Archaeology at Timbuctoo, NJ

2013 Field Season


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Ground-Truthing Feature 27

Posted by [email protected] on June 26, 2013 at 12:55 AM Comments comments (8)

After a weekend of technical difficulties with the website, we are back up and running.  As a result, a few blog entries may be postdated, but keep an eye out nonetheless!

Also, please check our Photo Gallery section for some photos from the field, shared by one of our volunteers Dave Z.!

In recent news, we came across some plow scars on the west end of the site, returned to Feature 27 (our possible privy) with some interesting, albeit unexpected, results, had a visit from Mr. Coleman, a former resident of Timbuctoo, and faced the newest weather challenge -- 90+ degree heat.  We also encountered quite a bit of Timbuctoo wildlife in the field today: Chuck and Andrew spotted a 3 foot long black snake (non-poisonous, we're told), I met a large and decorative insect, and found myself surrounded later by the entire clan of turkeys, about 10 in all, as I covered our open trenches against the latest storm darkening the sky just behind the trees.

Today's post will focus on our findings so far in Feature 27, which we'd originally presumed to be a possible privy.  Privies are an exciting find for an archaeologist, despite the use that typically first comes to mind.  Another way that privies were used were as depositories for household trash, the things people used most often during their daily lives, creating time-capsules of sorts that tell archaeologists a lot about how people lived and what they used.  When we returned to Feature 27, depicted on the geophysical survey as a large shaft feature, we imagined that we would find one of the 19th or 20th privies of Timbuctoo.  What we found instead was a bit different, though no less interesting.  This is a great example of why it is necessary to test the anomalies at Timbuctoo -- what we call 'ground-truthing'.  While we rely on interpretations to understand what is happening archaeologically at a site, the ground itself never lies.  In this case, the ground had something else to say, pushing our preliminary interpretations aside.

Immediately upon removing the grass for our STP, we encountered quite a bit of coal in the soil. As we went down further, the coal bits increased, along with copious amounts of slag, fire-treated rock, and some ash.  At about .7 feet below the surface, we hit a 'floor' of sorts, a very compact, dense layer of ash and rock.  This extended all the way across the STP.  To find out how deep it went, we bisected the STP and took it down a few more inches (the layer was about .2 feet thick).  Beneath, we encountered a large piece of metal extending across most of the north half and what appears to be the subsoil clay.

The ash and rock 'floor' of Feature 27.

An unidentified piece of metal beneath the feature.

Using the Munsell Soil Color Chart to identify the color of the reddish soil beneath the feature.

This piece of metal is not going to come out in one piece, so what we want to do it expose it further while leaving it in situ.  To do this, and to search for the edge of this dense ash feature, we expanding our STP into a 2x4 foot trench.  Tomorrow, we plan to remove the layer to expose beneath, hopefully allowing us to identify the metal artifact. 

What could this feature be?  It certainly points to fire-related activity, showed up as a circular anomaly on the geophyical survey, and is more than 4 feet in width.  It's location is central in the large open space surrounded by the structures of the survey.  Perhaps we are looking at a central fire pit, where people would gather to socialize, cook, etc.  We will investigate this further as the week goes on.

Mr. Coleman's visit was a wonderful surprise, and we spent quite a bit of time talking to him about his experiences as a child growing up at Timbuctoo.  Being on the site with us, he was able to point out where he remembers things being and tell us stories related to the space itself.  He does not remember there being anything where we are currently excavating, but told us about the road that used to run perpendicular to Church St. (which appears also to have shown up on the geophysics) and the pig pens that used to be back where we found the plow scars late last week (more on this in another post!).  His stories gave a life to the site that is not possible with archaeology alone, and it was a pleasure to have him come out and see what we've been doing this summer!

Wednesday/Thursday Highlights

Posted by [email protected] on June 23, 2013 at 12:15 AM Comments comments (0)

 I've been experiencing some technical difficulties with the blog, so this post is a couple days past due!  Friday's will be up shortly, barring further complications..

This blog is of our Wednesday-Thursday highlights, all rolled into one.


1.      The weather – fantastic both days, a nice turn of events after getting soaked through by the mini-hurricane on Tuesday. 


2.      A visit from Mary Weston, whose great-great-great (one more great?) grandparents were two of the original inhabitants of Timbuctoo.  She currently lives just down the street and has always been our site-mother, bringing us water and keeping Chris in line.  It was wonderful to see her, looking fabulous as always, and we talked about the possibility of putting in an STP in her yard if we have time at the end of the season – which happens to be next week, folks!  See the Photo Gallery for some pictures of her visit.


 3.      Lithic debotage.  While a few pieces of broken rock don’t seem overly exciting to some, this is a really important find here at Timbuctoo.  Though we’ve always known that there was likely a prehistoric presence at the site, due to its location near Rancocas Creek, we haven’t yet seen it in the archaeological record other than a projectile point found near the surface during our 2010 excavation.  Given its context, this point was probably kept by someone historically and deposited much later.  Pictured below (due to technical difficulties, now pictured in the Photo Gallery section) are our finds from Wednesday, in an STP that was placed outside of a feature to investigate what the exterior stratigraphy on the west side of the site looked like.  Once we went about a foot down and reached sand, sterile of any historic artifacts, we came across three pieces of lithic debotage, which are the small flakes and fragments of stone that are left over when making stone tools.

Here, I'd hoped to upload a photograph, but since images are currently not working for the blog, please check the Photo Gallery section for pictures of this find!  Though they aren’t the most beautiful examples of flakes, they are all of the same material and were found in the same 2x2 foot area.  Thisdecisively tells us that there was a prehistoric presence here, and that the area of Timbuctoo was occupied long before the community was founded in 1820 –even before contact between the Europeans and the American Indians.  Small things, but with big implications.


4.      The search for Features 22, 19, and18. The structures (maybe) and the one shaft feature on the west side of the site are proving more elusive, possibly because they were earlier and perhaps set back a little too far to have been used for depositing trash in the mid-20th century, as the anomalies on the east side of the site have demonstrated.  Though we’ve found some artifacts in these STPs, our goal was to locate something that definitively told us there was a structure thereat one point in time – a foundation, soil feature, deposit,etc.  The small amount of artifacts we found indicates a historic presence, but are not quite enough to prove the presence of the feature itself.  We’ll have to wait and see what Friday and our last week holds for us.


Feature 23 and a Timbuctoo Monsoon

Posted by [email protected] on June 18, 2013 at 11:10 PM Comments comments (0)

Today, Andrew and I returned to Feature 23 to find out what was going on beneath the discolorations in the soil (see yesterday's post for photos!).  The darker soil lessened as we went down further, and soon we encountered the clay subsoil -- but only in the north half of the STP.  Once we cleaned it up to take a look at this soil change, we noticed this:

It may be a little difficult to make out, but what we have here appears to be the edge of Feature 23.  If you look closely, the bottom half (the north half) of the STP is the clay subsoil, and the top half is a mottled sand.  The line between the two cuts straight across the STP from left to right (east to west).  As I mentioned in my last post, the geophysical survey had interpreted this as a smaller structure, perhaps only 8 by 10 feet.  Though we did find a few bricks, it's possible that such a small structure -- maybe an outbuilding or shed -- wouldn't have had the extensive brick foundation we encountered in Feature 13 in 2010.  Though this doesn't look like much, it shows us what the geophysical survey was reading and confirms that though small, a structure did likely stand here at some point during Timbuctoo's history!

Shortly after taking this photograph, the dark storm clouds started rolling in from the east.  We cleaned up just in time to retreat to the storage trailer as it started to rain.  We spent some time organizing the artifact bags, but the monsoon outside reached epic levels, with thunder and lightening and all of the theatrics.  We ended up having to make an epic dash to my Jeep, only a few feet away, but were soaked through in the process.  Though we ended early, this gave me some time to catch up with note taking, photo logging, and all those things that aren't quite interesting enough to blog about.

Tomorrow, however, the search continues.  More to come, with a week and a half left in the field!

Before the rain, we made a trip over to the fence to say hello to lifetime resident of Timbuctoo, Mr. Nixon.  He mentioned to us that in his memory, the area we were working in had only ever been woods.  This is just a small piece of information, but a reminder that one of Timbuctoo's most unique attributes as an archaeological site is the presence of a community that remembers life at the site.  As our work continues, we hope to further collect these oral histories to give us a very real idea of what life at Timbuctoo was like.  Mr. Nixon, whose yard is a true work of art, was rained out today as well, but we often work side by side on either sides of the fence during good weather -- him on his garden, us on our STPs.  Our conversations are one of the favorite parts of the day.


Posted by [email protected] on June 18, 2013 at 12:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Today we had a special guest appearance by Timbuctoo volunteer extraordinare Marylin Phifer!  Looking back on the day, I can’t believe that I didn’t think to take a picture of the two of us (like old times, just minus Chris), something we'll have to remedy next time she comes out to the site.

Andrew also joined us in the field today, and started the ever-elusive search for a Timbuctoo privy. We had our sights set on a particularly promising shaft feature on the geophysical survey, Feature 27.  We started with our basic 2 foot STP, but upon seeing less-than-promising sterile soil, I brought out the split spoon, which allows us to take a two inch 'snapshot' of the stratigraphy up to about a foot down. I started by testing the STP, and hit the sterile clay subsoil in less than a foot.  Definitely not promising.  Moving outward from there, we tested four feet in each direction, encountering clay within a foot each time.  Now, you can imagine that when one goes to dig a privy, they probably dig more than a couple of inches.  Instead of digging the half foot of soil just to reach the clay, we closed this STP early.  No need to disturb the site further if we already know what we were aiming to find out – no privy here.

We turned our attention towards a small feature (no more than 8 by 10 feet, according to the survey) along the north end of the site.  Feature 23 didn’t pop up with the flare that Feature 29 did, with its abundance of artifacts, but within a few inches we encountered a whole brick, along with a good amount of smaller brick bits.  We photographed it and kept going.  Within a few more inches, another brick, along with some very striking soil colors.  These could indicate that water is collecting on top of something (more bricks, with luck), or that the soil was at one point burned – unlikely, since we’ve found very little charcoal and the bricks appear unburnt.  We will have to wait until tomorrow to find out!

We finished the day by sketching these soil changes and finishing up screening.  While Feature 23 didn’t have much to offer in way of artifacts, quantity-wise, we did find this:the bottom of a hand-blown glass bottle, much older than the others we’ve found so far this field season (possibly Civil War or earlier).  This is what the bottom of a bottle would have looked like before they were mold or machine-made – a little uneven, with a 'pontil scar' at the base (see the SHA website:  Very interesting, in contrast with the 1960s deposit we encountered only a few yards away!


Friday in the field.

Posted by [email protected] on June 17, 2013 at 12:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Dave Z., Chuck C., Dr. Orr, Gus, and Chris (from left to right)

This classic shot was taken on Friday, when we were joined by Dr. Dave Orr of Temple University (and Gus, Chris' puppy for his debut at the site).  Even though we had some light rain early in the day, it didn't stop us from having a productive day in the field.  To begin, we cleaned up the STP in the center of Feature 29, which, this close to the surface, appeared to be a trash deposit dating to the late 1950s through the early 1970s.  I know that to many this doesn't seem 'old enough' to merit archaeological attention, but it does act as a window into past life at the site!  Such an intact deposit can tell us what was being bought, used, and discarded during that time period.  Some of these items will inspire nostalgia for those who remember them from their own life experiences; to some, they will hold a kind of vintage interest.  To us as archaeologists, they tell a story of daily life that allows us to begin to piece together what it would have been like to live at Timbuctoo during the mid-20th century, a time period that was just as much a part of Timbuctoo's history as its 19th century past.  It's also important to keep in mind that these are the artifacts found closest to the surface, and the deeper we go the older things will be (the Law of Superposition, if you've taken archaeology or geology courses!).

Let's take a look at some of the things we've found:

These bottles give us a few clues that help up to date this topmost level of the trash deposit.  The Pepsi bottle demonstrates the 'swirl' bottle shape that was implemented in 1958, and the oval logo that was used from 1958-1977 (Lockhart's Bottles on the Border, 2010).  Wink, the grapefruit soda by Canada Dry, was introduced in 1966 (not much is available online about Wink, but you can check it out on Wikipedia -- it has its own page), and the Vicks VapoRub bottle appears to be from the 1960's as well (check out for a 1960's commercial for VapoRub... they just don't make commercials quite like that anymore). 

This STP has confirmed that there is a deposit here, but in order to confirm whether or not Feature 29 was in fact a structure, we still needed to find its edge.  To do this, we focused our attention on an STP that aimed to find the northeast corner of the feature.  Within an inch or so we hit the clay that is indicative of the sterile subsoil of the area, except along the southern edge of the unit.  As you can see in the left picture, the soil along that edge of the circular STP is darker and looser, and contains quite a few artifacts (including the sole of a shoe).


Rather than go deeper and unnecessarily disturb the ground, we decided to expand the STP into a 2x4 foot trench, just removing the top inch or so of soil in order to see the extent of the soil change.  Sure enough, it seems as if we've found the edge of Feature 29!  Our next step will be to draw this change and take all the steps to record it thoroughly -- between this and the evidence of the interior deposit, it does seem that the geophysics did in fact locate one of the previous structures of Timbuctoo!

One interesting find, made by one of our volunteers, Dave, towards the end of Friday afternoon, was this 1901 Indian Head Penny. 

This could quite possibly be our earliest artifact yet.  It was found towards the northern edge of Feature 29, quite close to the surface. This indicates that though it dates as far back as 1901, it was likely deposited along with the other artifacts in the mid-20th century.  This tells us something of how such an old penny (old now, but certainly old at the time as well!) may have been valued by a someone who once lived at Timbuctoo -- maybe it was kept as a collectible item, interesting because of its age.  On the other hand, it may have simply been circulated as a penny for half a century and ended up in the ground until we came along in 2013 to dig it up (though we've found no other coins in this area during testing).  The important thing is that we begin to think about the daily lives that were lead at Timbuctoo by its residents throughout the decades, different in many ways and yet still very similar in others to the daily lives we all lead today. I know I certainly collected old currency when I was younger, among other things (I actually still hold onto a 10 dollar bill from 1932 I came across a few years back).

We continue tomorrow! Keep an eye out for further updates from the field.

Weathering the storm..

Posted by [email protected] on June 13, 2013 at 8:20 PM Comments comments (0)

The impending storm warnings didn't prevent Chuck, Andrew and Wendy from joining me in the field today.  We got started but sure enough, within the hour we had to retreat to the tent to wash some artifacts and ride out the rain.  Of course, as those of you in the area can probably attest to, it wasn't just some rain -- it was a torrential downpour complete with overhead lightning and deafening thunder.

Braving the storm!

After some lightning that was too close for comfort and checking of the radar, we decided to break for a late breakfast at the nearby Corner Diner to wait an hour and see what our chances of digging might be once the storm passed.  I have to hand it to my volunteers here, braving the elements and sticking with me through the bad weather, because after breakfast the sun came out and we were able to return to the site with shovels and trowels ready.

Set back a little by the weather, we focused solely on the STP Andrew and I had only just opened the day before, in the center of Feature 29 (another possible structure on the geophysical survey).  This STP had yeilded a wealth of artifacts immediately upon removing the grass -- Andrew and I had filled half of a gallon bag simply from cleaning the loose inch or two of soil off of the surface.  We returned to this task today, finding that the high concentration of artifacts continued and made it nearly impossible to use a shovel (making it more of a trowel test pit, when it came down to it).  Most artifacts at this point appear to be from the 1950s and 1960s, including one of the first Diet Pepsi bottles (introduced in 1962), a Scovill snap fastener, a 1/4 cup measuring cup, and quite a bit of the usual glass, ceramic, and iron nails.  We are still fairly close to the surface, but such a deposit correlates with accounts that the area was used for depositing trash during the mid to late 20th century.  Many of the artifacts remained in situ to preserve the walls of the STP, which may need expanding to extract them.  Some of these include some unidentifiable knit fabric, a large metal container of some sort, an intact ketchup bottle, brick, among others.

A midway-point shot of the excavation.

The weather held up (it even got hot) for us to put in a full day, even after the crazy-storm-adventure of the morning.  So despite getting soaked, today turned out to be a success -- we were able to wash some artifacts, discover a great little diner in downtown Mount Holly, and get some digging done before calling it a day.  Photos of some of our artifacts so far will follow at the end of the week!

First day with volunteers!

Posted by [email protected] on June 11, 2013 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (1)

Despite some questionable forecasts and my getting caught in a downpour yesterday, the weather today was absolutely wonderful and along with three fantastic volunteers (four including Chris, five if we include his dog Franklin), we began the shovel testing out at Timbuctoo.

For those of you new to archaeology at Timbuctoo, we had a geophysical survey conducted by John Milner and Associates in 2009 that intepreted different anomalies beneath the ground to be possible places where structures once stood, privies were dug, or roads were located.  The goal of this field season is to test these anomalies to find out if they really are what they seem to be -- privies, roads, and foundations that once supported the homes of the residents of Timbuctoo.  We started with Feature 28 (see below).

Feature 28 (a little blurry, but it's the green box). Nꜛ


We don't yet know much about Feature 28, but using historical documents and tax parcels we may be able to find out who may have lived there while the building stood (if it does prove to be a structure!).  This is something we did with previously excavated Feature 13, which had once been the home of 19th century resident William Davis.

Focusing on Feature 28 for today, we put in two STPs to learn a little bit more about this may-be structure beneath the ground.  The first STP (shovel test pit) was placed in what was interpreted to be the northeast corner of the feature.  This STP immediately yeilded artifacts such as bottle glass (brown, green and clear), ceramic, and metal.  About .5 feet down, we began to find larger concentrations of nails, bits of brick (and some more sizable pieces), and charcoal, a good indication that we are in fact digging somewhere close to where this structure once stood. 

The second STP, placed within the proposed 'interior' of the feature, yeilded some glass and ceramic, but in smaller quantities than the first STP about twelve feet away.  This shovel test was closed for the day at about .5 feet depth below surface in order to focus on finishing the first, but will be returned to tomorrow.

It's always nice to have some interesting finds on the first day of excavation, and today didn't disappoint.  Though we didn't (yet) find the corner that we were looking for, we did find what appears to be the handle of a pot or pan, as well as quite a bit of blue-and-white transferware.  Not too bad for a 2x2 ft. STP.


The beautiful work below was completed by volunteers Charles, Dave and Wendy today.  This STP still has a little ways to go until sterile soil, but so far it seems to a be promising one. 

STP 1 in Feature 28 at about 1 foot below surface.

Thanks for a wonderful first day to everyone who came out today: Chris, Wendy, Charles, and Dave!  I'm looking forward to working with everyone again, and seeing what else this field season has in store.

And of course, Franklin.

Stolen shamelessly from Chris' Facebook.


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