Unearthing Archeology Itself: The Experiences of a SEAC Intern

Hello there! I’m Shabria Williamston, one of SEAC’s summer interns. This internship has been designed to serve as a 12 week tour of the center’s projects, procedures and policies. In this posting, you can follow my internship as I discuss my activities from week to week.

Week 1: My first week at SEAC was gritty- in the best sense possible. Day 1 was a blur of paperwork. I became “government official,” as I call it, and read several documents that got me up to speed on Federal policies concerning archeology. Starting on day 2 I was sent to join the FSU students at a Late Woodland Period site called Byrd Hammock that features two adjacent ring-shaped villages. The outdoor common area, or “plaza” as we called it, was in the center, and the shellfish and bone filled midden formed a ring outside the smaller ring in which houses were once located. I dug in the largely barren, plaza for the week. Every archeologist enjoys the field much better when they actually find artifacts in their screens, but the screens at the plaza mostly caught leaves and sticks. As it was likely also used for religious purposes, the area was kept clean of debris and household items. We were instructed to continue digging since two features (believed to be post-holes) were uncovered inside the unit. We found a potsherd here and there, but mostly sand and insects.This is not to say that I was bored at the plaza. On the contrary, it was that week that I did grid-mapping, took down several levels of various units, and learned the significance of the soil variations in the site. I even got to be present at the first test flight of the brand-new SEAC surveying drone! I would show you a video of that, but WordPress won’t let me- sorry. That weekend, while scratching my bug bites and stretching my tense muscles, I reflected on the knowledge I had gained in such a short time and looked forward to all that there was still to learn.

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One of my beautiful, tediously drawn unit maps featuring Munsell soil samples.

Weeks 2&3: I was placed in Administration for my second and third week at SEAC. I was tasked with checking SEAC’s electronic inventory. In case you weren’t sure, there are A LOT of electronics involved in archeology, and I would tell you that the hours spent creating charts in Excel were riveting- but then I’d be lying. But what I will say is that despite the monotony of the work, I payed attention to the inventory details and learned quite a bit about how archeological technology has developed over time. The evolution of remote sensing/mapping and photography has made archeology a more scientifically accurate field, as well as reduced the amount of time spent surveying landscapes and documenting sites. While on a mission to make sure all the listed items were accounted for, I discovered (and of course fiddled with) 2 throwback Graflex cameras from the 1950’s and ’60’s.

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Graflex 1, complete with separate flash piece. Both were carried in the bulky gray case that held various other accessories needed to take a quality photo.
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Graflex 2, shown here with a film slide (forward), and the circular spool on which the extremely flammable nitrate film was held

I paused to imagine the hot and sweaty archeologist who was first to use the brand-new Graflex- trying to get his sights and lighting just perfect while swatting gnats and mosquitoes away from their eyes. In those moments I gained an immense amount of respect for those who were able to perfectly capture all forms of reality onto thin film.

Since there wasn’t too much else to do after the inventory was completed, I decided to help out some other departments. I assisted the Compliance folks with the ever-so-tedious but ever-so-necessary task of sorting and counting pieces of shell and bone found in a midden. As the counter ticked off thousands (THOUSANDS!) of shards, I learned about the diets of the first Americans. Oyster was the predominant shellfish of choice, but among rubble I also found clams and mussels. Prior to the arrival of Europeans and the over-hunting of several species, the average oyster was nearly twice as large as the average oyster today. The Native Americans in the area fed themselves well with tons of the 5- and 6-inch long bivalves. There were also large amounts  of fish bones- namely catfish, king fish and various sharks. And of course there were the worms, barnacles and snails that had fastened themselves to the delicacies pre-capture and leeched out nutrients for survival. Many of these were separated from the shellfish, and discarded without being consumed. Click here to learn more about how SEAC zooarcheologists study materials from middens!

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THOUSANDS!!
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…upon thousands. This was not a game, but it was definitely fun.

I also chose to return to the field for the latter half of Week 3. I worked at the plaza the majority of the time, opened another unit within it, and found quite a few pieces of ceramic (vastly more than were found the previous week). I eventually got to dig in another area in which several artifacts had been found. There, I continued to find artifacts, including several large potsherds that were located in areas theorized to be features.

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Possible feature that yielded several ceramic potsherds.
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A potsherd caught peeking from the bottom of the cross-section.

When unusual soil patterns are found, in this instance a nearly perfect dark circle within white sand, it indicates to archeologists that a significant structure (i.e a posthole) may have once stood there. While this did not turn out to be the case, it would appear that a small number of ceramic vessels were broken or discarded in the area.

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