Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dating the Ossuary

This fall our loyal volunteers have been busy washing and cataloging the dozens of artifacts and thousands of bone fragments from last summer's work at Danbury. Until now, there hasn't been much to tell, but just yesterday, I received the results of radiocarbon dating two bone samples from the large ossuary (a.k.a. BF 07-04).

Our loyal blog-readers--and field crew--may remember that all along I suspected that this was an Early Woodland feature since all the pottery retrieved from the fill was of the Leimbach series (see 7/7/07 post). In addition, several of our field crew noticed that many of the teeth found in the feature were heavily worn and had very little evidence of dental decay. Heavily worn but healthy teeth are most typical of pre-agricultural, hunting and gathering, populations of the region. Both these observation proved correct since the two samples we had dated returned calibrated 14 C dates of between 1000 BC and 800 BC! This date range corresponds to those of the birdstone burial from 2006 and an earthoven feature found in 2004. Here is a chart showing all our dates for the site. Note the clear date 'plateau' for the Early Woodland period occupation.

Now we need to understand why the Early Woodland inhabitants of the site carried out two very different burial treatments: burial of just a few individuals with a birdstone and other rare objects vs. a communal burial of more than 30 people with no deliberate burial goods. We will have to chew on this one for a while!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wrapping Up for the Season

This past Friday, we closed out the 2007 field season at Danbury. Everyone was very busy removing the last features and backfilling deep excavation units. Jim Bowers and crew removed the last of the bundle burials from "The Ossuary," alias Burial Feature 07-04. This feature turned out to be truly astounding. Our field counts of crania alone exceeded 20 individuals, and the post-cranial bones were densely packed into the center of the pit. We found no birdstones or exotic artifacts in the ossuary, which disappointed a few crew members, but we also found nothing to contradict our working hypothesis that the feature is of Early Woodland age.

This conclusion is based on two observations. One is that only thick, cordmarked, grit-tempered pot sherds, resembling the Leimbach series, were found scattered among the bones, nothing of later vintage was found. Secondly, our cursory examination of some of the teeth appeared heavily worn and with little to no evidence of tooth decay. Such healthy but worn-out teeth are much more typical of hunting and gathering populations such as the Late Archaic and Early Woodland inhabitants of this region, than of Late Woodland or Late Prehistoric period maize agriculturalists. I guess we will have to radiocarbon date one or two samples of bone to find out the real age of this intriguing feature.

I plan to continue my entries to this blog for the next few months with updates on our work in the lab as well as posts on some of the other interesting projects we have underway.

Finally, let me finish with a final "farewell" and big "thank you" to all our very hard-working and very interested field school volunteers and students. You all did a fantastic job and worked steadily in the heat and in the slop (last week). You are directly responsible for the great success we have had this season. Also, we remain grateful to Greg Spatz and Cove on the Bay for allowing us to do this work and continuing to do "the right thing" when it comes to saving a part of this extremely important archaeological resource.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Man's Best Friend?

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, we rarely find artifacts or other inclusions within the burial features found at the Danbury site. The two notable exceptions are the whelk shell burial found in 2005 (see the 2004 excavation report) and the birdstone burial discovered just last year (described in the 2006 report, coming soon!). This week, however, we discovered something unusual placed within the extended burial of an adult female (BF 07-07). Located above the left leg of this burial was a concentration of animal bones which included the skull and jaw of a dog. Below is a closeup image of the dog remains showing the cranium (on right, upper jaw missing), the left side of the lower jaw (with teeth), about four cervical (neck) vertebrae (lower center), a rib, and one scapula (shoulder blade, on left). The white object in the center is the shell of a land snail of relatively recent origin.

No other parts of the dog skeleton were found in the burial so this feature appears not to represent the deliberate burial of, for example, a pet dog but more likely an offering of a dog head or upper body section. Interestingly, a very similar association of a female burial with the head of a dog was documented during the 2003 salvage excavations at the site.

Historical accounts of Great Lakes Native American tribes often mention the importance of dogs, not only as pets or hunting companions but also as sacred offerings or objects of sacrifice used to honor important individuals. The fact that these dog remains were accompanied by a mixture of bones from other creatures (additional offerings?) seems to support this interpretation over the more romantic notion that some Danbury site residents wished to have "man's best friend" accompany them into the afterlife.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A New Burial Pattern Appears

Much of our work of late involves the recording of burial features. We are working at the southern boundary of Lot 4 in an effort to join together our block excavation areas from 2004 and 2005 (see our excavation plan in the June 24 post). As it turns out, this area contains a relatively dense cluster of adult and subadult (child) burials but almost no domestic features (i.e., cooking pits, storage pits, and midden or trash deposits). Several of the smaller (subadult?) burial pits we have recorded contain loose soil and only fragments of human bone. A cross-section of one of these is shown below.

These pits most likely represent graves from which the remains were exhumed by prehistoric Native Americans. We do not yet understand why such burials were disinterred; however, we have found other adult burials that contained the bundled remains of children. Perhaps some of these young ones were exhumed from their individual graves for reburial with relatives. Interestingly, many of these subadult burials lie just to the southeast of a distinct alignment of adult graves which runs northeast to southwest. This pattern is unlikely to be random but rather is evidence of a preplanned cemetery.

A few burials in this cluster contain undisturbed remains of children like Burial Feature 07-08 which was found just this week. It contained the skeleton of a young child and included several marginella shell beads and the single shell disk bead pictured below.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Early Woodland Ossuary

A few posts ago, I described a burned earth feature which we called Feature 07-01. I noted that it most likely was associated with a cluster of human bones. Much time has been spent over the last week excavating Feature 07-01 in plan and carefully exposing what lies beneath. We were amazed to learn that this rather modestly sized feature contains the disarticulated remains of at least 13 people! An image of Feature 07-01 before excavation is shown above (the blue oval shows the maximum extent of the feature).

We refer to this large bone cluster as an "ossuary" or mass burial pit. It contains individual concentrations (or "bundles") of remains which include skulls, longbones, pelves, vertebrae, and hand and foot bones. They most likely represent the collected remains of individuals who died elsewhere, and whose bones were cleaned of flesh and packaged for transport to a common place of interment. Such a secondary form of burial contrasts drastically with the primary extended and flexed burial treatments described previously. We don't completely understand why some groups buried their dead together in this fashion, while others favored the use of individual graves. Here is a copy of our field drawing of what we now call Burial Feature 07-04.

Interestingly, the original burned earth feature now seems to have been a late addition to this feature. It is outlined in the upper right hand portion of the drawing and appears to be devoid of bone. This suggests that this hearth or cooking pit was dug into the pre-existing ossuary, most likely by accident. A collection of scattered bone on the upper (north) edge of the ossuary appears to been displaced from the hole dug by the later hearth-builders and redeposited into the ossuary. Several Leimbach series pot sherds have been found in the fill of the ossuary pit which indicate that it dates to the Early Woodland period (ca. 1000 to 500 B.C.).

Excavation of this very complex feature will continue for some time, and more surprises most likely await us.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Tracking Mortuary Behavior

One of the most intriguing kinds of information that has come from our work at the Danbury site is the evidence for changes in mortuary treatment (i.e., how people buried their dead) over time. This is due in part to the fact that the temporal perspective at Danbury is very long, nearly 5,000 years, and because most groups established small cemeteries during their years of residence.

Shown below are images from our field maps showing two of the burials we recorded this season.

These two (Burial Features 07-01 and 07-03) show the remains of two adults buried in very similar fashion. They are referred to as "extended, primary interments" which means that each person was buried soon after they died and on their backs with arms to the sides. This burial form is very similar to the way many people are buried today. Notice that BF 07-01 (top image) is missing all of the right leg and the lower half of the left leg. These bones appear to have been removed during backhoe excavation during road construction. At present, we do not know the time period of these burials since no temporally sensitive artifacts were recovered with them. Still, this extended form of burial and the northwest to southeast orientation of the skeletons is typical of all the Late Woodland period (ca. 1,000 years old) burials found so far.

In contrast, is Burial Feature 07-02 shown below. This individual, also an adult, was interred in

what is called a "flexed" position with knees drawn up to the chest and arms flexed on or in front of the body. This posture somewhat resembles a fetal position, and, accordingly, some researchers speculate that positioning the body in this way mimics the birth posture and symbolizes the passage from life to the afterlife. A more practical explanation is that the flexing of a body allowed it to be placed in an already-existing storage pit. The bones of this individual are very fragmentary and poorly preserved which may indicate great age. We have found two other flexed burials in similarly poor states of preservation. One of these is the oldest yet found and dates to 4,800 years ago, during the Late Archaic period. So, perhaps we are looking at two different forms of mortuary treatment, extended vs. flexed, which are separated by thousands of years and, perhaps, different belief systems.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Little Sherd, Big Interest

One aspect of the Danbury site that surprises many people is that it is relatively "artifact-poor." This means that, although we have found many interesting and very informative features at the site such as earth ovens, several different types of burials, shell artifacts from the Gulf coast, and a rare birdstone, the quantities of everyday articles (i.e., pot sherds, flint projectile points, and bone tools) are rather scarce. This fact can be frustrating to some of the folks who join us in the field, but it is probably the result of working in an area of the site that was devoted primarily to the burial of the dead rather than habitation areas where such artifacts would have been used and then discarded in large quantities.

We recently found a very interesting pottery sherd that caused quite a bit of excitement around the dig. Not because it is all that spectacular, but because it is relatively large and bears an intricate decoration. This decoration consists of impressions made with a twisted piece of plant fiber cordage which forms rough but recognizable geometric patterns. Here are images of the front (exterior) and back (interior) of this sherd.

The fine cord-impressions can be seen on both faces of the sherd. This pottery is of a type called Vase Corded and is typical of the Late Woodland period, Western Basin Tradition of the region. The Late Woodland society that made this type of pottery lived between about A.D. 700 and 1000. The cord-impressed technique was used far beyond the western Lake Erie basin. It is found on pottery from Wisconsin through Ontario to New York. Such a wide geographic distribution of a decorative technique indicates that native peoples across the Great Lakes traded not only pottery, but information and ideas that became ingrained in all societies.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Completing Our Coverage

At the end of our second week, we have made much progress. We successfully completed most of our systematic testing of Lot 4. By systematic, I mean regular spatial sampling of the remaining deposits in this important part of the development. As the map of the 2004-2006 excavation above shows, our work in Lots 4, and 6 was carried out in two progressive stages. The first stage was the laying out of 2 x 2-meter excavation units at regular intervals to sample the surviving burial features, cooking and storage pits, post molds, and, unavoidably, recent disturbances from past farming and trailer park living. This systematic sampling approach is most obvious in Lot 6 (at the top of the map), but was undertaken in Lot 4 as well. This map does not show our new units from this season; if it did, you would see that most of the "holes" (i.e., gaps in the rows of test units) are now filled in. Our work began in Lot 3 in 2004 (bottom of the map) where we started with systematic testing but quickly shifted to blocks of contiguous units. This change was necessary to allow an early assessment of what remained at the site. We halted our work in Lot 3 at the end of the 2004 season when we learned that this property was destined to be preserved.

The second phase of excavation involved the addition of test units to form large block areas. These blocks exposed more of the features and post mold lines that we found through systematic testing. Below is a view of one block excavation area from the 2005 season.

This more extensive approach is in keeping with the "salvage" nature of our work at Danbury. We want to record as much of the site that remains as possible. Despite our best efforts, however, we will not be able to rescue everything that remains. This does not mean that we are done with our work. In the final four weeks we plan to sample and document the dense concentration of features which lies in the western one quarter or so of Lot 4. If enough time remains, we may engage a backhoe to strip the remaining plow zone from the strip along the eastern edge of the property. In the end though, the days of digging an entire site with masses of hardy workers is no more; now "sampling" is the prime directive.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Burned Earth Feature

Our first pit feature of the 2007 season was discovered at the end of last week. The cross-section profile shown above nicely illustrates the dark, organic soil layer that filled the top of this shallow basin. Mixed with the dark-colored soils in the northern (right hand) half of the profile are reddish-brown soils that are the result of burning. Close contact with high temperatures, usually from burning wood or sometimes hot rocks, oxidizes the natural iron compounds in the soil, turning them a bright orange-red color (see closeup below)

As our crew continued to remove the fill of this small pit feature, they discovered a cluster of human bones which may represent another burial feature. Some of the bones were charred, indicating that this feature may be a place where remains were cremated. We should know the answer to this later in the week.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Good First Week

At the end of our first week at the Danbury site, we have made several interesting discoveries. The exposure of the last section of the stockade line was mentioned in the last post. Three new burial features were identified along the western edge of Lot 4 underneath a very compact layer of recent fill, most likely from debris thrown up during excavation of the drainage swale along the roadside. We resorted to the mattock to get through some of this very hard soil, and yet intact features were found below. One of the burials included six marginella beads, small marine gastropods that were perforated on one side for stringing and used as ornaments or embroidered onto clothing. We cannot yet tell the age of these features since no diagnostic artifacts, such as complete projectile points or decorated pottery, were recovered.

Speaking of pottery, Jim Bowers's crew found a large, but very unusual, post molds in the southeastern corner of Lot 4. It contained about eight large, thick, grit-tempered pot sherds at the bottom of the hole that once contained a wooden house post. It may be that these sherds were put into the post hole to provide a tighter fit for the post. In the images above, you can see the cross-section of the post mold with two large pot sherds sticking out (left) and the remaining pot sherds lining the bottom of the hollowed-out post mold (right).

These sherds appear to all be from one vessel which we should be able to partially reassemble. The pottery is of a type called Leimbach Cordmarked (above) and dates to the Early Woodland period, about 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Although quite old, this type of pottery is the most common form found at the Danbury site. This tells us that Early Woodland people returned to this site again and again over many centuries.

At least one of the most interesting burial features found last season was affiliated with these early people. This feature contained the remains of three people along with a carved slate artifact called a "birdstone," part of a limestone smoking pipe, and fragments of one carved and ground wolf jaw which may have been part of a ritual mask or an ornament. The establishment of cemeteries at sites like Danbury indicate that Native Americans were making these places their own. As with all human remains found at the Danbury site, the bones found this season will be studied by physical anthropologists to identify their age, sex, stature, relative health, and physical relationships to other Native American populations which inhabited Ohio. At the conclusion of the analysis, the remains and associated burial goods will be reburied at another location on the site.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Getting Underway

We made a good start today to the 2007 excavation at the Danbury site. As has become our custom on the first day, much of the morning was spent clearing weeds and undergrowth from the grid stakes and repairing our perimeter fence. Following this, we divided our crew into four groups and set to work in two areas of Lot 4.

Let me say a word or two about our research goals for this season. Our main job is to complete our sampling of Lot 4 which is situated close to the center of what remains of the Danbury site since development began in 2003. There are areas on the extreme western and southern sides of Lot 4 which have not been adequately tested, and it is in these areas that we began. As before, our procedure is the excavation of 2.0 x 2.0 meter square units and the careful exposure of the subsoil to reveal whatever prehistoric features remain.

In the southern area of Lot 4, we are particularly interested in exposing more of a distinct line of post molds which were first identified in 2005 and traced for more than 14 meters last season. By this afternoon, Jim Bowers's crew had exposed a very nice extension of this line which crossed his unit from the northwest to southeast corners. Some of these post molds are marked by arrows in the image below.

This is very encouraging, since I suspect that this line represents part of a stockade fence that enclosed the Late Prehistoric period settlement located at the southern margin of the Danbury site. We will continue to follow this line to see where it goes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Blogging Archaeology

Welcome to the new CMNH Archaeology Blog! On these pages you will be able to read about various projects undertaken by our staff thoughout the year. We will begin with a series of reports on our 2007 field school at the Danbury site. If you don't know about the Danbury site, examine some of our research reports from past field seasons and read an overview of the project. Then look for my weekly updates beginning next week.