Posted by: signalhillarchaeology | August 13, 2009

Excavation Wrap-Up, 2009

Well, that went by quickly… the six-week-long field season just flew by. That being said, you can accomplish a lot in six weeks with a big crew. It’s always amazing how much dirt you can move with small mason’s trowels!

We finished up a lot of excavation in the last few days of the field season, and were able to figure out a lot about the North Range Barracks site, and  so I’m going to start posting about some of our interpretations in the coming days.  What I’m going to do with this post is talk about how our interpretations of the barracks structure changed– sometimes dramatically– as the season progressed.

The middle terrace, seen here, is where the site is located.

The middle terrace, seen here, is where the site is located.

To begin at the beginning–  the location of the barracks was never in doubt.

Based on historic documents, archaeologists knew that it had to be located in a large flat terrace at the top of Signal Hill.

Our crew this year didn’t have to find the barracks building– it had already been found, by archaeologists working at the site in 1984.

So, we set up excavation units beside the 1984 trench.

But where exactly were our excavations in relation to the historic structure?  At this point, we thought we were digging at the far right hand corner of the building (indicated on the map below by the red, green, and light blue squares).

Map of the North Range Barracks building. The coloured squares show the area we thought we were digging in at the beginning of the season.

Historic map of the North Range Barracks building (dating to the 1840's). The coloured squares show the area we thought we were digging in at the beginning of the season.

The archaeology quickly told us a different story… as it turned out, we were not digging around the corner of the building at all, but rather were digging around a smaller stone structure. Thanks to some clever detective work by Stéphane, we figured out that this stone structure was actually a chimney foundation… the next question was: which chimney?

This is definitely not the corner of a 25 foot wide barracks building; it's a 10-foot wide stone foundation for a chimney stack. But which chimney stack? Maps show that there were four in the barracks building.

This is definitely not the corner of a 25 foot wide barracks building; it's a 10-foot wide stone foundation for a chimney stack. But which chimney stack? Maps show four of them in the barracks building.

We initially thought that we were still at the far right hand side of the structure, and that we were digging around the chimney at the rightmost side of the barracks (as shown on the map above).  As the field season progressed, we started to doubt this.

The terrace that the barracks building is located on (outlined in red). Our excavations were located at the far southern end of the terrace-- at far end of this photograph.

The terrace that the barracks building is located on (outlined in red). Our excavations were located at the far southern end of the terrace-- at far end of this photograph.

The map indicates the building was 150 feet long, and so based on this information, we tried to figure out if the building would fit on the large terrace that we were working on.

But after running madly around the site with long measuring tapes, we realized that when we measured out 150 feet from our chimney base, we ran smack into an inhospitable knob of bedrock that would have made it nearly impossible to build beside.

In short, if we were digging at the far right hand side of the barracks, there simply wasn’t enough room remaining on the terrace to accommodate our structure.

Well, that was theory #1 down the drain.  So, on to theory #2 (otherwise known as the ‘Rob was right after all’ theory, heh).  Now we explored the idea that we were digging around the base of a double chimney stack, in the middle of the structure (as shown by the large dark blue rectangle in the image below).  What was the best way to figure out if theory #2 was correct?  After much deliberating, we opened up a few more small excavation trenches, hoping to find the building’s foundation walls (as shown by the small blue squares on the image below).

The same map of the barracks building-- the dark blue rectangles show where we were excavating this year... in the middle of the barracks, not at the end!

The same map of the barracks building-- the dark blue rectangles show where we were excavating this year... in the middle of the barracks, not at the end!

By opening up these small excavation trenches, we were trying to see if we would find the gable wall (the narrow wall at the end of the building). If we found the gable wall, we’d know that we were at the far right hand side of the structure. If we didn’t find the gable wall, we’d know that we were in the middle of the structure.

I can unequivocally say that we found foundation walls, and they can only be from the long sides of the building, not from the short gable end of the building! In the photo below, you can see one side of the foundation wall of the building. The side you see here is in good shape, but the wall was built right on the edge of the terrace.  The wall has crumbled away on the downslope side, but it’s still recognisable as a foundation wall.

The foundation wall of the building... this side of the wall is pretty well preserved, but it is perched on the edge of our terrace. The downslope side (out of view in this photo) has mostly crumbled away.

The foundation wall of the building... this side of the wall is pretty well preserved, but it is perched on the edge of our terrace. The downslope side (out of view in this photo) has mostly crumbled away.

It seems, then, that theory #2 was correct, and that we were digging in the middle of the building.

This realization of course prompted more mad running around the site with long measuring tapes. If we are digging around one of the interior fireplaces, then the left-hand side of the building will fit nicely on our terrace, but the right hand side of the building doesn’t. These calculations put the right-hand side of the building about 10 feet or so off the southern side of our terrace.

This leaves us with a few more questions. Has the terrace eroded badly over the last 150 years or so; was it originally much larger?  Was the right hand gable wall of the barracks built upwards from the terrace below?  Both are equally reasonable explanations.

This is a typical situation in archaeological fieldwork. You start with one idea at the beginning of the season, you completely refute that idea, you come up with another theory, and if that theory holds up under field testing… well, that usually leaves you with more questions that you can’t answer.  For every question you answer, two more pop up in its place.

Actually, three more questions pop up in its place…  There’s another interpretive problem. If we were indeed excavating around one of the middle fireplace foundations (shown in the dark blue rectangle on the image below), then where is the dividing wall (shown with the dark blue arrow)? We didn’t find evidence for one– there were no stone foundations, and no remnants of wooden walls that we could see.  Where are the interior wall footings? Did they not extend into the basement (which is surely an odd explanation) or is the map wrong?

If we dug around the chimney base indicated with the blue rectangle, where are the internal walls? More mysteries...

If we dug around the chimney base indicated with the blue rectangle, where are the internal walls? More mysteries...

You see? You solve one question, and others then present themselves. The only solution to these lingering questions lies in more fieldwork next year.  I hope I’ll be returning to this site next year, though funding and field school decisions are made on a year-by-year basis by Parks Canada and Memorial University.  I certainly hope we can continue to excavate here… I can guarantee I’m going to be thinking about these lingering questions all winter long.

Oh, and one last post-script: the project was featured in a great article in Memorial University’s Gazette (it downloads as a pdf; we’re on the last page) : if you’re visiting this site as a result, thanks for dropping by, and check out the archives!

–Amanda Crompton (Instructor)

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Responses

  1. […] various reasons, we thought at the end of last year that the 2009 fireplace base could not be the one located at the gable (narrow) end of the […]


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