Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Archaeology at Morven

Last August Ashley and I participated in an archaeology camp at Howell Living History Farm. It was hot, hard work. By the end of our few days I was glad to turn it over to the professionals and go home to a hot shower. I blogged about the experience and put it in my past until I saw Josh at Morven on July 4th, an event it seems I did not write a blog post about. He was trying to round up volunteers to help on a one day public dig. At first I said no, but he asked so nicely I relented and signed up.

The day of the actual dig was also the day Ashley and Don were leaving for Canada so she could attend her last year at Upper Canada Village Time Travelers Camp, the sleep away camp she has enjoyed the past three summers. It was also the day of the Washington Crossing 15k race. The request was for three hours, either in the morning or in the afternoon. Plus the event was free.

We have been having a very hot and humid August. Saturday the 13th was no exception. I was the first one to show up a the allotted time of 9 AM. For a while it seemed I might be the only one to show up. Then a family of four arrived, and a solo man. The family of four included Sara, who was on the Howell dig with us last summer. This time they wanted people at least 16 years old, Sara is only 15 but has a lot of experience. Four others were no shows. I don't know how many of the afternoon crew came to work.

In many ways it was similar to any dig. Once you learn the basic skills, they transfer. Emma (a Princeton University professor, and a classical archaeologist) would say there are nuances, but did agree the basics are the same. You want to be careful when digging; you only dig down one soil layer at a time; you sift the dirt; you take lots of measurements and lots of notes.

This was building upon a dig they did a couple of years ago. Hunter Research was hired for that project, too. They are historical resource consultants, which to me sounds like an awesome job. I did not take notes during the dig because I did not have any place to keep them, but I seem to recall it was two years earlier when they found the wall to the green house, about where they suspect the furnace was located to keep the greenhouse toasty warm. On our one day we were going to dig inside the wall to see what else we could find. They hoped to find gardening tools, but since the greenhouse was shut down (as opposed to burned down), it is more likely they picked up their tools before deciding to stop using the greenhouse. We had to limit ourselves to within that fine white line, which can be a challenge when you get close to the side that drops off and you don't want anything landing in the open area.

Prior to our arrival, Josh and his team (Dot and Evan) cleared away a bunch of overgrown weeds, and exposed the area so when we arrived we could just jump in and get started -- after we had some safety instructions (don't fall in, stay on the path, hydrate, etc.). See that pipe -- it was added long after the Stockton's moved out of Morven. We were to keep clear of it.

Photo credit: Jesse at Morven
We split up into two groups: diggers and sifters. I decided to dig first, which meant the sifters had to wait until I could get a bucketful of dirt for them to sift. As it has been raining a lot lately, the dirt was very wet, making it hard to sift. We had to work with heavy duty gloves to make sure we didn't cut ourselves (being a former greenhouse, we anticipated finding lots of glass). There is proof of me actually doing some work that day.

As with many digs, it seems there is a lot of time spent waiting around -- sifters waiting for full buckets, diggers waiting for empty buckets. At the half-way point we switched. We were also given the opportunity to go on a tour of the outside of Morven with a retired archaeologist -- Sir Ian. I don't know if Ian has officially earned knighthood status, but his British accent and mannerisms makes me think of him as a Sir. He started by showing us the outside of Morven and pointing out how obviously the roof had been raised, and how one section was added to another, and all sorts of things I did not notice when I first looked at the building. He showed us historical documentation to prove Route 206 used to go right in front of Morven, rather than allowing a front lawn, but at one point the road was rerouted slightly while it was straightened, thus giving the signer of the Declaration of Independence (Richard Stockton) a front lawn and less immediate traffic, yet still easy access to Princeton.

Really neat in his collection of papers was a map drawn by a cartographer during the French and Indian War. Each night the soldiers would sketch what they saw along the route (they didn't move very quickly), and each day someone else would fill in the details. The gardens at Morven are among the only six or so gardens drawn on the maps that detail their route from New England to Virginia. The complete collection of maps is at Princeton University.

I felt guilty leaving everyone behind, so I rejoined the sifters. I wish I could say we found something really cool -- like a button or tool or something, but alas all we found were tiny bits of brick and glass, with the occasional tiny fragment of a plate (smaller than the size of a pinky nail tiny). 

Still it was fun. When the project continues someday as more funding is found, I can say I was there.

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