Each summer Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary offer two 5-week sessions of an Archaeological Field Methods course. For the last 3 years the field school has been focused on the Bray Site, a 1760s school for African-American children. This week, we have asked Victoria Gum to write about her experience as a field school student.
My name is Victoria Gum, and I am an anthropology major at William & Mary. I chose to do the Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary field school this summer because I am interested in pursuing a career in archaeology and because I was interested in the historic connection between the Bray School and the College.
Field school students have many jobs, from shoveling and troweling to washing artifacts in the lab. There is a lot to remember, especially early in the session, but it is impressive how quickly everyone learns. One of the first lessons we all learned while digging was never to pull artifacts out of the ground; instead, you have to excavate around them until they fall loose on their own. It takes great patience to work around these artifacts, but the more time it takes, the better it feels when they are finally excavated. It is exciting to realize, as you remove more dirt, that some broken glass poking out of the ground is actually the edge of an intact bottle base. Then, when it is completely removed, you get to hold it and wipe the dirt away to get a better look.
It is one thing to wander through a museum and see artifacts labeled neatly behind panes of glass, but it is quite another to unearth something that has been buried for hundreds of years, hold it in your hand, and try to guess its origin. Handling the artifacts has been one of my favorite parts of this field school. Even though there are still unanswered questions about the site and the age of the uncovered buildings, I have been amazed at the amount of information provided by the archaeological evidence. Tiny, seemingly insignificant pieces of ceramics can be used to date different parts of the site, and bones, although fragile and sometimes frustrating to excavate, provide information about peoples’ diet in the past.
Archaeology can be incredibly taxing, but it is also very rewarding. The first few days of kneeling and troweling are hard on your knees, and your back might be sore from shoveling or stooping over a screen, but the amount of work that gets done is incredible. At the beginning of the summer, the Bray School site was a flowerbed. Now, most of it is excavated down to the subsoil, and we can see postholes and old brick foundations. This transformation goes surprisingly quickly when the whole class is working together, and as everyone gets more experience, it goes even faster. As a whole, the field school has been a great way to spend the summer; we have learned many useful things, gained experience in a new field, and made progress on a real archaeological project.