Cheney House Excavations

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

So, you think you want to be an archaeologist?

After just a few short weeks of excavation here at the Cheney house I feel that I am somewhat of an expert on the subject, and I feel that I should share my findings on the subject. I have learned a great many things in the last few months and I will list my findings as a guide to any curious parties considering this field for a career. Everyone should try archaeology at least once because archaeology is very rewarding, you meet cool people, and the best part—you get to play in the dirt!
Do you like instant gratification? Really? Me too. That’s one of the great things about your first day on an archaeological dig. You feel like you’re getting results. Imagine my rapture upon screening my very first bucket of dirt to discover a big, fat, rusty nail hiding in it. What a find! I feel I should probably have received some sort of award for my contributions to the field, but finding that nail was enough of a reward in itself. I mean, really what are the odds of finding such a priceless artifact anywhere in all of northern California, let alone right here on campus—especially in sub-decimeter deep soil in an area surrounded by perpetual construction projects. Now, imagine my disappointment when I visited the laboratory a week later to discover a mountain of rusty nails awaiting my attention with a bucket of dirty water and an eroded toothbrush. I was devastated, to say the least. But I didn’t allow my spirits to flag, and after several long hours I emerged from the laboratory—my fingers rubbed raw by my hairless toothbrush—triumphant, leaving a heap of slightly-less-dirty, rusty nails in my wake.
The next week I headed out to the dig site with a renewed vigor—determined to make the next great anthropologic discovery of my generation. I was fully prepared to find a human skull within the next few inches of soil in the unit in which I was working. When I communicated this desire to one of my co-diggers (he a very experienced research assistant) I was told that such a find would result in the entire dig being put on hold indefinitely. So I put the dreams of human remains aside and hoped for some nice animal bones instead.

Mike McCarron

Friday, November 02, 2007

During my final year here at Cal, I’ve finally decided to undertake a URAP position and none other than the Cheney House project. Although I study anthropology, my focus is on social/cultural anthropology and archaeology was least appealing to me, although I do love all aspects of anthropology. I’d only taken one course in archaeology and that was the general anthro 2 course. With a yearning to have a broader knowledge of archaeology I figured, what would be better than getting hands on experience in archaeology? Working on the Cheney House project gives me the opportunity to take part in excavations as well as lab work (other anthropology related URAP programs do not include excavations). Of the numerous conversations I’ve had with archaeologists and archaeologists-in-training, the one thing they’ve all mentioned is to take part in fieldwork before deciding that archaeology is not for you!
First day of excavation, I grabbed a pickaxe and started hacking away at the earth, within a square unit of course. A piece of glass, a bit of ceramic, a hunk of brick; each time an artifact was recovered excitement would fill the air. This piece of ceramic, I wonder what it looked like whole? Was it a cup, bowl, or something entirely different? Each artifact was a clue which helps us to understand the lives of those who lived here.
Although strenuous and dirty, excavation is the most exciting part of archaeology as one is exposed to the physical location that once bustled with the life of others in which one can only imagine the many happenings that occurred in this location.
Now I can say, Thank goodness I took the advice. I have a clearer understanding of what archaeology is and the work that it entails and a greater appreciation of archaeology. Working on the Cheney House project, I’ve begun to rethink my future plans, and archaeology just might be where I’m heading.

Nkauj Thao

I have to discuss something that completely awes and slightly frightens me. Sometimes, for silly and completely non-important reasons, archaeologists like to trace and identity artifacts. And while it might be a bit hard for prehistoric archaeologists to find a maker mark on an obsidian flake and reference it in an all-encompassing world encyclopedia of “Flakes and their Makers” (though I know there are plenty of ways to source and use the information for… ok I’m deviating), historical archaeologists have a very unique relationship with people who like to collect the “antiques” that are sometimes the trash that was discarded at a site. These collectors, historians, experts, or archaeologists will publish books to reference marks, style, function and form to trace, date, or even just see what that plate looked like whole. I’m on this tangent because last week Kim showed me a fragment of a plate recovered from the Gage house that she traced to a picture in a book. This was basically the most exciting thing I’d seen in quite some time (ok, yes, I haven’t been to the movies lately), but mostly because this was evidence for the investigatory research that you read about and never quite connect that someone actually did the work to discover it. This is really impressive once you start to think about the number of books available and the various things that come out of the ground and into an archaeologist’s curious hands. This personally made me realize that though Kim is not solving a homicide and there will likely never be a Law and Order: Household Archaeology, the painstaking research and inquiry into the contexts of the objects involves the same skills and talents that are exploited on your television right now. So next time you see an archaeologist, let them know you appreciate the work they do for us.

Jessica Merizan

This year has definitely been a huge introduction into real archaeology. Don’t get me wrong, reading all the books and taking the intro courses gave me an idea of what was in store, but until I completed a field school and started delving into the research behind all the glory (yeah, I’m a geek), I had no idea what I was getting myself into. This summer I headed to the Atlantic to dig in Matilda Gage’s backyard and recover anything pertinent to an understanding of her household before the planned woodshed was built that would ultimately preserve but hide anything we may have missed. This site is a major aspect of Kim’s dissertation and has similarities to the Cheney House in that they both were strong female activists who mainly worked on a public sphere in their own homes. While Ms. Cheney’s yard hasn’t yielded the amount of artifacts as Ms. Gage’s has, it is upon washing and labeling in the lab that the commonalities in recovered objects begin to exhibit themselves. And though we haven’t been digging on an 8-4 daily schedule like the summer, you can find us every Tuesday from 9-2, coming in and out as class allows, and leaving with enough grime to have to explain ourselves to anyone coming within several feet (I should actually start speaking in metrics just to stay consistent with the field). This is probably the last leg of the excavation work, and my walls are just starting to get really nice and straight. But I definitely recommend anyone with a curiosity in real archaeology to stop by. There’s always something to learn: standardizing soil color, measuring depth with those amazing bubble levels, and though it only makes an occasional appearance, standing incredibly still with my friend the plumb-bob.

Jessica Merizan

It has been around two months since I first started working on the Cheney House project on campus. My first week out on the field digging really took getting use to. I did not expect that it would be as difficult as it turned out because my partner and I were digging on a slight slope so it was hard to maintain my balance when the pit got deeper. In addition, we had to clear the ivy that covered the ground and also trimmed some of the dead branches from nearby trees in order to clear the area for digging. The surface level was relatively easy to dig through because the top soil was fairly soft. However, as we dug deeper, the soil texture changed and it became more difficult to dig through since it was dry and quite hard. The test pit did not yield many findings aside from a few pieces of glass and a small ball that Kim thinks might have been used for making pies.
For the last few weeks I have been working on units 16 and 18, which contain a row of old bricks that might have been a part of a path leading to the property. It is taking longer than expected to level off the bottom of the units because though we seemingly hit sterile soil, the small wall separating the two units kept churning up artifacts as I was taking it down. Artifacts found mainly consist of brick, glass, and nails. A couple of pipes are also situated in the units, which possibly explains the complex stratigraphic finds if we are digging in an old trench. The deeper soil levels were very hard to work with because I had to use a hand pick to slowly plow through the soil while trying not to damage any potential artifacts. Luckily due to the recent rain, the subsurface soil softened so last week it was much easier to take down the small wall and level off the units. Despite some of the routine work that we perform, it is quite exciting to take part in a project dealing with tangible history right here on campus. I cannot wait until we connect research findings with our excavation findings to learn more about the Cheney family and the property.

Lin Wu

This summer I participated in my first field school project. As a student taking Anthropology 134: The Anthropology of Slavery and Abolition, I spent my first three weeks in fieldschool working under Kim Christensen. In Syracuse, New York I had the privilege of digging at the Gage house. Because of the fact that we were digging in a very history/ archaeology conscious area, we were often visited by friends and neighbors of the foundation. Luckily for us (the archaeological staff), we had a great deal to show our visitors. Aside from the pounds and pounds of coal we unearthed, my colleagues and I found numerous examples of ceramics, glass, brick, bones, and other rarities. Before we moved on to the second part of our fieldschool, we took great care to clean as many of our artifacts as we could. However, much work was done after my colleagues and I moved on. I joined this URAP project primarily because I felt that it would be an excellent opportunity to finish the work that we did in Syracuse. Aside from the excitement of digging on campus during an academic semester, I lavished the chance to rediscover all the artifacts I helped to unearth. So far my URAP experience has been everything I hoped it would be. While I have to admit that I felt weary about entering the lab for the first time, the fact that the artifacts were familiar to me really helped. It’s really funny to be working on artifacts and then realize that it’s your name on the artifact bag. Sometimes I don’t recognize things right away because they look so different once they have been cleaned and cataloged away. But above everything I have experienced in lab this semester what I have enjoyed the most is the small reunions with past digging buddies and the chance to make new ones.

Isabel Hernandez

I chose to be a part of the archeological excavation of the Cheney House to get hands-on experience of something I have only observed on PBS, about excavating. Excavating has always appealed to me. I never found the time to get involved with excavation, when the opportunity would have been offered at a local museum. This also gives me an opportunity to learn, from the beginning, exactly what an excavation encompasses. Needless to say, there is a lot more to excavating than just digging.

Digging sounds and looks easy to the passersby. I gently tap, with a pick, on the parameter of the designated site, while leveling soil, to make the sides even. This is a vital part of excavating. The dirt is packed as tight as clay and we still have to be careful, in the event a delicate object is located. I have found pieces of blue balloon, mortar, and tiny pieces of bone. Objects are then placed in a paper bag, and labeled with information about the location site and the date. At the end of the day, the bags are taken to the lab, for storage. Once the bag is in the lab, the items are washed, dried, labeled, logged and stored.

I am now experiencing another vital aspect of anthropology, archeology. I enjoy participating in the Cheney House project because the project is ongoing, thus, I can participate each semester. I recommend this project to all anthropology enthusiasts.

Gwen Blair

Lab and Field Work @ Cheney House

Where else can you go dig a small test pit for a few hours and then run off to class?
My first weeks at Berkeley have been full of decisions and acclimation. The URAP program gives undergraduates so many great opportunities to hit the ground running, and with the Cheney House Project we get the chance to get our fingernails dirty at a dig right here on campus. Working on the Cheney House project is a great match for me as I get the dirt under the nails part, with the essential lab experience, as I get settled into Cal. The shovels, pickaxes and Munsell Color Charts get a good amount of use on dig days. The fieldwork has been a ballet of comings and goings at the Cheney house, just when someone has to leave for class another student show up and gets right to business, with an ebb and flow that seems almost orchestrated.
The discussions while we dig are of the past finds at Cheney house and the excitement we share of being in a position to contribute to Berkeley’s historical past. Enough has been written about May and Warren Cheney to lay out a good foundation in which our discoveries can be placed. The information that is brought to light by this project continues to add to the important record of this university’s inception.
In the lab I see information from my ‘Analysis of Archaeological Ceramics’ class spilling over into the lab, funny how that works! The ceramic sherds that I have cleaned, sorted and bagged are beginning to speak to me. To see and understand the basics of ceramic evaluation adds so much to both my lab time and class time.
I worked with Kim Christensen, the lead for the Cheney House project, on some Gage House artifacts that were being sent back East to the Gage House Historical Foundation for display. This was particularly fun as we were “cherry picking” the most interesting items for their yearly fundraising party. Kim reminded me that this is not the way we usually handle artifacts, but to work on an ornate brass doorknob, china with searchable (!) British makers mark, and other unusual items was an exciting introduction for me.
I look forward to the day when the Cheney House is counted as a registered historical landmark, and we can hold fundraisers to fix the ol’ girl, paint her up proper, and return her to her former glory.
If we can dig then we could certainly paint!
Cross your fingers!

Frances Bright