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Levi Jordan


For a more technical (but briefer!) discussion of the methods used to excavate this site, go to the Ken Brown and Doreen Cooper discussion of the methods used at the site, excerpted from their 1990 "Structural Continuity in an African-American Slave and Tenant Community" article (4).

This carved shell "cameo" was found in the slave quarters of this plantation, and was made by one of the people who lived there. See "Shell Carver's Cabin" for more details.

by Carol McDavid

This discussion of method makes a few generalizations about methods employed at many archaeological sites – as with any generalization, there are always exceptions. They are only used here to illustrate some of the the differences in excavation methods used at the Jordan site and those used at many other sites. For a detailed discussion of a wide variety of archaeological methods, consult any good archaeological text (such as Renfrew and Bahn 1991, Thomas 1991 and Webster 1993) (27,2,32) – or take an archaeology course or Field School!

Most archaeological sites are excavated by digging "units" (holes) in the ground, or by digging trenches across specific parts of the site. Frequently, these "units" are one meter (about 3 feet) square – this does vary from site to site, depending on the archaeologist, the type of site, and the questions being asked, but one meter is a very common measurement.

Again, commonly (though certainly not always) these units are dug in what are called "natural" levels – that is, the excavator, using a trowel, scrapes away dirt until s/he reaches a change in that dirt – a color, texture, or other change. Sometimes "natural" levels are not used, and "arbitrary" levels are used. In these cases, excavators dig up down to some pre-arranged depth, say, 5, 10 or even more centimeters down. A "line level" is used to accurately measure the depth of soil excavated. After evaluation, photographs, and so forth the excavator then goes back in and excavates the next level, going down the same depth, and so on. Before going on to the next level, all of the artifacts from the just-dug level are put into one bag or other container, and labeled with the "provenience" information – the address, if you like – of that unit, and that level within that unit.

At the Jordan Plantation, things are done a bit differently. While units are always 5 feet square to start with, most (within the cabins at any rate) are subdivided to only 1 foot across – that is, the 5 foot square unit is subdivided into 25 1x1 foot units. The depth of the levels excavated at the Jordan site is also much thinner than usually used elsewhere – excavators do look for soil changes, and stop the level being dug if one is encountered, but most of the time these 1-foot units are dug in arbitrary levels of 1/10 of a foot. In other words, each unit is quite small, and the depth of dirt removed from each small square is quite "thin".

In addition, each artifact encountered in the "abandonment" zone of each unit inside a cabin area (the area with the highest density of artifacts) is left in place until the entire level is excavated. The floor of the unit is then mapped and photographed, so that the precise location of each artifact can be reconstructed, if necessary, in the laboratory. As soon as a level is completely excavated, photographed, and mapped, the artifacts that came from that level are bagged and "addressed", as described above.

The reasons for using this method are based on the fact that this is a very recent historical site, with an extremely high density of artifacts and very good context preservation. To dig in larger excavation units, or "thicker" levels, would mean that a lot of information would be lost – because once something is dug, it cannot be un-dug. First, if we did not excavate in small units, we would not be able to gather detailed information about the ways that different areas within a cabin might have been used (see "shadows"). See Robert Harris' work in looking at some of these shadows.

Second, using deeper levels would mean that we would easily excavate the entire period of occupation (about 50 years) as "one period of time". This is based on the idea that things that are deeper in the ground were put there earlier (if the ground has been undisturbed since the item went into the ground, which is the case here). So, using a level of 5-10 centimeters, which is used on many sites, would mean that the materials deposited in 1890 would be included in the same level (and in the same bag, after excavation!) as those deposited in 1848, when the slaves first arrived. It would then be impossible to see differences in how people might have lived in slavery and in tenancy, because we would have taken artifacts from both periods out at one time, in one level.

Other archaeologists don't always agree with the methods being used here (they do take a LOT of time, for one thing) but they have enabled us to use both artifacts and artifact contexts to understand things about the past that wouldn't have been possible with more commonly used methods.

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Carol McDavid 1998