URS Corporation

Archaeology for the I-95 Project

Kristin Swanton, MA RPA Archaeologist at URS Corporation Burlington, New Jersey USA

Archaeology for the I-95 Project

Fieldwork for the I-95 highway expansion project in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA), has been going on for several years now and in various phases of research. Thus, this project requires our crew (from the cultural resources division of URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey, USA) to work year-round and in all types of environmental conditions. Work for the I-95 project starts bright and early at 7AM when our crew gathers on site. For the past several days I have been working with 2-3 other crew members excavating an unusually large 5’ x 7’ test unit. This unit straddles a historical period rock wall foundation that is likely associated with a 20th century domestic structure. Adjacent units have revealed both historical and prehistoric artifacts from fill as well as intact soil layers. Today we were hoping to learn more about the interior of the historical era building as well as understand the relationship between our prehistoric artifacts and ones found in surrounding excavation units. While I was digging, the remaining crew members were screening for artifacts. The soil was very compact and required time and patience completing both activities. Screened artifacts were placed in plastic bags that were labeled with their corresponding location information. Thus far, no unique artifacts were found today, but there is still more work to be done tomorrow and research questions to be addressed!


Not a bad day of work

Louis Magazzu, URS Corporation Burlington, New Jersey USA

Normally my weekdays consist of digging features or test units underneath I-95 in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA).  In the two years I’ve been working there I have seen such a wide variety of materials that you never really know what to expect.  This week however I’m seeing how the other half lives; I’m working in the lab getting a little taste of everything.  It’s Tuesday.  Jen Rankin, one of the field supervisors, asks me to set up a display featuring some of the I-95 project’s finest prehistoric finds.  We walk to her cubicle where she gives me a goodie box that would excite any prehistorian.  Some of the highlights include unifacial tools, bifacial blades, a broken atlatl weight, a handful of pot sherds, some clay pipe fragments, two tiny beads, dozens of projectile points of diverse types and materials, and finally taking center stage is a beautiful gorget of burnished slate with incised decoration broken rather neatly into two pieces.  I go upstairs to my case, clean it, and lay a black table cloth inside. At lunch I get a phone call from Kevin Donaghy, a Temple University graduate student whom I have been helping out on Saturdays on his site at the Revolutionary War battlefield of Brandywine (Pennsylvania, USA).  He excitedly tells me he thinks he’s found something important.  We are going back this weekend to check it out.  After lunch I place groups of artifacts on slabs of timber, place labels with each artifact type, and put a few sketches in the case showing some objects as they would have originally looked.  The case is complete but there is still a bit of space on the surrounding desk.  I take a bag of some experimental stone working fragments and set up a display showing successive stages in lithic reduction from chert cobble to several different blanks that might become projectile points or bifaces.  Not a bad day of work.


By Brian Seidel, Assistant Lab Supervisor, URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey, USA


Flotation is the process by which the smallest and most delicate artifacts are separated from soil for analysis.  Artifacts collected using this method can provide important information related to: reconstructing past diet and food consumption patterns, past environmental conditions, and the broad range of activities performed within an historic property or site. Soil samples collected during feature excavation are processed in a flotation tank that utilizes water pressure to separate the soil from the artifacts. During this procedure very light artifacts (light fraction) float to the surface and are collected in a catch bag, while the remainder of the artifacts (heavy fraction) are collected in a fine mesh screen as the soil and artifacts sink towards the bottom of the tank.

This week the heavy fraction from feature 364 at the Gunnar’s Run Site (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) was picked in the URS lab (Burlington, New Jersey, USA). This feature was a brick lined circular shaft. Today I cataloged the recovered artifacts. This included several varieties of seeds; raspberry, grape, squash, cherry, chestnut and a variety of yet to be identified seeds.  Other items found included; 19 beads, lead shot, nut shells, wood fragments, small glass fragments, a Whiteware sherd, brick and coal fragments.

Flotation is the process by which the smallest and most delicate artifacts are separated from soil for analysis — Brian Seidel

Counting and Sorting in the Lab

By Angela Garra Zhinin URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey USA

My day in archaeology was a continuation of a week’s worth of sorting and counting catfish bones from a household feature excavated from a site in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA).  I work for URS Corporation in Burlington, New Jersey and we are conducting investigations along Interstate 95 for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.  So far, I have helped sort over 11,000 fish bones from one level of this specific feature, along with some bones from other various animals.  Although we do not analyze the fish bones here in this lab, I noticed some repetition that could be presorted before being sent off for further analysis.  Judging by the amount of a certain type of catfish bone, I was able to determine that there were at least 65 catfish in this particular provenience.  It didn’t surprise me to learn that a fisherman was listed at this property in the Mid-19th Century, and these bones could possibly be linked to him and his family.

My day in archaeology was a continuation of a week’s worth of sorting and counting catfish bones from a household feature excavated from a site in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA)–Angela Garra Zhinin

Thoughts while at work in the lab…

Amy Joy Litterer
URS Corporation
Burlington, New Jersey (USA)

I start my day examining recently cleaned items which had been discarded into the soil, or nightsoil, within the past few hundred years. I cannot help but wonder how these items were lost, and what emotional ties people had to them. Fading marbles, broken dishes, medicine and alcohol bottles, rusted and corroded jewelry, dismembered doll parts, and whimsical glass shapes that flow and bend, and inevitably, broke and were tossed away, all find their way to my hands before I pack them away for the next stage of their journey. Once these items were fun, useful, or valuable to someone, but they lay covered in dirt for quite some time and only now have they been cleaned for the first time in a century or more, and it is time to sort and count and allocate them to bags containing the remnants of similar items from the same location. While bagging these artifacts, I wonder where they will go after I am done packing them into their temporary bags and boxes, whether they will find a home in storage after being catalogued by my co-workers, or if they will come together again as whole items and go on display, for all Philadelphians to marvel at the tools, toys, and treasures of yesteryear. But for now they are in my hands, and I separate another small piece of redware from the piles of glass, porcelain, and nails.”

A Sense of Pride and Identity

By Alexander Lukens
Archaeological Technician
URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey, USA

Beginning each day with archaeology in mind stirs great excitement.  Working primarily as an archaeological lab tech and sometimes field tech for URS Corporation in Burlington, New Jersey (USA), I am quickly picking up on the fundamentals of life as an archaeologist in the Philadelphia area.  My daily duties can include a wide range of activities from the initial excavation of sites in the field through processing and studying what we find. The lab is where you could say it all comes together, some days more literally than others.  Today, for instance, I am responsible for mending artifacts from a project undertaken for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Interstate 95 highway redevelopment.  This exciting local project includes sites dating all the way to prehistoric times but todays work is focused on exploring the household sites of the industrial revolution. Sorting and mending these artifacts provides a glimpse into the variety of objects an average household may contain and can also tell us about the lives of the specific family whose property we are studying. Not only does this practice illustrate presence, it also delves deeper into a further understanding of the object and its sometimes bizarre form and function. Although the purposes of the objects are not always evident, it is still exciting to see where the research can take you. Contributing daily to the disclosure of Philadelphia’s forgotten knowledge in an archaeological way gives me a sense of pride and identity. Having grown up in the Philadelphia area, being able to experience the local history in a hands-on way contributes to shaping me both as an individual and as a professional in the archaeological community.

Last day of work, for now.

By Carolyn Horlacher

Lab tech, URS Corporation

Burlington, New Jersey, USA  (Posted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum webmaster)

Today is the beginning of my last week working full-time in archaeology for at least two years. It is bittersweet.  I began working at URS Corporation in Burlington, New Jersey, USA (right outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) as an intern during my senior year in college and now almost three years later I am leaving to start a new academic venture.  In September I will be starting my first year of graduate school at UMass Boston.  I am spending today wrapping up unfinished projects. This includes marking and gluing mended objects, cataloging artifacts, doing historic research and beginning to pack up the contents of my desk.  I am primarily working on the lab work for a site excavated in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. It is along interstate 95 and is part of a project URS is conducting for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Currently, I am working on gluing a cut glass lamp shade that belonged to a gas lamp. It was excavated with a household assemblage and dates to the second half of the 19th century.  Gluing mended artifacts is one of my favorite lab tasks, it brings everything full circle!



A Day in Cultural Resource Management

By Dan Eichinger Archaeological Supervisor URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey USA (Posted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum’s webmaster) I am an archaeological supervisor for URS Corporation (Burlington, New Jersey, USA), directing fieldwork in Fishtown (a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) for the I-95 highway renovation project.  A day in Cultural Resource Management does not always begin in the manner most people would assume a typical archaeological project does.  For instance, overnight thunderstorms left our excavations filled with water that had drained off the overpass.  So our day began with the running of pumps and hand-bailing of rain water.  Heavy equipment was utilized to move said pumps and channelize 100’s of gallons of water away from the excavations. Eventually, our muddy archaeology day really began, wet feet and pants, aching backs, and numbed senses aside.  We investigated A-horizons beneath the shadow of the I95 overpass that were luckily left intact in spite of hundreds of years of urban development and the construction of I95 itself.  These excavations yielded artifacts that are associated with the everyday lives of glass blowers whom worked in the numerous local bottling works, which were once located along the banks of the Delaware River.  Also encountered was evidence of the area’s earlier occupants; today’s finds included evidence for Late Archaic Native American tool making activities. Dan Eichinger

A typical day at URS

By David Ramage Archaeological Technician URS Corporation

Burlington, New Jersey, USA  (Posted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum webmaster)

A normal day for me working in the URS laboratory usually involves working with soil samples. Before you are even able to get the tank ready you need to take a sample from the soil that will be retained and used for something else such as pollen sampling.  We need to take a 500mL sample from the original soil sample brought into the lab to be set aside as our retained soil.  Afterwards, what we do is we set a float tank up outside the office and fill that with water.  Then we take measured samples from the soil samples sent in from the field and run the through a screen that is submerged in the water.  This separates the soil from the artifacts allowing us to gather small artifacts that would usually be missed by other excavation techniques.  After we have the artifacts from the floatation tank, we give them a day to dry and then put them in bags to be picked through in the future.  My normal day revolves around this process of separating the artifacts from the soil in the float tank.  The process doesn’t always take all day so if I have time afterwards I usually prepare samples for the next day.  Overall it is a part of the job that requires you to pay attention to what you are doing and using your best judgment with time management.



Becoming a well-rounded archaeologist

By Donald Tiver

Archaeological Technician

URS Corporation, Burlington, New Jersey, USA  (Posted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum webmaster)

Today I worked on my handwriting skills as I marked and glued plates and cups that could mend. It’s a fun exercise in concentration and accuracy. When that got too exhausting I switched to washing and turned various old marbles, spools and glassware fragments into shiny and presentable relics, as close to their original presentation as they will probably ever be. Along the way I slowly gain new perspective on identifying artifacts and, though I can’t say it’s easy for me yet, it does come easier every day. Working with each varied part of the processing of artifacts will certainly work toward making me a well-rounded archaeologist.