Thursday, November 24, 2011

Documenting the Late Prehistoric Period Village

Another research question of ours has to do with the age of the apparent stockade enclosure we first identified in 2010.  We now know that there were at least two, and possibly three, concentric lines of large wooden posts that formed a defensive barrier around the eastern section of the Heckleman site.  In 2010 we learned that one line of this fortification crossed over the filled oval enclosure trench, placing its construction sometime after the Early Woodland period.  We also discovered that this same post line was interrupted by a Late Prehistoric period pit feature (Feature 10-02) that contained sherds of Mixter Dentate pottery.   Thus, this line of posts must have been removed before the digging of the pit feature, which I guessed to be sometime around AD 1350 based on the presence of the Mixter type pottery.   As mentioned in my July 17, 2011 post, we were fortunate to discover one post mold (PM-18) in the outer line of the stockade that contained a rather large piece of wood charcoal, something that has rarely occurred at Heckleman. The figure below shows the location of PM-18.

  I submitted this charcoal sample for radiocarbon dating and the results reveal that the material was burned between AD 1410 and 1450.  This is a very tight date range as calibrated radiocarbon dates go, so I was very pleased.   We are not sure if the large chunk of charcoal in PM-18 is an actual introduction of some burned firewood after the post itself rotted, or if it represents a surviving fragment of the post itself, which were often charred at their tips to prevent rotting.  In either case, the burning of such a large piece of wood most certainly occurred near to the time of the erection of the stockade wall.   Thus, we now have direct evidence to confirm the presence of an enclosed Late Prehistoric period (Sandusky Tradition) village site at the Heckleman site during the early fifteenth century AD. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Even Older Than We Thought

In October, I submitted five samples of charred plant material from the 2011 excavations at the Heckleman site for radiocarbon dating. Some of the results were what I expected, but others surprised me. Perhaps the most surprising was the rather ancient date on charred food(?) residue found on the interior of a large, thick pottery body section from the oval enclosure ditch (Feature 11-01). These section was found in the bottom fill layer of the ditch and is similar to sherds found within the ditch over the last two seasons. This particular sherd--carefully reconstructed by Meghan M.--appears to retain the base of a broken lug handle as shown in the image below.

The resulting radiocarbon age on the residue produced a calibrated date range of 800 BC to 670 BC. This new date places the construction of the oval enclosure some 300 to 500 years earlier than previously thought, making it one of the oldest such constructions in Ohio.   The only other enclosure of comparable age, to my knowledge, is the Dominion Land Company earthwork in Franklin County, Ohio, near Columbus.   This early age also indicates that the oval enclosure was likely constructed prior to the parallel ditches which enclose the eastern end of the promontory.  FARC excavations over the last three seasons have recovered more recent (Middle to Late Prehistoric period) artifacts in the fill of these twin ditches.   So, it seems that the Heckleman site is getting older all the time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pottery Everywhere

It has been a busy fall as we work away on the Heckleman site collection.  As our faithful readers know, we recovered quite a bit of ceramics last summer.  Intern Catie G. spent three weeks reconstructing and measuring one particularly large vessel from Feature 11-09.  Here she is working diligently on her project.
This was the vessel from the "pottery cascade" described in an earlier blog posting (6/24/11).   Contrary to our hopes in the field, this vessel was not complete, but Catie was able to reconstruct a decent portion of this large, thick pot.  It had at least two thick lug handles which were attached around the shoulder area and a distinctive fabric-marked exterior surface.  Unfortunately, we recovered no datable material from Feature 11-09, so we cannot say exactly how old this vessel is.  I would suspect it dates to the Early Woodland period, perhaps 2,000 or more years ago, based on its form.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Village Stockades and a Possible House

We are back in the lab now and starting to sort through our discoveries. Brian S. has spent much time this week tabulating post mold data. We recorded 477 of the things this season! As mentioned in a recent post, the stockade lines are the most obvious post mold configurations and clearly extend to the northeast as a set of shallow arcs as shown in the map below. Post line "D" is a new one. It either represents a third stockade line outside the first two (A and B) or possibly a structure (bastion?) attached to line B.

Post line C, located just inside A, was first identified last season as a straight line of very small post molds, each measuring only 3 to 5 cm in diameter. Our work this season in unit 514N 512 E exposed what appears to be a right angle or turn to the northeast in this line, which is interrupted in part by Feature 11-46. I spent several hours one day tracing this line toward the northeast corner of the unit, when it abruptly turned to the southeast and out of the eastern wall of the unit. As shown in the diagram, this configuration looks like the squared-off end of a structure, possibly a longhouse-like dwelling measuring about four meters in width. Similar post configurations were found by us back in 1998 and 2002 at the White Fort village site in Lorain County. The latter structures dated to the Late Prehistoric period, around AD 1300. So we may have found our first Late Prehistoric period house at the Heckleman site. As usual, only more excavation will tell for sure.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Invisible Pit Feature

Another last day surprise was the discovery of another large concentration of pottery--while cross-sectioning a post mold! Usually this doesn't happen, since you can't cram many pot sherds into a tiny post mold. It does happen, however, when the post mold is within a previously unidentified pit feature. This was the case with Feature 11-52 shown below.

Michelle N. spent all the remaining day exposing one pot sherd after another in a necessary hurry. Her careful and efficient efforts revealed a large concentration of sherds sitting in a small basin. I assisted with the final removal using my trusted long-handled trowel (no pictures permitted!). The vessel came out in a minimum of fragments and quick examination revealed it to be a plain-surfaced vessel, somewhat rare in our Woodland assemblages found to date.

I find all these busted vessels in small pits quite interesting. I suspect that we will not find all the pieces to any of these pots, which would seem to suggest that these are places of disposal rather than storage. But we need to remember that more than 100 years of plowing at this site very likely removed significant portions of the upper sections of these vessels. In fact, we tend to recover a lot of base sherds and few rim sherds, which seems to support a view of these features as small "pot pits"(not to be confused with "post pits"). Some historic Native American households were known to place storage vessels within shallow pits dug into the floors of their dwellings. This practice would have been most practical with large storage pots, which are less amenable to suspension on the walls or from rafters. We won't be able to confirm this, however, until the laborious washing and inventorying are underway, and we see what parts of the original vessels have survived.

Some Final Day Surprises

Every season interesting things tend to be found on the last day of excavation. This year was no exception. The finishing touches were put on the excavation of the large pit Feature 11-39 by Allison Z. and Marcia R. At the very bottom they discovered a large post mold, similar in form to the two "post pits" found last season and Feature 11-37, just 1.5 meters to the southeast. As with the last feature, it wasn't until all the fill had been removed from 11-39 that three-quarters of a circular cavity was detected at the very base of the pit. Note the steeply inclined sides of this pit and large post "hole" in the image below.

As with the other post pits, this deep, funnel shape seems impractical for use as a storage facility or cooking pit. Our crew did find additional fragments of at least one vessel in the fill (see below), but the artifact content was rather meager.

No, I think these features are the locations where large posts were set up and then taken down. It seems likely that the pit itself was the result of the removal of the post, since no clear mold of an in situ post was apparent in the cross-section of the feature. Only the very end of the post was visible as it protruded beneath the surrounding pit and protruded into the subsoil. As will be discussed in a future post, this particular prehistoric post may have supported a large structure. More on that later.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Hopewell Point Turns Up (or Down)

One distinctive aspect of this year's field season is the true scarcity of stone tools. Of course we have found several triangular, Madison-type, arrowheads which date to the final site occupation (Late Prehistoric period) but nothing earlier except the nice stemmed point from Feature 11-39 described in an earlier post. As I believe I have noted before, the lack of such lithic artifacts from the Early and Middle Woodland period components at Heckleman is informative. I believe it tells us that stone tool manufacture--except for the specialized knapping of ovate bifaces (see earlier posts)--was not a common activity at this site. Not just tools, but flint flakes and cores are also significantly lacking. So, we were very surprised when an exquisite example of a Lowe Cluster Middle Woodland point was discovered by Meghan M. in Feature 11-45.

As shown below, this point is made of a translucent variety of Flint Ridge chert. It has deep, wide corner-notches and a well-thinned, convex base. This point is an excellent diagnostic for the Middle Woodland, Hopewell, occupation of the site. Found at the same level were two or three fragments of a thin, well-smoothed rim sherd with an outcurved profile. A type most readily identified as Esch Plain.

Curiously, this point was found tip-down in the fill, as if someone had shot it downward into the pit. I'm not sure this is how it ended up in our feature, but it's presence does make us wonder why such a complete, still usable artifact was discarded. Perhaps it was not discarded, but placed in the pit deliberately as an offering, or, more mundanely, as a temporary kind of storage. In any case, its discovery brightened up the spirits of our sun-baked crew for a time.

North to the Stockade Line

This past week we finally moved part of our crew to the northern bulldozer transect to explore for additional segments of the stockade lines, which were first discovered in 2009. You will remember that last year we traced two parallel lines of rather stout post molds which arced northeastward and across the oval enclosure. We demonstrated that the innermost line ran across the filled enclosure ditch and thus post-dated this Early Woodland feature. My gut feeling is that these lines represent a defensive perimeter that was constructed by the Late Prehistoric period inhabitants of the site. Very similar evidence for such constructions have been found at Late Prehistoric village settlements in the area, such as White Fort on the Black River in Elyria, Ohio. This season I wanted to expose additional segments of these lines to learn more about the shape and size of this defensive enclosure. So, we resumed shovel-scraping.

We quickly recognized the two post lines curving gently to the northeast. We even found evidence of a third, outermost line as well. The image below shows the post line in our first unit, 514N 506E. They are a bit hard to see in this image, but they were very clear on the freshly-scraped surface of the unit (indicated by the arrows). Beneath this line we could just make out an oval pit feature which, unfortunately we did not have time to investigate. We could tell, however, that the post line ran across this feature, thus post-dating it.

As I mentioned, I believe that these lines were constructed during the last major occupation of the site, but so far, I do not have any evidence to prove this. Only the super-positioning of the line over the Early Woodland enclosure ditch. Luckily, we noticed that one of the post molds in the middle line contained a large chunk of charcoal that was carefully extracted by Katie M. You can just see the dark gray chunk of charcoal at the top of the post molds in the image below. Hopefully, this sample will result in a radiocarbon date on this important feature. I will let you know in a month or two.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Of Points, Pottery, Pits, Posts, and Middens

The archaeological record of the Heckleman site is proving to be quite complex. On several excavation unit floors we have detected broad areas of stained soil containing FCR, charcoal, burned animal bone fragments, and a few flakes. These stains, which have indistinct and irregular edges, appear to be the remains of thin sheets of cultural debris called middens that were deposited during one or more groups of prehistoric inhabitants. We examined one area of midden staining more closely in unit 505N 512E this week and were surprised to find below a large pit feature, Feature 11-39. This feature was also very indistinct but is visible in the following image in which the contrast has been increased.

As we removed the fill from the southern half of this feature, Allison Z. found a complete Early Woodland stemmed point. This small, thick point is similar to the type called Leimbach Stemmed in northern Ohio. It is made from the distinctive Flint Ridge chert from eastern Ohio.

As we wound down our work on Friday, Marcia R. and Allison uncovered a large fragment of a Leimbach Cordmarked vessel just a few centimeters south of where the point was found. The vessel fragment can be seen to the right of the point and at the edge of the pit in the image below.

The discovery of sherds of similar ceramics in midden deposits nearby suggest that the latter are contemporary with Early Woodland features like 11-39 and were deposited after the filling of these pits.

In all these areas, numerous post molds and other features have been detected within, or penetrating through, the midden staining, which indicates that structures were constructed after the midden deposits were laid down. As yet, no clear post mold patterns of houses or other structures have been recognized; but the sheer volume of post molds is impressive. Did some of this building activity take place during all three occupations or mostly during the final one in the Late Prehistoric period? Are there any Middle Woodland structures out there? I don't think we will answer that question during this field season, and perhaps only after we have time to sort out the hundreds of post molds by shape and size to look for recognizable patterns. But who knows? We still have a week to go!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

More Pottery from Pit Features

Today we excavated a small pit feature that contained portions of a finely cordmarked vessel. Watch the video of its discovery!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A PPM with Pottery

Speaking of the little things which help us reconstruct the past, one minor but potentially important discovery was finding a rim sherd in a post mold. OK, so what? Well you must realize that we have been cross-sectioning post molds for much of our time in the field this year. This can be a tedious task for the students, since it involves excavating a little hole in a confined space, while kneeling on gravelly soil. Then if the light is not just right, you cannot see the profile easily and must contort your head and neck in various orientations until your supervisor tells you it is just a "root stain" or "rodent burrow" and then instructs you to fill the hole up. Luckily, about a third of the time, the "PPM" (Possible Post Mold) is a good one, and you get to draw a little profile of the thing on a piece of graph paper--a suitable reward for all your efforts. Even more underwhelming is the fact the usually nothing is found in the post mold. So, the discovery of diagnostic artifact in a post mold is a cause for celebration, or at least a pat on the back. This was the case with PPM 17 in unit 505N 509E.

In this medium-sized post mold, Katie M. found several fragments of an Esch Cordmarked rim sherd along with several pieces of FCR. She points to the spot in the image below.

As seen in next image, this sherd is finely cordmarked with a plain lip and slightly out-turned profile which is typical for this Middle Woodland pottery ware. Although you can't see it in this image, the cordmarking is of the S-twist variety (see previous post) which supports its placement in the Middle Woodland period.

We did get some charcoal as well which may permit a date. But why date a post mold? Well, in this case I suspect that PPM 17 may be part of a structure. If so, then discovering a rim sherd in a post mold becomes much more than just a nice break in a day of post mold digging.

A Pot with a Twist

Over the past week we made several interesting discoveries. One was the uncovering of a small pottery vessel in Feature 11-19. This pot appears to have been stored or cached in a small pit lined with fragments of gray shale. It was a big surprise to simply find such an artifact just below the plow zone. In fact, it looks like only a small section was taken away by more than a century of cultivation in this field. Although somewhat crushed by the weight of the soil overburden, the little pot was in pretty good shape as shown in the image below.

The accompanying pieces of shale perplexed us at first, until we realized that most of the fragments lay at the sides and beneath the vessel. I suspect that the small pit containing the pot was lined with these fragments. Such preparation of a pit feature may have been necessary to preserve its shape for use as a permanent storage pit or cyst for holding things like this vessel. Little storage pits like this have been found in association with house structures (stay tuned for more on this intriguing inference). Nothing else was found in the pit except shale and pot sherds, in fact there really was not room for anything else. Unfortunately, the lack of bone fragments or charcoal means that we will not be able to obtain a direct date on this feature. One clue to its age does exist, however.

As I examined some of the cordmarked body sherds, I could see that they bore the negative (reverse) impression of an S-twist fiber cordage. Nearly all of the Early or Middle Woodland cordmarked pottery found in northern Ohio exhibits a similar twist pattern. Interestingly, most Late Prehistoric pottery have the impressions of Z-twist cordage. The differences in twist pattern reflect different methods of hand-spinning cordage, which may seem trivial, but appears to be a reliable indicator of culture change and time. This shift in cordage twist is also seen across much of the Midwest and Northeast. With the lack of datable material, the twist pattern may be all we have to place this interesting artifact in a general time frame. In archaeology, we are happy for the little things which help us reconstruct the past.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Cascade of Pottery

So far this season, pottery has been the predominant class of artifact recovered from feature contexts. This is a bit unusual because normally stone tool debris, primarily flint flakes, are much more common at sites in the region. The rarity of lithics says something significant about the kinds of activities not carried out in and adjacent to the oval enclosure That is, stone tool making was not a primary task for the Early Woodland inhabitants. So what does the relatively frequent occurrence of pottery tell us? Well, the direct inference, of course, is that pottery was broken and disposed of on-site. The behavior inference linked to this is that the cooking and perhaps storage of food in pots were common activities. The most vivid evidence for this interpretation is the dense concentration of Early Woodland ceramics found in Feature 11-09. As the image below reveals, a large quantity of pot sherds was deposited in this medium-sized pit.

The pottery is confined to one side of the sloping pit wall, as if the sherds were unceremoniously dumped into the pit. This virtual 'cascade' of pottery includes several large rim sections of a single vessel. One of the rim sherds shown below has a plain, out-turned lip, below which is a distinctly fabric-marked neck. Also found in this cluster was a riveted lug handle and many body sherds with this same surface treatment.

But is this simply a case of trashing an old pot or something more? Given our working hypothesis that the enclosure served a non-domestic function (community area, dance ground, communal feasting site, etc.), such a deposit may represent the ceremonial disposal of a pot used in a ritual context. Ritual disposal of this kind appears to have been the case at another Early Woodland enclosure, the Adena culture Dominion Land Company site in Columbus, Ohio. Here, numerous Early Woodland vessels were disposed of in pits found beneath the circular ditch that enclosed two burial mounds. Very little pottery was found outside these particular contexts. It is thought that these vessels were used during mortuary feasts inside the earthwork and then deliberately buried beneath the ditch. "Food for thought" when we examine the Heckleman pottery deposit in the lab this off-season.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Deep Post and A Tight Squeeze

One of the most perplexing features this season has been Feature 11-03. This feature was recognized last week in unit 502N 503E as a faint gray-brown stain with rather diffuse margins. Early stages of excavation indicated that it was a shallow midden stain, since the most evident staining extended only a few centimeters into the subsoil. The discovery of the bladelet fragment (see earlier post) gave us hope of something significant here, and further excavation revealed, not a midden layer, but rather a medium-sized pit feature. As the cross-section continued to increasingly greater depths, we realized that this was not a pit but a deep post mold. A large, cordmarked pot sherd was found in the fill about halfway down, but the feature kept getting deeper and deeper.

At 100 cm bd the fill changed abruptly to a consolidated mass of sand, gravel, and charcoal fragments unlike anything I had seen before in a post mold. As I picked away at this sediment cast (shown below), I found a few pieces of FCR and a thick plain-surfaced pot sherd. I continued to remove the cast down to 120 cm bd and found another thick sherd.

By now, there was barely room for me to fit in the excavation pit. (I needed to step into this hole myself once I lost Allison, who fit nicely in the confined space and didn't mind bending over for long periods of time.) Anyway, I had had enough and used the 1-inch soil corer to see how much of this post molds was left. To my surprise, the core revealed another 23 cm of cemented fill! I decided to take the rest of the fill out with the "long-handled trowel" (you veterans know what I mean).

So what is this thing? It looks like another large post of the kind discovered in two "post pits" last season. Unlike these features, this year's version is located outside the oval enclosure ditch; however, its pottery contents places within the Early Woodland period and likely close in time to the use of this enclosure. And what of the weird sediment cast? Can't yet say, but stay tuned.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Ghost from the Past

Back at the beginning of our 2009 season, I believe I mentioned that this site had been excavated before by Kent State University summer field schools in the late '60s and early '70s. I may also have commented that we don't know exactly where on this farm the group worked, since no field notes are available. This week we encountered the remains of what I believe is a back-filled excavation unit from that not-so-distant time.

As we removed the plow zone soils from unit 502N 503E, we noticed a dark area of staining in the southern half of the unit. What was unusual is that this stain had one straight edge--something very unlikely for a truly ancient prehistoric feature in northern Ohio. As we cleared and troweled the floor, what appeared to be the corner of an excavation unit materialized. In the image below, you can see this corner in the upper left (northwest) portion of our excavation square. Covering it are several large, amorphous soil stains, which we now know to be back-filled feature excavations. The soils here are very soft and wet, just as would be expected from re-filling a hole with plow zone soils.

In the southwest corner of our unit, we removed the dark soil and found two small features which had only been partially excavated during the earlier project. You might say that we are doing archaeology of archaeologists from the late 1960's--real groovy man!

Digging the Oval Ditch, Again

Late this week, work began on the cross-section of Feature 11-01, the oval enclosure ditch. The southwest half of the feature was subdivided into four sections for better control of artifact provenience and to track stratigraphy. As layers of fill were removed, the soil darkened, making it much easier to distinguish the ditch from the subsoil matrix.

Like the other sections of this ditch we have tested, the contents includes moderate amounts of FCR, flint flakes, and pottery sherds. Marcia R. uncovered a relatively large sherd of an Early Woodland, Leimbach cordmarked vessel of the kind dated to 350 BC in 2009. In the image below, the sherd looks rather eroded, as does most of the pottery found in the ditch. So, how well would you preserve after 2,300 years underground?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Post Molds and the Nearly Invisible Ditch

Three days into the 2011 field season has brought new discoveries and some puzzles. Our expectations of tracing the possible stockade line from last season were realized when Brian S.'s crew exposed a nice extension of that line at 505N 503E. Several of the sectioned posts are shown below. It appears the line heads southwestward to parts unknown. I don't think we will try to chase it any farther this year, but we should see a few more meters exposed on the other end.

Very unexpected is the remnant of the oval enclosure trench we exposed in unit 495N 512E. This part of the ditch showed up vividly on the magnetic survey map, but is nearly invisible on the floor of the unit. Can you see it in the image below? It is there!...I think.

This apparent invisibility may have to do with the low organic content of the fill; however, the distinct magnetic signature promises that burned rocks, pottery, or something else of interest lies beneath the surface. Late this afternoon MaryLou's crew began the cross-section of this nearly four meter long feature. We will see.

Finally, our primo artifact find of the day was a Flint Ridge bladelet fragment found by Catie the Intern. It caused quite a stir, since just about everybody else was digging post molds, which usually contain no artifacts. By that's enough excitement for one day.

Monday, June 13, 2011

2011 Season Begins on a Cool June Day

Today we got underway, and the weather was terrific. We held our usual orientation session for new participants and then began removing the remaining plow zone soils on the southern

bulldozer transect at 502N 503E and a 3x3 meter unit over the oval enclosure ditch at 495N 512E. All soils were screened and relatively large quantities of flint flakes were found in all units.

One possible bladelet fragment was found, as well as a triangular point. Only one pot sherd was recovered. By day's end, we began to expose subsoil in all units, so tomorrow we should be able to define some features and post molds.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Getting Ready for Third Season at Heckleman

Tomorrow morning we will begin stripping plow zone deposits in preparation for our third season of excavation at the Heckleman site. Our plan is to expand our block area from last season to the north and to the south. This will allow us to ground-truth (excavate) additional magnetic anomalies (pit features) and continue to examine the oval enclosure ditch. We also have two possible stockade lines to trace and a possible house pattern, both of which were discovered last season. So stay tuned!