Summary and retrospective on the 2017 excavations: What we learned

In this post we reflect on what we set out to accomplish in the 2017 field season and what we actually accomplished in the 2017 field season. As our colleagues in archaeology know well, excavations sometimes yield what you set out to discover but more often than not produce discoveries that you were not expecting, for better or for worse.

When we broke ground on June 6, our objective was to continue delineating what we thought was a Mississippian structure, likely a house. This feature was encountered in geophysical data and two trenches excavated in 2016. Those data suggested we were looking for a square building, approximately 5 m on a side, with a large central feature or hearth. In the 2016 season, we identified a line of three posts and a daub-and-fire cracked rock feature that seemed to fit those interpretations. So confident were we in these interpretations that Adam Coker, a graduate student from the University of Illinois who has been part of the SMASH project since 2013, was prepared to write his Master’s thesis on the structure.

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Location of 2016 excavation trenches (heavy red line) and magnetometer data suggesting the presence of a square structure with a central hearth.

 

Given these objectives, we opened up a block of 2×2 m units that encompassed the northern half of the “structure.” Excavating in the plowzone gave the 2017 field school students the opportunity to hone their skill sets and practice the essentials of creating level layers and straight walls. Once we removed the plowzone, we did not encounter the expected transition between interior and exterior space, despite the fact that we identified a few additional posts along the row encountered in 2016. Furthermore, once the area around the “hearth” was brought down to the level of the feature, there was nothing that suggested it sat on a house floor. In fact, that feature seemed less like a hearth and more like a pile of daub and fired rock that had been thrown out as trash. However, to the east of that feature, we were encountering a rich midden deposit chock-full of ceramics, lithic material, and well-preserved fauna. This excited Kimi Swisher, a graduate student from the University of Michigan who is composing a pre-doctoral paper on the faunal assemblage from Singer-Moye. Previous shovel-tests and excavations meant we were aware of the midden deposit, but we had thought that it was perhaps fill within the former structure’s semi-subterranean basin.

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The exposed feature that was not a hearth at all, but instead a deposit of daub and rock. These materials had been exposed to high temperatures, but likely not in situ.

By week 3, we were convinced that the structure we set out to investigate was not a structure, but rather a spectre in our geophysical data that may relate to the line of ephemeral posts encountered at the base of the plowzone. As such, we refocused our efforts on investigating the midden deposit that at this point was producing a wealth of interesting material. The hope was that this deposit would help us understand the activities of people living or operating in the space adjacent to Mounds A and H, an area that we have interpreted as a long-lived, possibly elite, precinct. This interpretation in based in part on the identification of a palisade or screen excavated in 2015-16 which would have separated this part of the site core from the general populace.

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Selected ceramic sherds and vessel fragments from near the base of the midden deposit

A soil core determined that the midden extended some 80 cm below the ground surface. So, with a week left in the season, we focused on the southernmost extent of the identified deposit, within the bounds of the 2016 excavation trench. Nearing the base of the deposit, we encountered a dense lens of finely-made ceramics, charred hickory nut, freshwater and marine shell, fish bone, and large pieces of mammal bone, including a bear vertebra. A fragment of worked shell, provisionally identified as a gorget fragment, provided a hint of specialized craft production. Almost 30L of sediment at the base of this deposit were bagged for flotation in the hopes of identifying additional faunal and botanical material.

While preparing the walls and base of the trench for profile drawing on the last day of excavation, the archaeology powers-that-be did what they are wont to do. We uncovered a very clearly defined wall trench in the strata directly below the midden deposit. This wall trench was 20 cm wide with a rounded end and lay beneath BOTH the presumed hearth feature and the earlier midden deposit. It resembles exactly the types of wall trenches encountered by Don Gordy and Margaret Russell in their excavations beneath Mound H, located some 40 m north of the 2017 excavation block. These are undoubtedly related to the earliest occupation of the site, ca. A.D. 1150-1300. A second feature in the southeast corner of the unit is likely another wall trench.

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Wall trench below midden deposit

So, what have we learned? 1) That geophysical anomalies must be investigated below ground to ascertain their contents and significance. 2) That a great amount of activity, possibly domestic, but also possibly related to feasting and/or labor-intensive craft production, took place in this area of the site. 3) That this area was home to some of the earliest of occupants of Singer-Moye and remained a focus of activities and monument construction until the site’s eventual abandonment, after A.D. 1400.

What remains to be done? The 2017 field school students: Flynn, Julie, Mara, and Tiffany, are continuing to wash and rough-sort artifacts during this week in the lab. Their enthusiasm and positive attitudes have made this field season thoroughly enjoyable and we are thrilled to add them to the roster of archaeologists who have honed their skills at Singer-Moye. Adam and Kimi will be continuing their analyses and interpretations through the 2017-18 academic year. We are excited to see the results of their work and greatly appreciate their contributions to the project. Our goal is to present the results of this season’s fieldwork and resulting analyses at the 2018 SAA meetings in Washington D.C.

This year’s season draws to a close five years of field schools and field work at Singer-Moye. Stefan first brought a team of UGA students to the site in 2012 to conduct his dissertation research. By our estimates, 52 students have become competent archaeologists under our watch at the site. It’s been an honor and a privilege to work with each of them. We hope that after a few years to digest and publish what we have learned thus far we will be back to learn more about the history and archaeology of Singer-Moye.

– Jennifer Birch and Stefan Brannan

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SMASH Week 5 Update: Our favorite (and not-so favorite) things about field school

As the field season approaches it’s close, we look back at what we loved, and what we could have done without. We both wholeheartedly agree that finding artifacts and bone is a great experience, and gives off an “adrenaline rush.” Digging is the main aspect of the aforementioned “rush.” But, being precise and methodical while digging is key. After we dig, we wash and analyze the artifacts so we can get a clear picture of what we found, and the implications of those finds.  However, attention to detail is necessary, meaning that every sherd, from small to large, needs to be washed, weighed, and analyzed, which can be a little tedious at times.

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Students and instructors working in the 2017 excavation block

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Students and instructors in washing artifacts in the field lab

 

One of our favorite things outside of the field is the lack of internet and social media. Even though we don’t spend every waking minute on social media, it’s nice to be off the grid for a while, and focus on the dig.  Even though we don’t have internet, the group as a whole is still entertained during down time, as we have an extensive board game collection which we use nightly.

As we are in southern Georgia during the summer, we experience humidity and bugs at higher rates than we normally would. We haven’t had too many days that have been extremely hot (90 F +), but humidity can always be counted on to make the day seem hotter than it is. The bugs take their time waking up in the morning, so we usually don’t have problems until the afternoon, but when they hit, they hit hard.

This has been an experience we will never forget. There are some amazing instructors with us, and the other students are great classmates, in and out of the field. With this week being our last in the field, and only one week in the lab left, there’s not too much time left before we go back into the real world.

– Mara J. Holandez and Flynn Vogt

 

 

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SMASH 2017 Week Four Update: Learning about lifeways through faunal material

As we are getting ready to begin our fifth and final week of field work out at Singer-Moye, we have continued to excavate into the dense, rich midden deposit in the area we have been investigating. We have been finding an increase in both the amount and density of artifacts. This has ranged from daub (clay that once adhered to structures) to beautifully decorated ceramics sherds, mica, chert, and a high amount of faunal material (animal bone and shell).

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The 2017 excavation block. Darker brown soils are rich in artifacts, including animal bone.

Through these rich deposits, Singer-Moye offers an opportunity to help better understand the past behaviors of the people who once lived at and visited this site. This includes learning more about the subsistence practices of these people.

Learning more about subsistence practices in this region of Georgia can be very tricky as the soil in this area is very acidic. Because of this, organic material – like animal bone – often does not preserve very well. However, due to how rich the deposits are at Singer-Moye and how much organic material is in the midden deposits, this helps to make the soil less acidic and allows for better organic preservation than what there would normally be. This provides us with a rare chance to discuss faunal use not just at Singer-Moye, but more broadly in this region and time period. This includes what animals people would have been hunting, eating, and exploiting, as well as the kinds of activities that would have been associated with these practices. These are some of the questions I am working on addressing with my research here at the site by studying and analyzing this rich amount of faunal material.

 

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A selection of faunal material from various contexts laid out to dry in the lab.

The deeper that we have been excavating in the midden deposit, the larger both the amounts and size of animal bone have been. The kinds of animal bone that we have been recovering has included white-tailed deer, bird, turtle, and smaller mammals, as well as shell from bivalves. We have also found both burned and unburned bone, as well as bone that has evidence of cut marks and being split. This helps to demonstrate possible changes in how people were processing animals or also possibly changes in how people were disposing of their refuse through time. This can help further our understanding of how people were living at the site and the kinds of activities they were doing throughout the site’s time of occupation.

Please make sure to keep checking back for future updates and information about the ongoing faunal analysis here at Singer-Moye.

– Kimi Swisher

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SMASH 2017 Week Three Update: Chasing the evidence of a structure

In the 2016 field season, a group of undergraduate students and I (Adam Coker) began investigating a potential structure identified in magnetometer data (Carter et al. 2016). We uncovered a hearth feature bounded by white daub and three post molds representing an external wall. This evidence suggested that we did in fact have a structure, but further excavations would be required in order to confirm this hypothesis. This is the aim of this field season.

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Adam (left), Flynn, and Julie delineating the hearth feature.

To accomplish this goal, we set seven 2×2 m units over the entirety of the anomaly in order to achieve maximum horizontal exposure of the structure and any intact features. If our hypotheses are correct, this block would encompass the northern half of the structure. Thus far, we have encountered an interesting differentiation of soils in the floor of the excavation block. Along the northern walls of the block, an area we expect to be external to the structure, we have encountered a red soil with increased clay content. In contrast, towards the southern and central portions of the block we have encountered a dark brown sandy soil that contains a greater number of artifacts. This could potentially be the result of infilling a structural basin following the abandonment of the structure. We initially identified this difference in soil types in 2016 as a post-use midden.

 

As of yet, no additional posts have been identified, but if the differentiation of soils is related to the filling of a structural basin, then post molds may be obscured. Further excavations will likely reveal more information, and it remains likely that post will be observed below this depositional layer.

As excavation continues, we are getting closer to our goal of confirming the presence of a structure and interpreting its function within the greater context of Singer-Moye as a whole.

 

– Adam Coker

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SMASH 2017 Week Two Update: From the field to the lab

Week two of the SMASH project is well underway, and despite some rainy weather we have been able to make great progress in our work at the Singer-Moye site. We finished excavating Strata II, Level 3 for the two units we opened last week, and are putting them on hold for the time being to begin two new units. Our goal is to expose as much horizontal ground space as possible in order to determine the bounds of a potential structure.

Our excavations have produced large amounts of artifacts, including pottery sherds, chert, lithics, daub, and faunal material. As we dug deeper into the units there was greater artifact density, and we believe that we encountered a midden layer. The possible structure being excavated is thought to have been abandoned and used as a trash heap, which helps explain why we are finding so many artifacts in this area.

The ceramics that we found have varied in shape, size, and color, and numerous pieces are incised or include other forms of decoration.

Dirt from the units is screened at the site, and artifacts are picked out and bagged according to unit, strat, and level. Once a level is closed, we can begin washing the artifacts back at the house. With the exception of daub and faunal material, artifacts are scrubbed with water and a toothbrush and left to dry on screens outside, under the sun.

Daub is clay that is smeared onto the walls of a structure and is used to keep out drafts and smooth the surface. It usually only appears in the archaeological record if it has been baked or fire-hardened. In our excavations so far, we have found pieces of daub in all units and in chunks of various sizes. These findings suggest that some type of structure existed in this area.

We found several pieces of bone (faunal material) that have been tentatively identified as mammal and bird bones. Most are too small for the species to be determined, but in one unit some long bones have been uncovered that require further digging. Some bone fragments show signs of being burnt, and can appear blue-black or orange-white.

The units that were opened this week are still in progress, but as we dig deeper we hope to find more signs of the structure. One unit is believed to have been the entrance of the structure, and we expect to find an abundance of artifacts in the lower levels….

… but will we? Stay tuned to find out!

-Tiffany and Julie

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Kicking off the SMASH 2017 field season

The Singer-Moye Archaeological Settlement History (SMASH) field season for 2017 began Monday, June 2. We have a great group of students from the University of Georgia, one high school junior, and two graduate students from the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan working with us.

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Field School students, L to R: Mara Holandez, Tiffany Yew, Julie Stephens, Flynn Vogt, and Eli Huszagh

Our goal this season is to investigate a possible Mississippian structure encountered in the field in 2016. Last year’s excavations revealed a hearth feature and a line of post molds. Read see Adam Coker’s post summarizing this work here.

Our first week in the field was a wet one. Heavy rain kept us back at the field house on Tuesday morning, where students organized field equipment and learned how to take measurements using line levels. In the afternoon, we got out for a tour of the site before the rain chased us away again. That evening, some very heavy thunderstorms rolled through Lumpkin, which made for a very soggy Wednesday morning. While the road to the site dried out enough for us to get out there, students sketched the site plan and the local grid where we will be excavating this summer into their notebooks. By mid-morning we were able to get out to the site and begin setting up excavation units. Students used the total station to find the corners of 2×2 meter units which will form our block excavation this summer.

Around lunch, heavy rain chased us out of the site once again, though not until everyone had been thoroughly soaked to the skin. A field school rite of passage! That afternoon, Stefan Brannan gave students a lesson in ceramic analysis.

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Soggy field clothes drying out in camp

Thursday dawned bright and finally dry, so we were able to get in a full day of work at the site. We finished stringing units and started excavating! Students used flat shovels to remove the first strata of organic material from two 2×2 meter units placed adjacent to the 2016 excavation units. Our hope is to open up a block that encompasses the north side of this potential structure. On Friday they continued this work, excavating levels within the plowzone. Stay tuned for more updates throughout the field season as our work continues.

Posted by Jennifer Birch

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Stringing units for the excavation block. Our 2016 excavation units are in the foreground. These were covered with black plastic and 3/4″ plywood at the end of last season to protect them so we could continue opening up this area this year.

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Students screening. We are already finding a large volume of material in the humus and plowzone. More details to follow once we start processing finds in the lab.

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Application deadline extended

deadline-extendedWe still have a few places open for this summer’s field school at Singer-Moye.

Applications will be accepted through May 1 on a first-come, first-served basis until the program fills up. The program runs June 2-July 16. There are no fees involved besides tuition and in-state students can apply the HOPE scholarship.

To fill out an application visit our field school page.

 

 

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