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Survey photograph
Field school student surveying at Werowocomoco.

"Archaeology - a lot of fun in exchange for a lot of work." Mike Rodgers, '06

This summer from May 27 through June 27, 14 students participated in William and Mary's Summer Archaeological Field School. The class taught archaeological field skills in the context of on-going research at the site of what is believed to be the village of Werowocomoco, the political center of the Powhatan chiefdom during the early 1600s. The following excerpts from students' journals recount parts of that experience.

Day One:

At 9 a.m. we met in a classroom at William and Mary. We met professor Martin Gallivan, his teaching assistants, and others involved in this project. One of these was Deanna Beacham, a member of the Nansemond tribe. As she spoke to us, we began to realize the seriousness of our work. She conveyed the importance of fostering strong working relationships with Virginia Indian descendants. We can achieve this in part by carrying out our research in a way that is consistent with their priorities and respectful to their beliefs. For instance, we will not disturb any human remains.

Martin Gallivan gave us an introduction to the site, explaining the history of the work done to date and why this site is most likely Werowocomoco. The landowners gathered artifacts on the surface of plowed fields which led to the discovery of the site. A few years ago, Dave Brown ('96) and Thane Harpole ('96) dug over 600 small holes over much of the site (one foot in diameter, called shovel tests) and found a plethora of artifacts dating from prehistoric times through the historic period. The site was located in the region denoted as Werowocomoco on John Smith's map of 1612. The first serious excavations would begin this summer (2003).

The goals of our research were:

  • 1. to determine the integrity of the site.
  • 2. to gain some insight into the chronology of the site.
  • 3. to learn about the spatial organization of the village.

We broke for lunch and met back up at 1:00 for the hour drive to the site.

As we neared the site, we turned onto a gravel drive. There was a field on the left, forest and pasture on the right, and water straight ahead. The land sloped down gently toward the water. Next, we met the landowners, Bob and Lynn Ripley, and their hunting dogs. We also took a tour of this property that we were so lucky to call home for the next month.

Then we set up camp. The boys pitched their tents outside and the girls decided who would room together in the farmhouse. We settled in and passed the time talking while dinner was prepared by the first kitchen crew. We had four kitchen crews of four students led by the teacher or a teaching assistant. The first night we had salad, beans and rice, grilled vegetables and grilled chicken. We ate leftover chicken for a whole week as we hadn't yet mastered the art of cooking for the group's size and appetite. We got to bed early so we could start the next day at 7:30 am.


The Landowners

Bob and Lynn Ripley are the landowners of the field school site. One of the great things about them is that they were extremely involved in everything that we were doing, even helping us with field work. Lynn helped us everyday, digging, and cheering for us under the hot sun. Bob was always interested in what we were up to, and always had the right tool that we could use to get the job done. Before we arrived they turned their garage into a makeshift lab so that we could store the artifacts that we found in a safe place.

The First Week in the Field

The first week was the slowest as we learned field skills for the first time. We were constantly asking our teachers for help, learning shovel techniques, and the finer points of soil sifting. By Friday, many of us were tired and sore.

We were told a little bit about what to expect under the ground. There would be a layer of soil which had been tilled called the plow zone. The artifacts we found in this layer came from different features that were mixed up by the plow, but they all came from the same area. The layer beneath wasn't mixed up, though, and we found artifacts exactly where they were dropped hundreds of years ago.

In the pasture we expected the soil to change at a depth of six to twelve inches. We set up five-foot by five-foot squares called test units. We worked in pairs and it took us about a day to reach the base of the plow zone. We used shovels to remove the grass and sod. We shoveled the grass and dirt into buckets and then sifted it through -inch mesh screens looking for artifacts.

We were all thrilled to find our first artifacts. Most of the artifacts we found in the plow zone were from the historic period such as pieces of tobacco pipes, rusted nails, and pottery shards. Once we removed the plowed soil (we knew because it was a different color than the soil beneath), we used trowels to excavate. We continued to sift this oil, but kept our artifacts from this level separate from those in the plow zone.

Tracking the depths at which we find artifacts is only the beginning of the record keeping. We have forms for each layer with information such as relative location, elevations, soil descriptions, artifact descriptions, notes, photographic information, and drawings and maps.

Underneath the plow zone, we were happy to find features. A feature is a deposit of soil associated with artifacts that differs from the surrounding soils and represents an event in time. Some of the features we found included filled-in ditches and the remains of posts put in the ground for fences and house construction. We mapped and photographed the units. Once finished we stepped back and analyzed the features with our professor. In one test unit, we had marks of similar size and shape in a line. We decided we should open the adjacent test units to see if the line continued. After the first week, we picked up the pace and were able to open up more ground on different parts of the property.



Every week we would work Monday through Friday, but we had weekends off. Two days to recuperate our sore muscles and tired bodies. Many of us would jump in our cars and drive home to see our friends and families, while some of us remained on the site. For those of us that stayed on the site together, weekends were always lots and lots of fun. All week we would get up at seven in the morning to get ready to dig, but for two days we would enjoy a little extra sleep. Then we would get up and have a day full of adventures. There was soccer, wiffle ball, volleyball, taking the canoes out for a ride, riding on the jet skis in the river, hanging out on the beach and the dock, and sitting on the porch catching up on the reading from class. We also did a lot of fishing, and even had the chance to have a fish fry with our catch. Sometimes the landowner would let us help with his dogs' master hunter training, and we would help him with tasks around the farm, like maintaining the road. The weekend crew also had to job of making sure that the site stayed safe. On weekends when it would rain, they would make sure that the rain did not ruin all the digging that we had done. On Sunday night, everyone who had gone away for the weekend would start arriving back in, stories of weekends would be told, and we would all get to bed early, excited about the next week of digging.

Field Trips

William and Mary also had field schools at Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown (WEBLINK?). We visited these field schools to get a broader perspective on archaeological research. During these field trips we also heard two lectures. One was on ethnobotany (the study of plant remains) and the other on zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains). By studying plant remains we can determine agricultural activity areas, climate (using tree rings), and relative dates of artifacts. By studying animal remains, we can discover information about dietary changes and the domestication of animals.

The Next Four Weeks

Some students continued to work in the pasture, but we also set up test units near the water. Here we found the plow zone was not as deep as that of the pasture. We also found more artifacts here, including some projectile points. There was a light breeze from the water and shade from trees so we loved working here. During the last two weeks of the field school, one teaching assistant and four students went out to the middle of the cornfield to start up more test units. The corn field was typically ten degrees hotter than the waterfront and the plow zone was over a foot deep. We didn't find many artifacts, but we found several features.


The Rain and the Heat

Rain and archaeology just don't mix! That is what we learned on those long, rainy summer days while working in the field. Many times we would be caught digging in the field when a rainstorm would hit. When that happened we would have to hurry and cover the features with big pieces of black plastic. We would then make sure that we had collected all of our tools and then head inside to wait until the rain stopped. During one rainstorm we all huddled underneath a tent, which definitely helped bring us all closer together. Most of the time the rain would stop and we would uncover the features and continue working. The most fun thing about this was getting to bail the water out that had collected on top of the black plastic. We made bailers out of juice containers and passed buckets down the line. However some days the rain would be too hard and heavy for us to return to work. This did not mean that our day was over, though! On these days we worked in the lab cleaning the artifacts that we had found in the field (that was neat being able to clean something that YOU had found). We also heard lectures about important topics related to the dig, like Dr. Gallivan talking about projectile points, and Deanna Beacham talking about the contemporary Virginia Indian community. So even though rain sometimes put a damper on field work, we had plenty to do and learn when it was raining cats and dogs.

We could say that is was a little warm working on the site, but that would be a lie - sometimes it would be downright hot! The temperature out the in field would be sweltering, but we would continue digging as sweat would drip from our noses down onto the ground. Most of us would wear shorts, and t-shirts in order to keep cool, but Dr. Gallivan had a very special fashion accessory - a huge sun hat that he lovingly announced he had bought at a "surf shop". No matter what you were wearing though it would still be hot, and so sometimes we would have to use other methods to keep cool. The water sprayers we used to spray the test units became a hot commodity, and provided a refreshing mist of cool water during the hottest part of the day. We made sure to drink plenty of water in order to stay hydrated, and on some days when it was really hot we would make sure to take it easy on the digging. To keep our minds off the heat we would tell each other stories, or sing songs. Amazingly these performances were not only extremely entertaining but also extremely helpful. The best was when we finished at the site for the day. All hot and sweaty we would run down to the York River and jump in for a quick swim. After those long, hot days, nothing ever felt better then that.

We also took turns working in the lab with our lab supervisor, Jen Ogborne. She taught us how to identify the artifacts we found (for example, how to distinguish brick from Native pottery). We also cleaned all of the artifacts (with toothbrushes and water) and grouped, counted, weighed, and recorded them.

We loved working together and stuck together after the field day was over. We played tee-ball and volleyball, went swimming and fishing, and hung out on the dock. We had fun cooking together and actually managed to make matzo ball soup one night. We even enjoyed making countless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the group for lunch.


Virginia Indian Community Visiting

We were lucky enough to have several members of the Virginia Indian community visit us at the site while we were working. It was wonderful because they had such interest and enthusiasm about what we were doing. Seeing them at the site helped to remind us about the importance of our mission, of discovering the real significance of this site. As they toured the site, they stopped and asked us questions about our digging and the artifacts we were finding. It was great to be able to share this knowledge with them. Many of the Indian community even came back to the site to help us with our digging, especially Deanna Beacham, who always made sure that we were wearing enough sunscreen. Seeing the excitement the Indian Community had about the site really reminded us about the special nature of this place, and the importance of our excavations.

We slowed down our pace toward the end to be sure we could finish our maps, photographs, and other paperwork. The last day was spent filling up the test units with the sifted dirt. This was hard work! It was sad to end, but everyone felt really good about their work.

Media Coverage

We were not the only ones who were interested in investigating the site's mysteries. There were a great number of reporters, camera crews, and others who came out to the site to see what we were up to. It was exciting to see the site receiving so much attention, especially while we were there!! The reporters wanted to interview Dr. Gallivan, and many of the other archaeologists helping on the site, but even some of the students got to be interviewed. During the interviews they would ask questions about what kinds of artifacts we were finding, and what we were learning about archaeology through working at the site. Some of us even got our pictures in the paper. It was great to read about the site in the newspaper, or see coverage of it on television, because it really showed the public all the interesting things about the site, and it helped them to see how exciting our discoveries were. At times though, the camera crews, and the reporters could become intrusive. Many times to get the perfect shot we would be asked to step aside out of the shot. This could be frustrating, as we were concentrating on trying to get our work done, but we knew that it was important that the documentation took place.


Real World Anthropology

Coming together with fifteen people that you have never met, and are expected to live with for the next five weeks - that sounds mysteriously like the MTV show "The Real World". That is kind of what field school was like - minus the cameras, and plus lots of bugs, and archaeology. Before going to field school many of us were curious as to what it would be like to live in a situation like this. Crazy ideas of a rustic pup tent, the ground for your bed, and other ideas bounced around in our heads. As one of our visitors commented, our site was "Too many bugs, and not enough beds." It is true there were lots of bugs this summer (many of us will always associate the smell of bug spray with field school), and bedrooms were shared with up to five people, but these things only served to bring us closer together as a field school. By the end we were a huge, loud, fun, loving family cooking dinner together, playing games in the evenings, and digging all day together in the hot sun. Something about having a port-o-john as your bathroom and an open air shower as your bathtub really can bring you very close, very fast. This is a diary of what it was like to live, and work on the site of Werowocomoco from May to June 2003.

"Lessons about teamwork, seriousness about work, and respect for those who are able to devote their lives to a mission such as this one are going to be lasting ones. Lasting lessons and lasting memories." Jacqueline Langholtz, '05