Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Tales from the Trenches: Fieldwork Week 2, 2017 (or, why does this keep happening?)

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Halfway through through the fieldwork season, and I already cannot believe the amount of earth we’ve moved in pursuit of the burial ground! It’s amazing, thank you to the week 1 & 2 crews for all the hard work you put in, I couldn’t have gotten this far without all of you (and your digging hands)!

It was an amazing week over all, so lets dive right in to what we got up to at Ferryland last week:


17th-century building rubble from the brewhouse dismantling. We found lots of early-mid-17th-century objects between the fallen stones, as well as rich organic soil, charcoal, burned bones, and other organic material. Photo by author, 2017.

The first task of Week 2 of the Search for the Ferryland Burials was to finish off our monster trench from last week. Part of that trench overlapped with a previously excavated area, but had never been checked for features in the subsoil, so I wanted to open a few of the units to get a better understanding of what was going on down there.


One of the deeper units opened last week shows very dramatic slope on the historic ground surface! Photo by author, 2017.

Not sure if I mentioned last week or not (the field days just blur together, you know?), but the subsoil that I keep referring to is the ‘sterile’ layer. Sterile in this case means that there are no artifacts to be found in that layer or anywhere below it except in the case of deeply dug features such as graves, post holes, building foundations, etc. This usually compact layer was exposed in Newfoundland when the last glaciers tore across the landscape, ripping the surface of the ground off with them and exposing this layer. Then, eventually, sediments began to collect and soils eventually formed, covering this layer again long before humans had a chance to drop objects on/in it easily. The idea with digging down to that layer is if the modern or historic surfaces had been interfered with in the past, the grave shafts might survive in the subsoil, as it tends to be about 40 – 60 cmbs.

We finished off Trench 1 with no features to be found in the subsoil save for the old pieces of the brewhouse wall! I was very pleased to see some in tact portions of wall rubble though, as I spent most of my time last year digging through portions of the site that had been farmed for the last few hundred years, with no surviving soil layers to speak of! It was a nice change to have to work around some in situ stones, and not find plastic underneath them.

Part way through the week we started a trench going right through the middle of the Kirke House. This structure, from the mid-17th century, is the reason the brewhouse was dismantled too…so David Kirke could have the structure incorporated into the house itself as the fireplace! The gravestones themselves were found smashed and scattered nearby over a decade ago, and I wouldn’t have been very surprised to find out that they might have been smashed to clear space for the Kirke House itself!

However, that trench didn’t really turn out to have very much in it. The entire area had been previously excavated, but again not checked for subsoil features, so most of the artifacts had either been missed on the first go-round or had fallen down the hill as a result of slopewash. A very cool 18th-century coin was uncovered in one of the units, but other than that the artifacts were your general assemblage of ceramic sherds, glass, and oodles of iron. The subsoil itself, a very interesting blend of reddish-yellow subsoil from the bottom of the slope with portions of lighter sub that seemed to have washed down the hill, didn’t contain any features could indicate graves. Well played, Kirke, well played.


Volunteers Ian and Johanna excavating inside of the Kirke house footprint. Photo by author, 2017.

Soon it was time for two highly anticipated trenches in what Dr. Barry Gaulton sometimes jokingly refers to as the ‘Village Green’ of Ferryland, a tiny grass patch which has no record, archaeological or otherwise, of there ever being a structure there during the 17th-century occupation. These trenches were also very close to where all three of the gravestone fragments were recovered, so I couldn’t wait to get my trowel in the ground over there!

20170712_152431The first thing that happened in the trench was laying out the trenches themselves, which is always a time consuming task! I spent it telling the team how I was taught in field school that if you break the string you have to buy a round of drinks for everyone. Then I got out the axe to chop through some of the sod…you can guess just about how well that went! Whoops!

I had two trenches set up, overlapping slightly and running east / west to maximize our chances of overlapping with a grave feature, assuming the likelyhood of them following typical Christian tradition was quite high, Anglican or Catholic aside. Luckily (?) this area was also previously excavated, so we didn’t have far to go until we reached the subsoil! What we found when we got there however…was less simple to immediately explain.

Volunteer Becca and I were working our way across the subsoil and discovered a line of organic material. It appeared to be running parallel to the edge of the trench (weird) going north / south (also weird but could happen). I tried not to get my hopes up as we cleared the area off, considering the amount of times this happened last year too!


Mysteriously familiar feature. Photo by author, 2017. 

The feature did indeed appear to be a rectangle of some sort, containing sherds of 17th-century North Devon ceramics, pipe stems, decomposed brick and charcoal, all below the subsoil’s surface. It also looked suspiciously familiar.  The notches at the top were strange, the direction was strange, and who could possibly line their units up that well with a historic grave, right?


I decided to dig a small test in the edge of the feature to see how dramatically the sides might slope inwards, or if they kept on going down. I won’t lie, I was still kind of hoping we’d miraculously managed to have that good of luck but the feature also looked a lot like someone had bath-tubbed* the heck out of their unit some-odd years ago and dug passed subsoil for some unknown reason. I kept digging down until I saw something white and clean appearing under the strokes of my trowel. My heart sank a little. It was plastic. It was an old unit!


The culprit. 

If you’ll recall a post I did a handful of weeks ago, something similar happened at the end of week 1 of my excavation in 2016. We found 2 features running roughly east / west, about 95 cm wide, both continuing into the subsoil quite deep. At least 20 cm below sub, I uncovered a cracked antifreeze bottle, and came to the realization that the features had been created by a back-hoe.

I’m not bitter (I’m a little bitter), but I would like to know why I keep finding plastic in mysteriously rectangular features! This year’s plastic was a soil-layer tag which used to label the garbage midden that used to be here, accompanied by several green twist-ties and a modern nail. And more 17th-century ceramics?

The rest of the trenches in the ‘green’ were fairly uneventful, but we did break up Friday morning with an interlude to Ferryland Lighthouse with the whole crew and watched several humpback whales breaching!


Small rectangular post hole / mould. I’m going to explore it more on Monday. Photo by author, 2017. 

The subsoil wasn’t far below the surface at all, and be the end of the day trenches 3 and 4 were nearly finished. In the last few minutes of the day, volunteers Adrienne and Megan uncovered a potential post-hole feature in the northern unit on one of the trenches. Its a small rectangle with potential gravel fill surrounding the post, and it’s very interesting because we didn’t think there had ever been a structure there! It could always be a more modern feature but it was still an excellent teaching opportunity to allow everyone to feel what an organic feature is like, compared to the natural sediment layers.

While these trenches did not turn up any actual evidence for human burials, the information that we gained from clearing such a large area and knowing that the burials are definitely not there is extremely valuable as well. Negative results are still results, and as much as I’d like to be able to shout that we finally know where the burial ground is already, this information will be useful in furthering the search.

I have two more weeks of excavation at Ferryland this summer before I need to finish my thesis (one chapter to go) and submit to my reviews (if you’re reading this, hi!). I took some time on Friday to walk slowly around the settlement, considering my data and what we know about 17th-century British peoples’ relationship with death. After discussing it with Dr. Gaulton, I have a few more locations to explore over the next two weeks that should prove to be quite interesting! Stay tuned next week for part 3/4 of the 2017 field season!


Volunteers Adrienne Watts (foreground) and Ian Petty (background) excavating. Photo by author, 2017.

*bath-tubbing is a very technical term meaning you didn’t straighten out the walls of your unit or trench on the way down, and now it looks more like a bathtub than an archaeological excavation. Probably won’t hold water as well though.


Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Tales from the Trenches: Fieldwork Week 2, 2017 (or, why does this keep happening?)

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 16, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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