’s silver came from Bolivia and Indigenous artists had a ready supply to make thousands of beautiful objects of devotion. Unfortunately there are collectors out there who are willing to buy stolen church art and, as supply meets demand, poor Bolivian communities are robbed of their heritage.

Stone Church at village of Laja

This church at the Bolivian village of Laja was robbed in 2012 (wikimedia commons)

Bolivia is culturally rich but economically poor. These churches are in bad states of repair and are insecure. Many cannot be alarmed, even if they are located in an area with electricity, because there is no money for such things. In most of the villages where churches are located residents live well below the poverty line so the idea of paying a full time guard is laughable. Increase police presence? Not when the nearest police outpost is 100km away over an unpaved road. Not when this country is thought to have one of the most corrupt police forces in the Americas.

But even the most important and well-protected Bolivian churches are not safe. In April the church of the Virgin of Copacabana, Bolivia’s most holy and miraculous shrine, was robbed of the silver and gold that anointed the Virgin herself. The baby Jesus in her arms was stolen as well. A priest who was at Copacabana on temporary assignment was jailed this week for involvement in the robbery. The holy pieces have not been recovered. My guess is that they were carried into Peru and then on to anonymity. That was the 6th church robbery in Bolivia in only 4 months.

17th Century Painting of the Virgin of Copacabana

A 17th century painting of the Virgin of Copacabana surrounded by silver (public domain)

I am constantly asked why these silver-filled churches were not robbed before. If they have been sitting out there, vulnerable, for 500 years why are they only being robbed now? The best answer I can give is that there was no illicit market for these items before. These churches are being robbed because terrible people want to own beautiful things.

I warn I am writing in advance because my day will include being without internet.

So what will my day be? On this day of archaeology I will take a taxi to the La Paz cemetery then squish myself into a minibus. I will head westward for about two hours until I reach the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tiwanaku.

Tiwanaku is a vast, monumental, pre-Inka site that I excavated at (when I was a diggy-archaeologist) back in 2004 and 2005. I am sad to say that in 2011 Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was robbed. It wasn’t the first time. The thieves have not been arrested and the objects stolen have not been recovered. I am going out there to talk to old friends about the robbery. I am interested to hear their perceptions about how the theft could have been prevented, their thoughts on the response of public authorities, and how they feel the robbery has affected the community. I want to hear the facts but I also want to hear wild speculation, rumours, and emotion. I think emotion is very important in this kind of work.

Tiwanaku's church

Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was built by the Spanish from stoned looted from the nearby World Heritage site. It was robbed in 2011 (photo by the author)

And, really, this is an emotional issue with grave consequences. Just last year two men were caught robbing the church in the small Bolivian village of Quila Quila. The villagers apprehended the men and, in a public display of frustration, insecurity, and fear, they lynched the alleged robbers and buried them behind the church.

A ruined church in Bolivia

A ruined and abandoned church in the Altiplano, Bolivia’s high plain (Jduranboger, CC attribution)

I don’t think most people imagine that what I do is archaeology (even the Day of Archaeology website doesn’t have a category for this post to fit into!), but I think that it is. The past is what we say it is, and we believe that the physical remains of the past are important. That they are worthy of being preserved as tools of both memory and identity. When they are ripped from their contexts and sold on the black market,  everyone loses. We are all robbed because we will never get to know the information those objects contained. “Neocolonialism” is a word that is bandied about quite a bit in Bolivia: it is a word that even people with no education know. The illicit antiquities trade is a prime example of neocolonialism. When objects are stolen from vulnerable areas of the developing world and moved into the hands of rich people in the developed world, we perpetuate an unjust imbalance. We keep people down.

This is my dream job. I am so thankful to be able to do this research.