Thanks to funding from the Penn Museum, I was able to participate in my first international archaeological excavation this summer. My destination was French Guiana (a department of France sandwiched between Suriname and Brazil) where I helped conduct an archaeological survey of the slave quarter at three different 19th-century plantations. This project represented the first phase of dissertation work for Elizabeth Clay, a friend and fellow Penn Anthropology (historical archaeology) grad student.
As I prepared for this six-week expedition, I anticipated some significant differences between “the field” in French Guiana and where I typically work in Maine and the northeastern US more broadly. For example, I assumed the equatorial rainforest would make the Maine woods look virtually mosquito-free by comparison, and arrived armed with a mosquito head net and ample amounts of DEET. While I made good use of the highly fashionable net and DEET, the mosquito density was actually comparable to Maine… so I now think I should consider wearing a net when I go there!
Although the environment differed from the northeast woods in other ways (i.e. with poison ivy being replaced by thorny palms and trees, and toads by poison dart frogs), archaeological methods with which I was familiar were transplanted to French Guiana.
Excavation at the three historic plantation sites involved circular shovel test pits (STPs) and 1 m x 1 m units. While test pits may have appeared haphazardly placed to visiting volunteers, every 50 cm-diameter pit was located 6 m apart on a grid running north-south. The point of systematically situating and excavating a series of STPs is to locate concentrations of archaeological material, which in turn can help pinpoint areas to be prioritized for excavation in the future. In addition to test pits, several excavation units were placed at each site on house mounds or foundations in the slave quarter. These units offered a better view of horizontal space and provided further insight into how houses in the slave quarter were built and preserved.
All of the dirt removed from the STPs and units was screened to find any artifacts missed during excavation. While I took it for granted that screening was integral to archaeology, I learned that it was not considered “standard” practice in French Guiana. In fact, the couple French MA students on the team had only screened at historic sites when interested in “small” artifacts like beads. Throughout the six-week project, these students were repeatedly surprised when artifacts like a kaolin pipe stem fragment or ceramic slipped by unnoticed during excavation only to be recovered in the screen. As they marveled at the recovery of artifacts, I continued to reflect on what artifacts would have been lost if we did not screen at all. Until French Guiana, I had taken screening for granted; when I thought about sampling strategies it was basically a question of what mesh size was most appropriate, not whether screening was useful or not.
While we recovered many artifacts in the screen – even fish and small mammal bones – I was perhaps most amazed by what was visible and preserved on the surface and in the clay-like soils at each of the sites. Due in part to the freeze-thaw cycle which wreaks havoc on artifacts in the northeast US, I infrequently encounter large ceramic sherds, much less whole bottles, on digs. At the three sites we surveyed this summer, that was basically the norm! Besides ceramic and bottle scatters, iron artifacts were sometimes visible on the surface. Well-preserved metal artifacts especially defied my expectations because I assumed the rain and humidity would take their toll, making them become bulbous and oxidized at best and totally crumble at worst.
In terms of subsurface finds, I enjoyed some personal firsts: I found my first coin, key, and machete. We also found what I have come to think of as the standard suite of artifacts characterizing 19th-century historical archaeology sites (with some variation between French Guiana and the northeast, of course): coarse and refined earthenware ceramic, porcelain, glass, gun flints, lead shot, kaolin pipe fragments, nails, roofing nails, and brick.
Overall, my summer field work in French Guiana broadened and diversified my archaeological background, allowing me to work not only in a different (and at times intense) environment, but with an international crew on a series of plantation sites. I learned that I could in fact “dig” archaeology in the rain forest, but will return to more familiar forests in Maine next summer equipped with more excavation experience, a more critical perspective on methods, and maybe a mosquito head net.