A Day in the Field

By: and Justin Reamer

October 22, 2018

This summer, with funding from the Penn Museum, I served as a field supervisor and teaching assistant at the Smith Creek Archaeological Project (SCAP) run by Dr. Megan Kassabaum (Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Weingarten Assistant Curator for North America) in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. As a field supervisor, my daily duties consisted of supervising students digging in one of the excavation units we had open on the site, assisting in the digging of that unit, and keeping track of all of the official paperwork. What follows is an excerpt from the notebook that I kept every day detailing what we accomplished in my unit and on the site. This particular entry is from the 12th day of our 2018 excavations, and provides a good snapshot of what we were able to accomplish, and under what conditions, in a single day of digging. For context, our overall goal this summer was to uncover a larger portion of a trench we first found during the 2016 excavations, which traces the outlines of a prehistoric structure. Definitions for the bolded terms in the entry can be found below.


12 June 2018                                     SCAP Day 12                                     22Wk526

Trench members clean trowel the floor of the unit to prepare it for photography. Photo by Megan Kassabaum

Day was humid and slightly warm. Goal for the day was to remove midden/buried A-Horizon across unit to expose the E-Horizon by shovel skimming. This proved more problematic than I imagined because of the uneven depths of the E-Horizon and a disappearing trench. We spent the morning shovel skimming down to the floor in the Western half of the unit, while AFG and students mapped the rest of units 128R615 and 126R617. After they got close to finishing mapping I had LEB and RCD shovel skim both halves of the unit. When we located the part of the trench above the clear E-Horizon MCK had us pedestal this section. We also pedestaled several other sections to make sure that we did not go beyond the E-Horizon and miss or dig through the trench. Eventually we leveled out the level when nothing was becoming super clear even though we risked destroying the trench by doing so. We cut back the walls of the unit in between shovel skimming the floor. By the end of the day we had the floor mostly revealed and were able to clean trowel it. Clean troweling revealed one part of the trench running into the northwest corner and another part where we had previously observed it in the southeast corner. In between however there was no evidence of a trench in this level/unit. Instead there was an arc of 5 postholes running through this gap. We also identified several other features or potential features. After clean troweling we scribed in these features for mapping tomorrow. After mapping tomorrow I will quickly shovel skim the surface to be more level and clear which will hopefully help us determine the legitimacy of some features. The last 20 minutes of the day were spent clean troweling walls and the nearby floors we had trampled. MCK was able to photograph the west wall of 126R615 and the south half of the east wall of 126R617. She was unable to photo the south wall of this unit today.

The trench we were looking for this summer is the dark stain running through the center of this photo. The other dark stains are features surrounding it. Photo by author.

*As AFG was mapping 128R615 she discerned that some of our features disappeared or became less clear or were not accurately defined in earlier maps. She asked me to help relocate them but I was unable to relocate a few so we voided those and assumed they were not actually features.

-Soil Horizon- A soil horizon is a layer of soil running more or less parallel to the ground surface and marked by differences in color and/or texture that develop from soil formation processes. An A-Horizon is a dark, organic soil that forms on the ground surface from decaying material. An A-Horizon can become buried from the deposition of soil on top of it through wind, water, flooding, or cultural activities. A buried A-Horizon, or Ab-Horizon, marks a past ground surface where people were likely living at an archaeological site. An E-Horizon or eluvial horizon occurs where the soil has been leached of most or all of its original mineral content. We noted this on the site based on its light color and baby powder-like texture.

-128R615/128R617- These alphanumeric sequences are unit numbers. The numbers refer to the grid overlaying the entire site which is tied into the UTM coordinate system. They provide a northing and an easting number on the grid that tells us where we are digging on the site. Units are labeled based on the coordinates of their southwest corner.

Clean trowel- Clean troweling is a step in the archaeological excavation process where we remove a thin layer of soil at the bottom of a level. This allows us to remove trampled dirt and even out the surface to better observe features and changes in soil color or texture. We also clean trowel the walls before mapping and photographing them so that we can see the stratigraphic soil changes more clearly.

-Features- Archaeological features are the non-movable remains left behind from past human activities. At SCAP we generally see these as stains in the soil or differences in soil texture. These features can mark the locations of past postholes (possibly used in constructing houses), pits, hearths, or other instances of human activity.