Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Finding a few more hints

Today we found a few more promising signs of our mission. One shovel test yielded more fragments of Native American ceramics, one of which is known as Walnut Roughened, tempered with crushed shell and lightly brushed on the surface. This pottery type was originally common among Creek Indians in the interior of Alabama and Georgia, particularly during the period when many Apalachee Indians lived among the Creeks before descending to Pensacola in 1718. It is also commonly found at Pensacola's Santa Rosa presidio during the time period of the Escambe mission. Mission-era ceramics have now been found in a number of shovel tests in a cluster along the river bluff, and may well represent part of the Apalachee community there until its destruction in 1761.

In two of these same tests (and one earlier test in the same area), we also found some small circular lead objects which have us somewhat puzzled as to their identity (a bent example is shown in the photo to the right). They might relate to later occupation at the site, but given their association with the Native American ceramics noted above, they may relate to the mission occupation.

A few of our shovel tests were placed in areas capped with clay fill excavated from nearby ponds and used to level the original ground surface many years ago. While most of these have only a small layer of fill, a few have considerably more. One shovel test today penetrated a total of two feet of fill before reaching the original ground surface, and ended up even deeper after pushing all the way down to the original clay subsoil. It was waist-deep before backfilling (see photo to left), and was a real challenge to excavate by hand at the very bottom while hanging head-first over the side.

We also encountered some more of the local indigenous wildlife today!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Definite signs

The last few days in the field have been exciting, and not just because the weather is at least a little cooler, with occasional afternoon clouds and showers. Yesterday we found our second concentration of the mission-era occupational debris along the river bluff, including several small Native American sherds that appear 18th-century, several heavily-patinated lead shot pellets consistent with types found at Spanish presidios in the same period, olive-green bottle glass fragments, and other nondescript items including a melted lump of copper or brass. These traces were found more than a hundred meters away from the first concentration we located last week, but were also situated on a spot of level high ground overlooking the river floodplain. We are still testing in this area to see how large the concentration may be. The colonial deposits are completely covered by a layer of fill that was excavated from a nearby pond and used to level the ground many years ago, but by careful excavation and documentation, we are able to reconstruct the original ground surface.

Even more definitive evidence was found today for the prehistoric occupation noted in our last entry. A shovel test today produced a substantial collection of Woodland-era pottery sherds, many of them larger and several of them decorated with designs that help us assign a date to the occupation in this area, which is lower along the slope below the bluff summit, and closer to the swamp bottom. Pottery types found include Swift Creek Complicated Stamped, sand-tempered check stamped (Wakulla or possibly Deptford types), and a folded, thickened rim with punctations that is probably associated with the Weeden Island culture. All these cultures date to the first millenium A.D., helping us pin down more precise time periods when people were living along this edge of the floodplain. There are many more shovel tests to dig in this vicinity, most in the woods, and so we don't yet know how large this prehistoric site is.

The students were also treated to some riverside waterscreening today, due to the recovery of several buckets full of dense, sticky clay from the bases of several shovel tests. In order to save time sifting this material, we set up an impromptu waterscreening station at the water's edge, where water was poured in buckets over the screens. Even though it was a time-saver, it still took a lot of effort, though standing in the water was at least somewhat refreshing (see video below).

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pushing into prehistory

In the midst of our continuing heat wave (temperatures hovered around 100 degrees today), the crew made good progress today, pushing into the woods and all the way to the slope of the bluff overlooking the swamp bottom. Machete work from last week made it possible to sink a pair of shovel tests in and at the edge of the woods, in addition to another one nearby along the edge of the slope in the open.

We were pleased to find that two of the tests produced a number of Native American potsherds, though in both cases these pottery fragments were extremely small and eroded, with only one possible stamped design remnant, and a single rim fragment. From what we were able to tell, however, these sherds appear unlike the ones found last week in association with the glass beads, and instead probably date to the prehistoric period, probably the Woodland era, dating sometime between perhaps 1,000 and 2,500 years ago. It's impossible to say for sure with such limited evidence at present, but it appears that we have finally found evidence for prehistoric occupation in our survey area. Though it was by no means unexpected (not to have found prehistoric debris in such a prime riverside location would have been frankly surprising), it's nonetheless nice to be finding positive evidence in our shovel tests on a day with such intense heat and humidity.

Another crew spent the day mapping in new locations for tests farther south along the bluff edge, where we hope to begin excavations tomorrow.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gaining some momentum

In spite of the oppressive heat and humidity Northwest Florida has been receiving over the last several days, our crews are starting to pick up some speed as we move our way toward the river and along the bluff edge. In fact one of our crews (right) completed two shovel tests today, for the first time this field season.

In virtually all our shovel tests, we continue to find abundant evidence for human activity within the last century and a half, but colonial-era debris is still sparse in this area. We may be dealing with a dispersed settlement pattern for the Escambe mission community, which might only have comprised less than a dozen Apalache houses separated from one another by as much as fifty or more meters, meaning each positive shovel test may be surrounded by a lot of negative ones. We've still only covered a small fraction of the search area, so we may still find a village center with more abundant residential debris from the 1750s.

As we move toward the water we also move into the woods, where the growth is very thick. One team today (left) spent most of their day trying to beat the dense vegetation along the edge of the forest into submission so that they could continue to put in shovel tests along one of the transects.

In the video below, one of our field school students demonstrates the proper way to wield a machete.

Monday, June 15, 2009

New clues

Despite relentless heat over the past days in the field (a local thermometer measured over 94 degrees this afternoon, and there was little cloud cover or breezes), we are making great progress in expanding our map grid and laying in new shovel tests closer and closer to the bluff edge overlooking the river floodplain. Students have been working hard and honing their new skills in excavation, sifting, and mapping, not to mention equipment maintenance and repair along the way.

Today we made a very promising discovery in a shovel test located in a level area near the edge of the bluff. Not only did we find half a dozen Native American potsherds, several of which display characteristics consistent with 18th-century Apalachee Indian pottery known from previous Spanish presidio excavations near Pensacola, but in the same unit we found not one but two tiny white glass seed beads, commonly found as trade goods on sites of this period. While these finds are not definitive evidence that we are entering the outskirts of the San Joseph de Escambe mission village, they certainly give us hope that we are moving in the right direction. Tomorrow and over the course of the next few days, we should be able to open up a number of additional testpits in this area, providing a larger sample that may help confirm the age and identity of these early finds.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Patience is a virtue in archaeology

Archaeology can often be long days of finding very little, and the field school students are learning this first hand. We did make some more progress today, finding one piece of alkaline glazed stoneware in one of our shovel tests. Even with unproductive shovel tests, however, we're gradually gathering the data we need to put together a picture of where people lived and discarded their trash at many different times in the past alongside the river, and with a little luck, we'll find evidence for the Escambe mission site among all the other occupation periods.

Mostly the crew battled intense heat, humidity, and sun today, and one of the crews worked their way towards the river, while having to brave thick vegetation, spiders and bugs, and high water since the river is still up.

While most of our site is relatively open, as you move towards the river-bottom, the brush gets quite a bit thicker as you can see in this video!

We are also very grateful today for the portable restroom generously provided by Boyett's for our field school...from the students and staff, thanks very much!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Picking up speed and finding some clues

Today was a great day for the colonial frontiers field school. It was a beautiful day with hardly a cloud in the sky and the students were energetic after the weekend. We've picked up the pace already this week by completing three shovel tests today, most of which were outside of the worst of the soil disturbances caused by a train derailment years ago.

We also found the first indication of the Native American population we're looking for in the form of a small piece of eroded sand tempered pottery. It could be from any one of several time periods, including the Apalachee of the Spanish era, so we'll have to wait until we find comparable examples with some kind of surface decorations to know more.

So far, all our undisturbed shovel tests lack any evidence of a plowzone, which suggests that much of this location may never have been farmed, accounting for the general lack of surface finds over the years. The good news is that if and when we locate the buried remains of Native American or Spanish structures or activity areas, their state of preservation may be far better than normal.

Another couple of pieces of brown salt-glazed stoneware were found today on the surface near the river, matching others we found in surface collections overlooking the river last week, so we are pushing the shovel test lines towards the river over the next couple of days looking for some sort of definitive signature of our lost Spanish mission.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What a difference a day of rain makes

After yesterday's rainout we were eager to get back to the site, however the site we came back to looked little like the site we had left on Wednesday morning. Lets just say things were wet; very, very wet!

In spite of intermittent rain showers, we did manage to finish up two of the shovel tests.

One shovel test was capped by the same fill as several of the other shovel tests, but under the fill, the original soil was intact, and the students found a tiny piece of whiteware or pearlware while digging through soil
which was far less than ideal (in fact it had the consistency of half-melted ice cream). They were good sports about it, however.

Though we have yet to uncover any further evidence of the mission so far, the field school students are definitely getting their first taste of practical archaeology: being wet, hot and muddy!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rain day

Today was a very short day, due to the line of rainstorms that moved in off the Gulf and reached our site by mid-morning. We've now got teams working on four shovel tests, including the feature identified yesterday (so far no conclusions as to what it is). But we had to cover the units and run for the vehicles today, so we're hoping for better weather tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The archaeologists have arrived

The Colonial Frontiers Project officially kicked off yesterday with the arrival of nine first-time field school students. The day started with some general maintenance and further establishment of the grid.

We started out putting three shovel tests in the ground relatively close to our datum point. These shovel tests were located predominantly in or near fill which was brought in following a railroad derailment in the area during the 1990s. This meant that one of the shovel tests was completely fill dirt, while another was highly disturbed, though it appears that there may be some intact deposits located under the fill.

Despite this, the day did bring us the first possible evidence of the earliest European settlements in the area. In the moderately disturbed shovel test, we recovered a piece of Brown Salt Glazed Stoneware which dates to the 18th century. Since its production pre-dates 1775, it is either our first indication of the initial British Period plantation activity in this stretch of the Escambia River, or possibly the first evidence for the First Spanish mission community we are searching for.

In another shovel test to the north we found our first feature at the end of day one. We documented it and will be excavating it today. Also found in this test pit were some fragments of free-blown olive green glass, also possibly from the colonial period. All these are tantalizing signs of the missing chapters of early colonial history in this region, but much more work remains.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Field School begins tomorrow

The Pensacola Colonial Frontiers project will shift into high gear tomorrow with the first day of fieldwork with our full complement of students. The graduate supervisors and staff spent Friday setting up the project mapping grid and establishing benchmarks for horizontal and vertical control, and excavated the first shovel test on the site. We confirmed that at least part of the survey area may never have been plowed, which will be a real plus if we are able to find intact remains of structures or activity areas from the colonial era, or any other period for that matter. After months and months of historical research, the search for the 18th-century missions outside Spanish Pensacola is finally moving into the archaeological phase.