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Fire and Water
Fire isn’t the sort of thing you’d think would help preserve cultural artifacts (inferno and ashes), nor is water (flood and erosion). But Washington College students this summer are learning how both can reveal clues about the past and the people in it—in this case, Native Americans who lived along the Chester River thousands of years ago.
During the College’s Summer Archaeology Field School at Indiantown Farms in Centreville, Md., students worked with Justine McKnight, an archaeobotanist who studies the minute remains of plants and their signatures to tell the stories of native peoples. Using a method called soil flotation, McKnight relies on buoyancy to find organic fragments that might be missed or destroyed using traditional methods.
“Material combusted in a low-oxygen environment is carbonized and captured within the soil,” McKnight says. “Anything that’s burned—nutshells, seeds, an ear of corn—it’s perfect! It retains all these qualities of morphology. They can tell us what folks were eating here, how they were modifying the landscape to grow corn, for instance, whether they were gathering marsh plants. Flotation allows suspension of really delicate things.”
On a blustery summer day at Indiantown, while several students picked, troweled and sifted through soil layers nearby, McKnight showed Nicolle Gamez ’14 and Chris Menke ’14, both anthropology majors, how to use soil flotation. The system relies on continually flowing water to wash through excavated material, allowing heavier items to sink and smaller, lighter items to float. After a period of sluicing which, for a three-liter bag of material might take half an hour, McKnight and Gamez carefully screened the remaining bits and collected them to be examined at McKnight’s Severna Park lab.
“It wasn’t an artifact-rich site,” says Bill Schindler, associate professor of archaeology, who led the summer field school with Dr. Julie Markin. “But, it was very rich in many other forms of information. With the type of field recovery techniques we practiced, laboratory analysis can reveal a great deal of valuable information about the past. The real story’s going to be told when the students—Nicolle, Chris, Sarah and Dana—complete their work.”
While Gamez focuses on the floral remains, Menke is looking at faunal leftovers—fish scales, bones, oysters—using carbon 14 dating to place them in temporal context. For this site in particular, Schindler says, the carbon 14 dating is essential because so little else remains. “The level we’re working in shows no pottery, which suggests it’s pre-ceramic. If so it’s more than 3,000 years old,” he says. “We’d like to have a more accurate date.”
Sarah Cohen ’14 is analyzing stone tools and flakes from the site, while Dana Case ’14 is conducting experimental archaeological analysis utilizing technology available at the time to open oysters, and comparing those marks and traits to the shells found on site.
The students and the field school are taking advantage of grants through Faculty-Student Summer Collaborations, a new effort to encourage such partnerships in the arts, humanities and social sciences. “Summer collaborative research in the natural sciences has grown tremendously in the past few years, thanks to the leadership of faculty across the division and the generous support of the Hodson Trust,” says Provost and Dean Emily Chamlee-Wright. “These experiences are premier examples of the transformational teaching and learning that takes place at Washington College. It’s my goal to expand them across the disciplines.”