Field School Week 3: Where to Dig? And Why?

Many regular readers of this blog know what we did last year, but I need to explain our plan for the field season for the benefit of new followers.  We’ve been doing fieldwork at Cliff and Clifton for four years now.  The entire project grew out of Sean Gohman’s interest in the Cliff Mine’s story.  We spent the summer of 2010 mapping the site’s industrial core: the shafts, engine houses, stacks, mills, and other buildings. Sean spent the next academic year studying the history of the Cliff in published studies and primary documents and also fitting the maps of what we saw on the ground with historic maps.  He produced two results. His first result was his thesis, in which he related the history of the Cliff Mine and analyzed the maps.  The other outcome was a Geographic Information Systems database of historic and modern maps, remote sensing data, aerial images, and other items which allowed us to really understand the distribution of buildings and other landscape changes through time.

We spent two more years actively mapping, extending out map into the townsite of Clifton and into the South Cliff/North American mine workings.  During 2012, many visitors met Roger Gerke who had taken the challenge of leading the mapping work in Clifton. By this year, we have a pretty good base map of the community.  There are still lots of areas we need to fill in, and Roger is still plugging away, trying to do things like use the GIS to stretch historic photos in 3D space, so we will know where to look for buildings that show no surface traces today.

With our evolving map last year, we started studying the archaeological potential of research in Clifton.  We are interested to use the artifacts and features to learn about daily life in Clifton- I tell people that we want the material residues of daily life to help broaden and deepen what we know from historic records.  First person accounts of daily life in Clifton are quite sparse, actually, especially from the 1840s and 1850s. We have some wonderful sources though, particularly Henry Hobart’s diary, but we want to know so much more!

We started with two types of work.  First, we have been trying to use the census records and figure out who lived in which buildings.  Now that we have a good map, and we know where some people lived (such as the mine agent, captain, and clerk), we hoped to be able to follow the census enumerator as he walked through town.  It has not been easy and we don’t have any answers yet. Since the Cliff Company owned all the buildings, there are no deed/title records that we can consult to learn who lived where.  We are still working on this.

But to measure the potential of archaeology to tell the stories of peoples’ daily lives, we adapted a pretty common strategy. First, we split up the buildings by their type: small log cabins, framed buildings that were probable boarding houses, and large framed buildings that were private residences.  Then we sampled among those different house types in different areas of town, which we consider as similar to neighborhoods although that may not be an accurate term.

We wanted to see the potential in these different areas.  Were there archaeological deposits from different time periods? Would they tell us about daily life in town? Had all of them been damaged by metal detector enthusiasts, or was there still scientific and historical potential in different areas?

STPs in Clifton.

2012 Research Team members digging Shovel Test Pits in Clifton.

We choose building sites where it looked like there had been less digging by collectors with metal detectors, picking some log cabin sites, some boarding house sites, and some areas among the big houses of the mine’s executives.  Around each building, we established a grid of lines like a sheet of graph paper with the building in the  middle.  Then we used a random number generator to select grid coordinates at which we would dig shovel test pits (STPs).  STPs are small holes dug with a shovel, keeping different layers of soil apart and screening all the dirt to recover all the fragments of artifacts. Shovel tests are a common archaeological strategy for getting a quick look at the layers of soil and sediment below the ground in an area.  Sometimes archaeologists do them systematically and other times as a random sample of an area, as we did in this case.

Kim Garthe inspects a decorated piece of ceramic found during excavation in 2011. Note the paperwork. Everything from depth, soil changes, artifacts found and their location is carefully recorded in order to recreate the student's work either in the lab or in report form.

Kim Garthe inspects a decorated piece of ceramic found during excavation in 2011. Note the paperwork. Everything from depth, soil changes, artifacts found and their location is carefully recorded in order to recreate the student’s work either in the lab or in report form.

We could see immediately that there were buried layers of soil that were from different time periods.  While there has been pretty extensive grubbing around over the past thirty years, because most collectors work with metal detectors to guide their digging (and also target privies and wells), there are lots of places at Cliff where people have not been digging and the stratigraphy is intact and interesting.  We were also able to generate maps showing the distributions of different types of artifacts around the house, to help us understand how people were using the spaces around their homes.

An example of a shovel test pit.  Not very visually exciting, but very useful!

An example of a shovel test pit. Not very visually exciting, but very useful!

Using this information, we made some decisions last year-and I’ll write about that in the next post.

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About Timothy James Scarlett

Associate Professor of Archaeology at Michigan Technological University.

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