Poetic Archaeology 6

trowel skims pottery

carelessly reaching for notes

flexing spine revolts

Archaeology can be hell on the back. Carrying heavy tools and equipment from the truck to a site a mile away isn’t uncommon. Hauling dirt out of a 4-foot deep exploratory trench in a floodplain is hard work. Working in a cramped position while excavating a burial is exhausting. Try digging a nineteenth-century privy (“outhouse”) on a 90-degree day. Some smells never seem to fade….

Some of you know from my recent comments that I pulled something in my back last week. No, it wasn’t from fieldwork. I have no idea what caused it. But it definitely influenced this week’s poem.

I have strained it before when doing archaeology—indirectly. As a college senior I reached across a table to measure a pot for a Museum Methods class. There was a stabbing pain as my back locked up. Three months later, it was finally back to normal. Not a terribly exciting way to get an injury. This one should heal more quickly.

Before she tweaked her back, our intrepid archaeologist was excavating the feature she identified in Poetic Archaeology 5. The heavy machinery was sent to another part of her site where her crew chief took over the monitoring work. The feature isn’t too large, maybe 50 centimeters (20 inches) in diameter. She decided to use a trowel for her work rather than a shovel. At this Phase II level of investigation, she may excavate only half of the feature to see what it contains and to see if she can figure out what it was used for.

This feature was found in an area that had historical ceramics and glass on the surface (as noted in Poetic Archaeology 4). This is often a good clue as to what we’ll find still in the ground. And that’s true with this feature. After taking some ibuprofen, our archaeologist finds pottery like you see below. Only it’s nowhere near as clean as this. So imagine bits of clayey brown dirt clinging to these broken pieces, or sherds, as we call them in the US. Archaeologists in other English-speaking parts of the world will call them shards.

These sherds are all typical 18th century ceramic types. They could be found in any “middling” or upper class household. The Rhenish stoneware was made in Germany and likely stopped in England before coming to the American colonies. The British government kept tight control on imports into the colonies, not wanting the colonies to eliminate the middle man—English companies. That didn’t set well with many colonial businessmen. Add some of those nasty taxes and lack of representation, and some people started complaining….

The Staffordshire Slipware was produced in England, and the tin-glazed earthenware might be English or Dutch in origin. These pieces don’t narrow down the site’s time period beyond the 18th century for our archaeologist. She needs artifacts with a shorter manufacturing window or good historic documents if she’s going to tighten up the occupation timeline to less than 100 years.

When she’s not in the field, our archaeologist (or one of her crew members) is researching historical documents such as deeds for the property and probate records (e.g., wills, estate inventories) of former residents. More of these records come on-line every day, but we still spend time in archives and libraries, straining our eyes to decipher faded old handwriting on original documents or microfilmed copies.

1803 Will of William Lucas. This is quite readable as such documents go.

This will isn’t related to her project, which is probably in Virginia or Maryland. But it’s one I had handy for a sample. (William Lucas is one of my ancestors.)

With the artifacts and historical documents, our archaeologist might pin down who lived at this site and when. Like today, property passed from one generation to the next in colonial times. But sales were also common, either during an individual’s lifetime or after his death. And that usually was “his” death. Women were rarely allowed to purchase land. Some inherited land from their fathers or husbands. But if the woman married or remarried, the property became the husband’s, although she had to waive her “dower right” if he wanted to sell it. Women who found themselves able to support themselves after a father’s or husband’s death often remained single or widowed by choice.

So for now we’ll leave our archaeologist in the field, nursing her sore back. She knows at least one feature dates to the 1700s. And based on the commotion elsewhere on the site, it sounds like the backhoe uncovered something good. She’ll check it out—as soon as she can get herself up and walking….

I hope you’re enjoying this occasional series of poetic posts and glimpses into a fictional archaeological project. They don’t get quite as many views as other posts. But you could be reading them from the home page, which doesn’t generate a “view” for the post in the stats.

37 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology 6

  1. VERY NICE POST! I liked it. I had to go back and read the poem again once I understood about your back. I enjoyed it even more the third time. Thanks for sharing. Isn’t working in a meter deep hole on a hot day with humidity pouring out of the sides of the pit just a lot of fun? But then you find something – – – and the misery seems to disappear for a while.


    • Sometimes the poems are a bit unclear until you read the followup. 🙂 It’s hard to sum up archaeology in a few poetic words!

      You never see the “real” dirty work in movies or TV shows about archaeology, do you? Not too many actors could look “sexy” after a real day in the field!


      • Hi J.M., You are correct. No movie stars would wish to do archaeology. I was told by a Phd. Archaeologist that he was at a fast food place with 6 others who had been working in the mud all morning. There was a mother there with her children and she said to the little tykes; “See? If you don’t go to college that is the kind of work you will have to do” while pointing with her eyes towards the archaeology group.


  2. Another interesting read into a world most of us don’t know. Leave it to Americans to say “sherd” instead of what the rest of the world says…

    I believe how hard on the back this work could be; humans weren’t meant to maintain those positions. And isn’t it frustrating how the most insignificant move can trigger three months of back pain? Sorry you had to go through that. Hopefully this round is easier. 🙂


    • The funny thing is, most Americans, like mouse notes below, would say “shard.” I don’t know why we archaeologists went with sherds. Maybe I should look into that for a future post…. 😉

      Yes, backs are tricksy things. If we can last that long, it could be another million years before they evolve to fully catch up with our bipedalism. Pregnancy and birthing have room for improvement, too, because of it.

      It is getting better, though, this time around. I’m probably about 75-80 percent “back” to normal. It probably helps that I’m in generally good shape to begin with.

      A few years ago my husband tore a rotator cuff while tossing a shovelful of heavy clay out of a trench. It still flares up at times. Archaeology can be hazardous to the health! At least I’ve never worked at a site where soil conditions can preserve things like smallpox viruses!


        • Definitely! Some archaeologists I knew who were moving a 19th-century cemetery had one burial in a lead-sealed casket. In order to do the analyses, the casket was taken to the morgue, and everyone who worked on it had to wear serious-duty hazmat suits. Skeletons I can handle. Flesh and liquids and potential live viruses and bacteria? NO THANK YOU!


    • I’d be willing to bet somebody’s tried something like that somewhere! Especially if they’re working in the middle of nowhere with no good medical treatment for hundreds of miles or more. I’m glad I never really got too sick in Honduras or Mexico….! 🙂


      • btw..i’ve always called them potsherds, and figured it was a convenient mashup kinda like shepherd. Pronounced a certain way when abbreviated and eventually a new word. To me it’s either a shard, or a potsherd, depending on my usage. hmmm..


        • Potsherd works. Of course, we also use sherds for glass, too. Although some of us will mix it up and say glass fragments or pieces of glass, too. Then there’s the real jargon that would put you all to sleep!


  3. You can often figure out where the outhouse was around an old homestead around here because that’s where big fig trees grow. Figs always produced more fruit if planted there.
    I’ve neve heard pieces called “sherds” – always shards – how weird.
    When traveling in Spain I’d stop and dig around in the jumbled where old buildings were being knocked down – there were some beautiful old decorative tiles – even chipped – and shard. Just fun little pieces.
    That will is interesting – some of the old script handwriting is very ornate and difficult to decipher – not to mention the non-standard spelling!
    Love the post – you know people wander around blogs and the stats don’t really show who’s reading what.
    More, please! ( hope you feel better – backs are grim pains)


    • Sherds has got to be an archaeologist’s thing. I really should try to find the story behind it….

      I think a lot of plants do well by outhouses. There’s probably some good fertilizer leaking out into the surrounding soils. Isolated groups of trees and domestic plants like daffodils and lilies are also good clues that an old farmhouse used to be in the area. When we see those in a field or abandoned pasture, we know we’re probably going to find something.

      Those Spanish tiles would be great souvenirs of a trip. 🙂 Depending on where you were, you could probably find old Roman ones, too. I haven’t been to Spain yet, but it’s on the bucket list for me and my husband!

      Oh, spelling. I can’t believe all the spellings I’ve found of McDowell in old records. Mackduell, Mcdewell, …. phew. Standardization is really a 20th-century phenomenon. Add the old styles of handwriting, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for eye strain and headaches. And if you’re hunched over a microfilm reader, well, there goes another part of the back!


      • I couldn’t believe they were tossing all those tiles – it was a very old area in the south (there were Roman aqueducts around). – best souvenir ever (found some in Portugal, too).
        Microfilm blessing and a curse….


        • That must have been an incredible trip. I saw Roman ruins when I went to France in high school. And they were amazing. Come to think of it, that might have influenced my career choice, too….

          I’m glad more records are being made available on line. But staring at the computer screen probably isn’t any better than sitting at a microfilm reader….


  4. Hi JM, I love how you wrote a poem about your sore back. I thought it was quite clever. I love these posts, so please continue writing them to your heart’s content. My mother would get a kick out of these posts, too. She just loves anything old, historical, cultural, and has a story linked to it. She collects antiques and first edition books, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    I don’t think I could ever get into digging around in dirt and mud, but I’m happy as a clam in high tide lurking through museums and old historic places and learning about our history that way. Oh, also, learning about it through your blog is cool, too!

    Have a super day 🙂


    • Thanks, Kate! Everyone must be like me today, catching up with blogs. My views so far are only 5 away from my all-time high! Last week my back was definitely at the front of my mind. I don’t think I could NOT write about it in some way. 🙂 But it is getting a little better every day.

      I didn’t grow up with many antiques in the house, but I’ve always loved history and mysteries. So in hindsight, maybe archaeology wasn’t a surprising career choice. And one of the things I love about living near DC is how easy it is to hop down to visit a museum. No rushing to see all the highlights in a week’s vacation. I can take my time and get lost in the exhibits. They’re great inspiration and background for writing. 🙂

      I think I’ll keep going with these posts, at least for a while. The haiku format is deceptively easy. Trying to tell an archaeological story with it is challenging. But archaeology is part of me. And I hope it provides that extra “insight” into the writer that we’re supposed to provide for our readers. 🙂


  5. Ooh, I hope you’re feeling better – how miserable to have injured yourself. Back pain can be incredibly frustrating, I hope you’re not waiting three months this time round!

    Great post, really interesting and I loved the opening poem. Although there are niggling parts to your job (as with everything, I’m sure) it sounds really interesting. Do you ever find yourself drifting off and imagining who the items belonged to and what kind of crazy adventures folk got up to? I realise that’s probably a ridiculous question to have asked!

    Feel better soon!


    • A little better every day. 🙂 And that’s not a ridiculous question at all. I do it all the time. Sometimes we get a good idea who the artifacts belonged to. For historic sites we can often trace deed records (back to the 1600s when we’re lucky here in Maryland and Virginia) and thus know which families were living there. Of course, the land was often leased to a tenant. We can’t always identify who they were. And it is easy to wonder who used an artifact and how it ended up where it did, to be excavated hundreds of years later by an archaeologit.

      But it was the case of an unusual mummy in our Smithsonian Museum collections that triggered the initial idea for the novel that I call “Death Out of Time.” So that curiosity can lead us down a path we never expected!


  6. JM, I love these archaeological posts. As with many of the other commenters, I hadn’t heard “sherd” before, either. I always said shard; if you are able to find out why archaeologists went a different direction, I’d love to know.

    Cool, too, that you have a will from someone in your family from the early 1800s. I find that kind of thing endlessly fascinating.


    • Thanks, Anne! I love doing genealogical research. I’ve traced some of my dad’s line back to the mid-1700s from Virginia to New York. Moving to Maryland a few years ago was like bringing the family back home in some ways.

      I’m going to have to look into sherd/shard. I’d never really thought much about it before this post. 🙂


  7. JM, I hope your back is okay. I had a herniated disc that flared up for a decade. Miserable experience.

    I love the archeology posts. It’s a world I knew nothing about before you. Thanks for giving insight into it!


    • Oh, a herniated disc would be the worst. My dad had surgery on his because it was so bad. Even today, back surgery doesn’t always help, and his was done back in the ’70s. Hope yours is better now!

      It’s funny. This post is picking up a lot more views and comments today than the last couple did. Of course, it’s when I mention that these haven’t been getting as many views. 🙂 But I think there’s more to tell about my archaeologist’s story. 🙂


    • Thanks, Carol. 🙂 Archaeology and history go well together when they overlap. Some people wonder why do archaeology if you have written documents? But documents rarely cover the daily lives of regular people. And people often record events with a particular slant or purpose in mind. But they’re less careful about their garbage. And that can be very revealing about how someone really lived. 🙂


  8. jmmcdowell take care of your back, you will need to sit up straight when playing those ivory keys… hint hint

    I like stone tools…

    On the Maryland farm – one rainy morning, while walking across the plowed corn field, I looked down at a flawless arrowhead.

    On Moosehead Lake in Maine – I fished at the based of Mt. Kineo – a huge flint rock – flint tools have been tracked across eastern USA and Canada from this big rock.

    Recently Stone tools discovered in Arabia force archaeologists to rethink human history

    those ancient stone tools
    trailing clues around the globe
    my friend never sleeps

    David in Maine USA


    • Now there is a haiku from a master.

      There’s still so much we don’t know about the human past. And all it takes is one new find to change what we thought we knew. Some people have a difficult time changing their mindsets, but I’d rather know what really happened, even if it’s contrary to everything I once thought.

      At various times in the past, the Native American trade networks were amazing. Before the accidental introduction of horses by the Spanish, all travel was on foot. And yet high-quality stone for tools could end up across the country. But most people aren’t aware of it, unfortunately.

      You were lucky finding that flawless point here in Maryland. Most of the tools are made of local materials, which aren’t as high quality for knapping as others!

      The back improves a little every day, even if the music, for now, is entirely in my mind.


    • Thanks, Scott 🙂 Real archaeology may not be the stuff of blockbuster movies, but it can still be darn interesting if you’ve got any interest in the past!


      • No, it is even better than you say. I couldn’t stand history in school or college. Of course, you said, “the past.” There is a difference. The past I enjoy is the type of stuff you do and other such. And, “Blockbuster Movies”? How about “National Treasure”? And, to name one most haven’t seen, “The Librarian”?


        • If history wasn’t taught as memorization of dates and events, more student might enjoy it. 🙂 Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I don’t even memorize the date ranges of archaeological periods and phases!

          Well, there are blockbuster movies about archaeology (can’t forget Indiana Jones, either!), but they’re not what I could call realistic. 😉 Some archaeologists do get themselves into adventurous situations, but they’re definitely not planned or the norm. 🙂 And I haven’t met any archaeologists who look like Indy in his prime, unfortunately!


  9. I really enjoyed this post and the comments. Although I enjoy working in the garden, archaeology always seemed like too much work to me. But I’m glad we have folks who are willing to do that work and write about it so beautifully.


    • Aw, thanks. 🙂 But I think my professional reports would put you to sleep. 😉

      Good to see you back! And I can’t wait to follow your blog once you’ve got it up and running. 🙂


  10. Sorry about your back. Hope it heals quick. I liked the spine revolts though–that describes it perfectly. When I was in Israel, I found lots of shards at the tels we went to…they were everywhere.


    • Thanks, Char, it’s getting a little better everyday. Coming up on two weeks and it’s mosty back to normal. 🙂 If I knew what I did, I’d try not to do it again. It’s not like I want to pull something and be in pain!

      Some places, like Israel, have thousands of years of human history. And the physical remnants keep building up—literally in something like a tel. In other areas, where people didn’t settle in one spot very often, we find far fewer remains. And if they’re all buried, well, many sites are still waiting to be discovered!


Comments are closed.