Illness, Archaeology, and the Garden: an update

Query: Is it an homage to the 18th century humeral notions of medicine (puke, purge, and scare the hell out of the illness) that liquid medicines are still being formulated to taste like rotten fruit mixed with pigeon shit and pills have to be the size of ping pong balls to be efficacious?


In other words is it all psychological?; the RX needs to convince the patient “By Gawd, this [noxious and/or huge pill or potion] is sure to work!”  I seem to have bought into the theory for one day into the horse-pill antibiotic prescribed by my doctor I feel for the first time in several days that I am indeed going to live.  I’m not bouncing around, my chair and a cozy blanket still feel like the safest place, but I am actually breathing through my nose for the most part.

So that’s enough about the last half of my last week.  The first half started out way cool.  It was Spring Break here and while my younger granddaughter attended art camp my oldest granddaughter and I volunteered to work with the archaeologists at Montpelier who are working on the slave quarters just to the south of the restored Madison house.  What an exciting project to be a part of even if only in the most amateur and limited way.

The Montpelier archaeology crew (Mark, Hope, Matt, Kim, and three more hardworking young women whose names I just do  not remember – sorry) were welcoming and patient, hardworking and full of good humor.  Heat, cold, rain, wind, no matter, they just plug away, hand and knees coated in mud, shovel and trowels in hand, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of dirt put through the screens.  My admiration for the work archaeologists do is unbounded; and as an historian what I do is made so much better by having their work to rely on!  Evidence of glass windows, or kinds of food bones, how big were the cabins, were the clothes buttons homemade or manufactured, that is the information that enriches my interpretation of the history of slavery.  Lucky me.

The rear of Montpelier - the dig is to the left out of view
Real archaeologists at their work

Day one; Zoe and I got our own square of soil to open.  The dig director, Mark, showed us how to remove the very top layer of grass with our square edged shovel held at an angle to really just scrape carefully.

"our" square of the slave housing dig

The resultant soil was then screened for any goodies and lo and behold we found bits of old glass even at that top layer!  Then with trowels in hand we learned to inch by inch take the layers of soil down through the historic record.  As we scraped away carefully Zoe found a pottery shard with a blue flower-like pattern clearly visible; I found pieces of window and bottle glass.

Then came the screening of each layer of soil which brought more cool artifacts to light; several pieces of iron nails, more window glass, some bone, and other esoteric things like phylite fragments.

Learning to screen

We were particularly impressed with the record keeping out there in the field; codes for the state, the project, all the squares being opened; more codes and accompanying metal numbered tags and for each set of objects from each level!  Then each sort of objects [iron together, ceramics and glass together, brick, mortar, buttons, coins, whatever] are bagged in small plastic bags which are each labeled with all the above code; then all the bagged and labeled artifacts and the tags, after being listed on a data sheet, are put in a brown paper bag, which is itself labeled with all the same information!  I certainly got an insight into how objects can be described as having come from a particular time period with such specificity.  Talk about the Department of Redundancy Department!

Day two; we worked in the lab learning how clean the artifacts so patiently dug from the soil.  Cleaning artifacts is a whole other discipline with special tools and processes and, yes, it’s own form of record keeping!  Watching a piece of glass become clear and shiny under one’s hands with a soft toothbrush and warm water then laid in the designated area of the drying frame with the other clean artifacts is immensely satisfying.

Me cleaning a piece of pottery
Zoe scrubs artifacts in the Montpelier archaeology lab
Artifacts properly cleaned, labeled and set to dry

I will be volunteering again!

For now I’m glad the cool, damp weather keeps me inside as I recuperate.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll be up to some time outside.

FYI: The peas are up!

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