Posted by: signalhillarchaeology | July 1, 2009

Getting Ready

Laying out the excavation grid at the Barracks site, near Ladies' Lookout at the summit of Signal Hill.

Laying out the excavation grid at the Barracks site, near Ladies' Lookout at the summit of Signal Hill. The toque is not a fashion statement-- it is really windy up here, which makes it cold, even at the beginning of July.

Running an archaeology project requires a lot of advance work. Most projects involve months, if not years, of advance planning, before an excavator’s trowel ever touches the ground.  There are logistics to sort out- how do we get to the site? Where do we stay when we’re working? Where do we store our gear? Where to we process artifacts? There are archaeological excavation permits to apply for (because across Canada, whether under provincial or federal jurisdiction, archaeologists need permits and permission to excavate).  There are always meetings to organize , crew and assistants to hire, and of course there are supplies to be purchased… anyhow, I could go on and on.

And just as importantly, there are research questions to consider.  Archaeologists don’t just dig into sites haphazardly– our excavations are usually set up to answer research questions or goals.  In the case of our project, we want to learn more of the lives of the soldiers who lived at Signal Hill in the early to mid nineteenth century.  So, as a result, we’re excavating a part of the barracks building that the soldiers lived in. Here, we should find the material remains of the soldiers lives: the broken shards of pottery plates and bowls that the soldiers ate from, the smashed fragments of bottles that they drank from, the animal and fish bones that they discarded after their meals, and the physical remains of the building that they lived in.

But in order for us to properly excavate and reconstruct all of these fragments, we need to proceed in an orderly and organised fashion. Again, we don’t dig haphazardly. Instead, we lay out an excavation grid over our archaeological site, and we dig slowly and carefully within this grid, so that we can record the position of everything we find. It’s only by digging slowly and carefully, within the confines of an excavation grid, that we can reconstruct past behaviour.

For example, digging with a grid allows us to map the location of those smashed fragments of plates and bottles– and with a little analysis, we might be able to figure out where the soldiers ate their meals.  Plotting the location of the animal bones we find can help us pinpoint the location of food preparation and disposal areas.  Mapping the location of broken wine bottles can help us determine where the soldiers might have spent some off-hours socializing time, as well.

So working within an excavation grid really is critical.  In the days before the dig gets started, I’ve been working on setting up the excavation grid at our site. Basically, we’re setting out a series of rectangular trenches, and we map their location precisely. This allows us to keep track of where the excavations occurred, and help us plot the precise location of the artifacts that we find inside the grid.

I wanted the excavation grid to be laid out by the time the students arrive at the site tomorrow. That way, they can get to work as soon as possible.  As a result, I spent the afternoon of Canada Day kneeling in long wet grass, pounding stakes into the ground at precise right angles,and trying to keep my paperwork/notebook/jacket/backpack from blowing away (it’s a really windy spot!).  I’m happy to say that the grid is done, and so we’re all set and ready to start digging!

–Amanda Crompton (Instructor)



  1. Great to see things are on track. The North Range Soldiers Barracks was test-excavated in 1984. The building was constructed 1799-1800, and was still standing in 1884, four years after the British garrison had left, as shown in a drawing by J.W. Hayward for Harper’s Weekly. The midden behind the barracks is particularly rich in trash. All the best for a successful season!

  2. This looks like another great location to use geophysical techniques to map the buried features and activity centres. You could really cover off a large area in little time and help to assess the land use at the time and the placement of structures.

    • Hi Jason– Yes, this definitely sounds like a great idea! I’m not a geophys expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I suspect that our fields full of rubble surrounding the stone foundations might prove challenging… but still worth trying to be sure. For the most part, we have really good historic maps of Signal Hill, but (as we’ve learned) historic maps aren’t without their pitfalls. Thanks for the suggestion, and *fingers crossed* future years of the project should certainly try to incorporate geophys work as well!

  3. Most of the structures at Signal Hill are fairly well documented for location. A little extra testing should confirm where we are within the North Range Soldiers’ Barracks, so I would find that as productive as, or more so than, the geophysics. Features around the Emberley sites would be difficult to detect since they generally consist of the same rocky rubble from the cliff edge being re-arranged a bit; plus the scrub bush is darn thick. Other areas such as the artificers’ workshops and the field just south of the North Range Soldiers’ Barracks would be good candidates for geophysics, if we work on them in the future. The techniques are great, but it’s important to know what the site conditions are and what your needs are before investing in geophysics.

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