Saturday, August 12, 2017

Finially: A blog about a cool artifact!

           Hello again everyone! My name is Emily Fletcher, and I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about my experiences as a camper. Today, I decided to write about the coolest artifact I found in my unit: a gun finial. If you came to our open house this weekend, you probably saw it in the “Recent Finds” artifact case! But first, I’ll start with the background of my unit.

This is another gun part recovered in our unit.
           My partner Meghan and I wanted to excavate this specific unit because it is surrounded by a previously-excavated fireplace. After consultation with our staff, we learned that they theorize the structure associated with this fireplace to be the blacksmith’s quarters. This is because gun and metal caches were previously excavated in the vicinity. A cache is a hole filled with objects, in this case gun parts and metal pieces. These caches indicate that someone—probably a blacksmith—had stored these parts for future use.

           Finding a gun part in this unit, which is located within a possible blacksmith’s quarters, was an amazing clue! It is especially interesting when considered with the various other metal pieces we recovered, including a door hinge. However, when I first found the gun part, I was actually disappointed.

This is the finial I describe throughout the blog! 
            Our unit was still in the plow zone (the section of soil in which farming combined 18th-century and modern artifacts) when we found the finial. My trowel hit it the wrong way and it popped right out of the ground—not exactly the clean removal an archaeologist strives for, but my troweling techniques have come a long way since then. I picked it up, and attempted to scrub some of the dirt off of it with my grimy fingers. That’s when I became disappointed—it was too flat, too regular, to fit what I thought of as an 18th-century artifact. Angrily, I told my partner “we’re finding more modern trash!” while moving to show it to her. This disappointed me because modern trash means you aren’t close to the good stuff yet. I couldn’t have been more wrong! As I scraped another layer of two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old soil off it with my finger, a small design became clear. That was the exact moment I realized it was something
This is the most similar piece I could find while researching.
The photo depicts a butt plate from a Type C French trade gun in
Hamilton's book.

           We later identified it as a finial (decorative end-piece) of a gun part, made from a copper alloy. After research, I learned that it came from a French “Type C” trade gun. These were made between 1680 and 1750, to be traded with Native Peoples. They could be traded for as many as twenty beaver pelts, especially at such remote locations as Fort St. Joseph. From 1660 to 1760, the French imported 200,000 of these guns to New France. It is likely from the trigger guard or butt plate of a gun. 
The pattern on our finial is a “flaming torch” pattern, but it is unique as it is asymmetrical horizontally—most are symmetrical, and I was not able to find an exact match for ours. Even though we were unable to match it exactly, its existence alone tells us a lot about Fort St. Joseph and the importance of guns to its inhabitants. If the structure associated with my unit really is the blacksmith’s quarters, this finial could be a broken part which the blacksmith was asked to repair or replace. Although one gun part does not tell us for sure that this was the blacksmith’s quarters, it is an intriguing piece of the puzzle which seems to support that hypothesis.
Other Type C "flaming torch" trigger guard
finials from Hamilton.Note the vertical 
symmetry which ours lacks. 

            The finial, even without its context, also reveals the importance of guns to fur traders. We know from records that they were important trade items, but the intricate detail present on this piece shows its personal importance. This finial displays beautiful decoration—even though it likely came from part of a gun which few people would see closely. Additionally, it is possible that it was lost or thrown away while being replaced. The effort employed to decorate such an out of sight part, and to replace it when that decoration broke, demonstrates the pride that owners likely took in their guns.

            Now, two hundred and fifty years later, even though it is broken, rusty, and dirty, I can also take pride in it as the coolest thing I found at field school.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The End is Near

     Hello all, Crystal again. Our field season is coming to an end. The units range from 40 to 55 centimeters below datum. The consensus is we want to keep digging. It seems the deeper we get the more questions are risen. Also, more exciting artifacts are recovered! Just this past Tuesday, an elaborate button, a puzzling long blade, and a fascinating adornment chain was discovered. Though I wish I could answer and uncover everything right now, I know the best I can do for the ongoing research at Fort St. Joseph is be thorough. 
 Extracting the core samples from the
B horizon deposit in our unit.
     Photographs, maps, notes, lab work, cataloging, analysis, and curation all rely on individuals attention to detail and careful recording. Although the digging has stopped, everything I just listed continues to interpret the archaeological record. An additional way we can understand the archaeological record without the traditional excavation is by way of core samples. Doctor Nassaney proposed a core sample at N20 E3(our unit's coordinates at the site) because the occupation zone was suspiciously small and a thick streak of dark yellowish brown soil running through our unit created more questions than answers. With limited time left we opted for a core sample to tell us a sliver of information about the soil residing beneath. 
     After we extracted thin long cylinders of soil from beneath what we once thought was the B horizon(the soil layer before people inhabited the area), we learned the streak was in fact B horizon fill. Meaning, people in the 18th century dug into the B horizon soil and deposited it in the area we are currently studying. This appeared in our core sample as a short layer of yellowish brown soil that transitioned to a brownish grey soil that is characteristic of the occupation zone. What intrigues me further is the streak lines up with Feature 28 in a neighboring unit. This feature being a possible wall fill that suggests the corner of what has previously been identified as Structure 5. The colors are starkly different between Feature 28 and our B horizon fill but two anomalies that line up like these do is worth further inquiry and interpretation. Morgan and I have been diligently recording information for archaeologists in the future. As hard as it is to walk away with so many questions I know I’ll be reading this blog next year thrilled about the new insight each student brings to the Field. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

An Artifact's Journey

The artifact cases on display at this year's Open House.
             Hello Everyone! It’s Sara here, back today to talk about our artifacts. Many of you came by our open house last weekend and were able to experience many awesome things, one of which was the artifacts cases we prepared. Laid out on tables were two display cases with glass windows, which showcased some of our most recent finds as well as artifacts from past seasons that are associated with a few of our community partners. The artifacts neatly sewn into the cases had to go through strict procedures in order to be featured in our display; they will eventually find their way to Western Michigan University for analysis, before they are added to the collection of over 300,000 artifacts already processed.
              The artifacts of course have to come from somewhere. They are most often found while soil is being excavated from our pits or when the soil that is pulled from the pit is screened and artifacts are found and removed. After these pieces dry or are placed in artifact bags, they are taken back to our field lab at the Stables.
Me in the lab (a.k.a. my happy place)
washing artifacts.
               In the field lab, we have procedures for cleaning the artifacts to ensure that they remain intact, are correctly identified, retain their provenience, and get as clean as possible. First we check to make sure that the tag within the artifact bag is complete and matches the tag on the outside of the artifact bag. These tags list information on where the piece came from specifically by listing things like the site name (Fort St. Joseph), the coordinates of the pit it was removed from, and whether the item was located in the South or North half of a 1x2 meter pit.
                Next, we examine the contents of the bag to see what we have. The items are placed carefully on a tray, and the bag is turned inside out to ensure there is nothing left stuck in the bag. When looking at the items, it is important to set aside any iron objects, charcoal and anything else we are unsure of, so that they don’t get wet. When wet, things like iron nails will start bleeding rust, and charcoal will float, then start breaking apart.
               Now that they are separated, it is time to wash the artifacts. We fill a tub with tap water only (no soap!) to clean the items, and grab tools like dental picks, tooth brushes, and cardboard flats to put them in to dry. We then gently clean them with the water, getting into every crevice to ensure the artifact will be clean for storing. After the artifacts are clean, they are placed on cardboard flats or directly onto a drying screen to dry overnight. This is important as the items will be stored in small plastic zip bags and need to be dry to preserve them. 
              From here the items are rough sorted. To do this, we take all of the items that are similar within the accession and catalog number and sort them by type. For instance, all glass pieces for the specific catalog number are combined into a pile, just as things like unburned bone and seed beads will be. After everything is sorted for that catalog number, you place the items in an appropriate sized bag (too big and they can float around and break, too small and they can puncture the bag), and a small slip of acid-free paper with the relevant information on it is placed inside and then sealed. With specific categories like metals, we also place a silica packet into the bag, to absorb any excess moisture and prevent degradation. Other categories with more delicate items (such as hollow bird bones) get vials to protect the item from breakage.
The blown up picture in the new finds case of my
favorite artifact.
                It is from this point that we chose the items from our most recent excavation to go into our display case. My lab partner Claire and I were assigned this task and with some help from the Project’s Lab Coordinator Anne, we were able to curate a case full of new archaeological finds as well as past finds in our community partners themed showcase. It was a challenge but also a lot of fun to choose which items the public would see. For the community case, we chose to represent some of the groups that we collaborate with by displaying artifacts we felt would be of interest to them. An example of this is choosing belt buckles to represent the Living History group (also known as reenactors). The Living History group often tries to replicate the artifacts that we find at the fort in order to be as historically accurate in their representations as possible. We chose a belt buckle that was more utilitarian and also one that was more ornate to show examples of decoration at both ends of financial status at the fort.
               After an item is chosen, the information is recorded separately and a slip with the item’s accession (identification) number is made to accompany the item. The item is then sewn into the fabric base with fishing line (which is used because it’s clear), and a marker with the items accession number is pinned next to it. After all of the items are in the case, the case is secured with screws so that the items inside will not be tampered with.

               The new finds case was exciting to compile because the majority of the artifacts were processed just days before they were added, making most of the items in the case our freshest finds. As soon as some of the items were plucked from the screens they were making their way to our display case. My personal favorite came from the pit I briefly helped excavate with Hannon. He found part of a lead seal that featured the letters “OHN.” From this we were able to interpret that the cloth that was attached to it was from an English origin, as the name was most likely John (which is English), not Jacques, as it would be in French. The cases ended up with an impressive array of artifacts from belt buckles, to crosses, to clay pipes that represent a lot of the items we often find here at Fort St. Joseph.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Big Shebang!

           Hello all, it’s Meghan again! All of us at the archaeological field school are so thankful for your love and support at the Open House. The Open House is truly a culmination of the staff and student’s hard work throughout the semester as we invite the public to visit the site and become immersed in the 18th century. We invited re-enactors, who helped us to display and explain the life of an 18th-century French voyageur, tradesmen, and Jesuit priest among others, as well as the Sarrett Nature Center, who provided voyageur canoe rides along the St. Joseph River. We invited members of Fernwood Nature Center who displayed animal pelts akin to the animals uncovered during our excavations. Next to Fernwood, Dr. Terry Martin displayed and explained different types of animal bones found at the Fort St. Joseph site. My fellow students kept busy providing tours of the entire site, showing kids archaeological techniques, discussing our recent finds at the artifact cases and pit tours, and demonstrating the wet-screen procedure.
            Most of my weekend was spent giving pit tours, working the artifact case, and demonstrating wet screening techniques. My favorite place to be at the Open House was the pit tours. It was wonderful to show the public all the hard work my colleagues had put into their units. I was even more excited to show my own unit to the public, as well as my family and friends who have supported me this summer.
            My unit is N24 W11, alias Bertha, and this unit is a section of house four.
A worm's eye view of Bertha.
Bertha was opened because we were trying to intersect one of the fireplaces within the proposed blacksmiths’ quarters. I loved explaining to the public how the archaeological evidence from this summer and previous summers helps us to determine what an area may have been used for or what an area may have been in the 18th century. Fort St. Joseph does not have blueprints or maps of where the buildings were placed, or even how many buildings were at the fort. Therefore, all of the work the students and staff put into their excavations helps to determine the size of the fort and all of its functionalities.
            I am thankful to be part of an archaeological project that is community-based. I enjoy being able to give the Niles’ community a piece of their history back. At the Open House I had a few people tell me they grew up in the area and were happy to see excavations happening. The support from the community allows the Fort St. Joseph archaeological project to continue with their work. So, thank you to each and every one of you who support our work and for attending the Open House. We would not be able to do it without you.
Field school squad before going on the canoe ride.
The archaeological field school is now in its final stretch. The rest of our week will be spent photographing, mapping, profiling, and backfilling our units. It is bittersweet to see my time at field school come to a close because I have made lifelong friends. I will miss our time spent laughing and learning in the field, as well as the late nights spent in the stable loft playing cards and watching movies. The field school has been the most influential and rewarding class that I have taken at Western.