By Simon Munt, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student
OK, we didn’t find lost cities, the Holy Grail or Don Bradman’s first cricket bat. But on our April 2015 field school at the Magpie Creek ruin in Sturt Gorge Recreation Park, South Australia, we learned a lot of new skills about archaeological excavation!
One essential skill was that at sites such as this we would need to excavate not in arbitrary spits, but according to the natural stratigraphy. Given that our main research aims concerned the spatial arrangements of this historical cottage and how people lived in it, we used the ‘context system’, which emphasises horizontal excavation. Deeper, more vertical methods would be more useful for projects requiring a finer chronological resolution.
So this meant that we had to be on constant look-out for new ‘contexts’. An archaeological context is any discrete entity e.g. a change in the nature of the soil; a new stratigraphic layer; a pit feature; a wall; a post-hole etc. Several contexts can exist in one layer.
Our group was lucky enough to spread our anticipation of our first subterranean context over an entire day of bicep-building rock clearing! We then gained some vital skills and understandings:
- To pay particular attention to soil changes and to then test these appropriately
- To avoid digging into new contexts before completing and recording previous ones
- To keep all information from each context completely separate from others and fully and accurately labelled.
Eventually we found 6 contexts in our 1 m (width) x 2.23 m (length) x approx. 1 m (depth) trench. These included:
- The surface layer of rubble (Figure 1) and
- The brick floor of the chimney/ fireplace (Figure 2) (prior to reaching bricks this had been a different context, consisting of soil)
- A mortar layer (Figure 2)
- A ‘living floor,’ where most artefacts were recovered (Figure 2); and
- A natural, ‘rammed earth’ floor (Figure 2).
– Upper section containing scale rod:chimney/ fireplace.
– Far left section, medium brown colour: mortar.
– Slightly raised, darker brown section, with white arrow: occupation layer.
– Larger, lighter brown area: natural or ‘rammed earth’ layer.
(White arrow = magnetic north)
As for artefacts, who needs cities, grails and bats when we found an array of glass shards, a unique metal name plate, a bullet shell, mother-of-pearl buttons, animal bones and even some ceramics. After all, what would be more helpful for our research questions?
And for those of you who are keen to find out more about Sturt Gorge Recreation Park, which is right near Flinders University, check out the Friends of Sturt Gorge website: http://www.fosg.org.au/aboutus.html
For more information about archaeological excavation techniques, have a look at: Burke, H. and C. Smith 2004 The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, pp.115-162.