Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Week Six - Meghan Shirley

Some say that there are two sides to every story. After six long weeks, the 2009 Temple University field school could tell those people they’re dead wrong – at least when the story in question is being told about an historical landscape. A physical place, an oral history, a group of soldiers in a winter encampment – over time these things are snowballs rolling down a hill, gaining a new layer with each revolution, each layer containing its own myriad of interpretations, each building upon those that came before it. To seek a definitive answer, an accepted truth, a list of facts, an end to all inquiry – as students of historical archaeology we quickly learn how futile this search would be. In the preface to her book entitled “Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol,” Lorett D. Treese discusses the professional historian’s view of history, the idea that there is not one, or even two, truths but many, many interpretations of what we seek to know and understand about the past. As she points out – and as we’ve seen firsthand this summer – Valley Forge has not one, but several histories. Over the course of six weeks, we’ve been introduced to some interpretations of these histories and uncovered many others ourselves.

Although this last week of excavation has been a short one, nobody can say we haven’t succeeded in going out with a bang. With the help of Dan Sivilich and BRAVO, joining us at the site for the first time this summer, Saturday’s public archaeology day was excitingly successful. It’s likely no one expected the complete bayonet found a mere four inches deep in the soil less than a stone’s throw away from one of the spots we’ve been excavating. Did a Continental soldier drop it accidentally or was it being used for something other than its intended purpose? At this point the latter may be the best guess considering the fact that a collapsed piece at what would have been the point of fixation to the musket seems to have been physically, maybe intentionally, altered. BRAVO also found many other metal artifacts like musket balls, nails and buttons, several of which came out of the ground in a linear cluster first identified in 2007. As the members of Dan’s team swept the surrounding area, we excavated several new units in the spot known as the rock scatter, first opened in 2007 and thought to have maybe been a work area of some sort. We found some bone, some ceramic and, interestingly, evidence of six post holes possibly running in two different – but not parallel – straight lines through three different units. Considering the situation of the soil marks in relation to one another, one line of posts was most likely erected first and eventually torn down before the other went up. What may be a small flint wrap (part of a musket) was found in the bottom of one of the excavated post holes.

A few days later we completed plan view drawings of the rock scatter units and the post holes they contained, as well as the units we’ve excavated at the camp kitchen and the long trench they revealed. This technical drawing can be time consuming but is extremely important as documentation of what our units are telling us at crucial points in excavation. After drawing we effectively destroy what we just put down on paper as we continue to dig. The last few days we’ve done just that, troweling out the rich, dark soil of the camp kitchen’s trench feature in groups. In units 204 C and D two of our classmates uncovered what looks like an iron sword blade, as well as two pieces of what appear to be a tea cup saucer made of decorated creamware. These artifacts lend more evidence to the notion that there were officers in the area, for they are the ones who would have used such a vessel and carried such a weapon. Pulled from other parts of the feature were musket balls, bone (some with marks indicating butchering), charcoal, an iron pot handle with copper rivets and plating, a badly degraded button, a fairly large chert core and pieces of burned earth.

In light of the material artifacts found and the features in the land itself, we interpret this particular area as being, once upon a time, the site of a camp kitchen. Many finds bring us closer to an answer – or at least a likely answer – to the question we’re posing. Yet it’s true that some things come out of the ground after so many years and only lead to more questions. Case in point: three pewter 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment buttons found on site at Washington Memorial Chapel. One was found last year, 2008, in the same units of the camp kitchen feature that just a few days ago yielded the sword blade and creamware – our 204 C and D. BRAVO turned up the second one north of the camp kitchen area. One button, no red flag. Two buttons in different areas, maybe a coincidence. But after one of our classmates pulled a third button out of unit 205 D in the same camp kitchen area as the first, all sorts of questions came up. The Pennsylvania regiments supposedly encamped at what is now known as Wayne’s Woods under the command of General Anthony Wayne – not in the area we’re currently excavating near the chapel. So was the 2nd Pennsylvania actually there? If not, where were they situated? Were they separated from the others stationed in Wayne’s Woods and ordered to instead build their huts alongside the New England troops under General Varnum? Was our chapel site a work area or maybe a place where uniforms were being delivered? These are some of the many possible ways to interpret the finding of these three buttons in the chapel area. Hopefully further research and excavation will produce a more definitive answer.

As field school comes to an end, the search to uncover all that this site has to tell us certainly doesn’t. Yet after six long weeks we can all say we’ve become a part of this landscape – and carved out our own piece in one of its many layers of history – forever.

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