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Lawson Field School Update

The Lawson Site Un-Field School Was a Success!

By Dr. Neal Ferris, Lawson Chair of Canadian Archaeology, Western University.

Students and volunteers at work

It has been a few weeks since the end of our first “Un Field School” here at the Lawson site, with students and instructors since moving on. But, for me, I finally have a moment now to reflect on the field school and what we discovered during those three weeks. Below is an update and brief summary of what we managed to achieve.

This Lawson field school had several aims: First, it needed to be instructive and a good learning experience for the Western anthropology students who took the course. Second, it had to serve the needs of the Museum’s Lawson Site Management Plan and provide insight on how we can best manage this site long term. Third, it had to be a successful experience for the volunteers and visitors who joined us. Our goal was to make archaeology accessible to non-archaeologists and to underscore to the class the bigger context within which we do archaeology today. Finally, I was hoping to learn just a little bit more about the Lawson site. Not just to care for it as the Lawson Chair, but also to have a better sense of the importance of this place. It has been both an ancient home and village and is one of the oldest continuously excavated sites in Canada. Really, when you think of it, the entire history of Canadian archaeology has happened on this site!

While sorting through the findings will still take some time, I am fairly confident in saying that we’ve managed to achieved those aims. I must thank, as essential to that success, the help of MOA volunteer and field director Darryl Dann, as well as Department of Anthropology staff and geo-spatial and geo-physical expert Ed Eastaugh. Darryl and Ed were vital to the success of the course and meeting the aims we had set for ourselves.

In terms of the geo-physical survey, we are only just starting. The use of three complementary and different technologies (magnetometer, resistivity meter, ground penetrating radar), each added a bit more below ground insight into possible archaeological features. The technologies illustrated the edge of past excavations, and even old fence lines reflected in 19th and early 20th century mapping for the site. As part of the ongoing site evaluation, a wider area of geophysical mapping will be planned for the years ahead.

Lawson field school map
Field School Map

I wasn’t sure how productive excavating previously excavated areas would be, which was the primary task for the Lawson field school this year. After all, in theory there should be little archaeological data or material left.  But to the contrary, we were able to confirm that, at least in the Previously Excavated Area C, past hand excavations did not always completely get down to subsoil, leaving remnant site intact for us to document. More critically, cultural features in these areas were only rarely excavated, (14 of the 18 features that were mapped appear to be cultural, and not archaeological from previous excavations). Moreover, because we were able to open a relatively large area relatively quickly, we were able to see more of the site. I was quite pleased to see clear settlement data, in the form of post mould rows, visible to be recorded.

Perhaps most exciting of all, we also uncovered a very large stain (Feature 10, which encompasses Features 17 and 18) in the very edge of our excavations. This stain was not deep, and revealed cultural features below it. When I align this area of our excavations with previous work done on the site, it is clearly very close to a part of the trenches excavated across the site between 1921-1923 by William J. Wintemberg. This is really important because it suggests we can start to accurately align his trenches and findings in real space and with the findings from more recent fieldwork. It also is pretty exciting, almost a 100 years later, to “see” Wintemberg’s hand revealed so intimately on the site and reach back to that early formative period in Canadian archaeology!

In terms of artifacts and remains, most of what we uncovered were small items that would have been missed first time out (flakes, animal bone, small ceramic fragments). But we did recover large quantities of carbonized maize from around Feature 8, which we will be able to run C14 dates on (update will be provided in a future piece). This will represent one of the first times we can date from controlled context materials recovered from within the older, pre-expansion area of the village, in order to better understand the history of the site.

Volunteers at the Lawson Field School
Students interpreting the site with visitors.

Fortunately a wide range of volunteers joined our efforts to work with the students.  The public aspect was twofold, to give them a hands-on experience while at the same time giving the students an opportunity to think about how to talk about archaeology and the site to a wide range of visitors. We were joined by a diverse group, from grade school students, to a visiting, retired American archaeologist that happened to show up one day, to a group of parents and home schooled students from Oshweken and Brantford. I really wanted the students to think about archaeology as a practice that occurs not just in pursuit of knowledge about the past. It is a practice that occurs in the present and is of interest to a wide range of people beyond archaeologists. I couldn’t have chosen a better setting for bringing that message home.

Really, it is hard to imagine a set of outcomes I would have preferred to those we achieved. The students themselves got into the spirit and the aims of the field school (a sample of the blogs they wrote for the course will be posted here subsequently, so you can get a sense of their perspective directly) and all did really well. We have tested out a series of methods that will work well for rehabilitating the site. These efforts will ensure the various other uses that happen here are managed so as to avoid degrading the site. We’ve gained new insights into the site itself that will help advance our understanding of the archaeology and human history of this place. Most importantly, we have a better appreciation for the long history of archaeology that has been carried out on the site. All of which will provide the Museum’s and the Lawson site’s visitors a better experience and understanding of the history captured here.

I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to further these aims again at the Lawson site!

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