Maggie is currently an intern at the Northeast Region Archeology Program. She will be attending the University of Georgia for a PhD in History starting this fall. Maggie wrote the following blog post after working with documents related to the recent archeological excavations and perscribed burn at Gettysburg National Battlefield.
Why do we perform Archeology? How do we establish a methodology? What tools do we use and why? Where do all the artifacts go after they are excavated? All these questions must be asked before, during, and after any archeological project performed at the National Parks. The answers to these questions provide a glimpse into the work of the Northeast Region Archeology Program and the Northeast Museum Services Center. So join us and learn how archeology goes from shovel… to shelf!
First, we take a look at an ongoing project at Gettysburg National Military Park. This week we will discuss the Northeast Region Archeology Program’s field work at Gettysburg, and next week we will hear about what happens after the excavation ends from the Northeast Museum Services Center
Trial By Fire: Why is Archeology Performed?
In 1902, a group of tourists visiting Gettysburg’s Little Round Top stopped by Weikert Souvenir Stand and purchased sodas for their picnic lunch. The sightseers were excited to tour the location of such a famous battle, visiting for the same reasons that we go to Gettysburg National Military Park today. They browsed the stand’s “souvenirs”—bullets, personal objects, and other relics from the Battle of Little Round Top that David Weikert, a Civil War veteran and owner of the Weikert Souvenir Stand, spent his days collecting.
Today, we recognize that the “souvenirs” early visitors took from Gettysburg are archeological resources integral to the history of the United States. Archeological resources are ephemeral. Once removed, they cannot be returned. Archeological resources are only as useful as the context that they provide us. A bullet is just an object. To understand the artifacts and sites, archeologists take into account all factors – location, depth, surroundings, etc. The early Gettysburg tourists mistakenly separated these resources from the American public. To protect our archeological resources, the Archeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) was passed; under ARPA, it is illegal to remove or disturb any natural, cultural, or archeological resource on federal land.
Even at the Northeast Region Archeology Program, we do not perform archeological digs for the sake of digging. Leaving artifacts in their original location protects them, and future researchers can investigate them at appropriate times. Archeology is only performed by NRAP when archeological resources are at risk or when archeology can help answer research questions that a park is asking. One such question was proposed by Gettysburg National Military Park in 2017: what is the effect of fire on archeological resources?
In the spring of 2017, Gettysburg performed a prescribed burn of Little Round Top. The controlled fire was executed in order to restore the landscape to its appearance at the time of the Civil War and remove the invasive species that had taken over the hill. Although an important move for the environmental protection and cultural landscape of the park, the effects of the burn needed to be considered. The park took efforts to protect the resources and wildlife of Little Round Top. Slow moving turtles were removed from the area (so cute!). Monuments, witness trees, cannons, and historic breastworks were all protected; furthermore, in order to determine the effects of the fire on archeological resources as well as monitor the project per section 106, Gettysburg and the Northeast Region’s Cultural Resources team decided to investigate!
There’s a Method to the Madness: Establishing and Executing a Research Plan
Clearly this site is important to the history of the United States and a striking cultural resource. The National Park Service is charged with protecting these resources, and archeologists were pumped for such an exciting project. Everyone was ready to get out in the field and work!
Before any archeological fieldwork can be conducted, however, a plan must always be established. All archeology begins with research, consultation, and planning. Countless hours of preparation go into a project before a shovel breaks ground (or a geophysical tool touches the earth). Books are read, old reports studied, calls are made, and paperwork is filled out. All of this preparation is then used to determine the best way to answer the research question(s) that the park poses.
In the case of the Little Round Top Project, a plan was established to determine the effect of fire on archeological resources at Gettysburg. First, a testing sample was designated. The identified project area is 52 acres; surveying the entire area would take forever. Instead, specific transects (small areas to be tested) were chosen based on a variety of reasons. 1. Transects were chosen to sample all three types of natural vegetation on the hill to identify the relationship between vegetation type, fire intensity and archaeological resources. 2. Transects were chosen to survey a variety of slopes (steepness) of the hill to determine if fire behavior in those area impacted archaeological resources. 3. Transects were laid out based on historic documentation to see if the events recorded are represented in the archeological resources.
The area was then surveyed for archeological resources. Volunteers first conducted a walk over to see if any surface artifacts could be located. Then other methods were used to locate potentially buried objects.
The focus of the project was the 2nd day of the Battle of Gettysburg, but the area saw thousands of years of occupation before the battle of Gettysburg. Pre-contact Native American artifacts were also an important factor in this investigation, as they might be affected by the fire in a different manner than Civil War artifacts. Therefore, shovel test pits were conducted to locate potential pre-contact artifacts in addition to artifacts associated with the battle.
To locate artifacts associated with the battle, NRAP and 15 volunteers used metal detectors to survey the designated transects. Although sometimes used during archeological projects, visitors are not allowed to metal detect in National Parks. Archeologists use metal detectors only when specific research questions have been identified, a plan made, and metal detectors established as the most useful tool for the project. In the case of battlefields, metal detectors are extremely helpful; they can quickly identify artifacts associated with the battle in question and cover large areas without unnecessarily disturbing unrelated land.
Unless you are part of an official archeology project, metal detecting on National Parks is considered a violation of ARPA—it is disturbing archeological resources. Although you cannot independently metal detect on a National Park, there is a way some can get involved—volunteering! Sometimes a project needs help from outside experts. No one person can conduct a large scale archeology project. Expert and vetted professional archeologists from the Advanced Metal Detecting for Archaeologists volunteered on the Little Round Top project! Without the wonderful volunteers, the project could not have been completed.
During the pre-burn metal detecting, Civil War artifacts were identified. The archeologists and volunteers recovered small arms ammunition from the smoothbore muskets, rifle muskets, and pistols used during the confrontation, and artillery related objects like shell fragments, case fragments, shot balls, fuses, shell plugs, canister shot, and 2 twelve pound cannon balls! How neat!
A sample of these artifacts were dug up, photographed, mapped, analyzed, and then reburied.
April 10th 2017, the prescribed burn consumed greater than 90% of grasses and thatch, 50% of vine species, and 50% of top kill of the saplings and shrubs on Little Round Top. The moment of truth—what happened to the artifacts?!?!
But What Does it Mean?: Using Archeology to Answer our Questions
After the burn, volunteers again surveyed the area for surface objects and re-metal detected the designated transects. The reburied artifacts were re-uncovered and taken to the lab to be assessed. In the lab, the artifacts were cleaned and identified. They were analyzed for cracking, sooting, and melting. Artifact weight changes, dimension changes, and color changes were also measured. Did the fire effect the artifacts? A verdict was determined.
Civil War military objects showed no signs of cracking, sooting, or melting! Archeologists concluded that they were all buried deep enough that the fire did not have an effect, even in the most intensely burned areas. The only objects harmed were modern items dropped by tourists. The project proved that burns typically do not damage Civil War military artifacts in the Northeast and uncovered a wealth of associated artifacts for Gettysburg National Military Park!
Get these Artifacts Out of My Lab!: Conclusion and Next Steps
When the Northeast Region Archeology Program performs archeology, it is always to protect the resources and/or learn more about our country’s past. During projects, NRAP always follows best practices and performs ethical archeology in the pursuit of managing and protecting our cultural resources. We research, “to identify, evaluate, document, register, and establish other basic information about cultural resources,” plan, “to ensure that this information is well integrated into management processes for making decisions and setting priorities,” and act as stewards, to ensure that our resources, “are preserved, protected, and interpreted to the public.” (Directive 28)
Archeology— it’s a process! Now you’ve gotten a glimpse into the world of NRAP— why and how we get shovels in the ground.
Fieldwork is only the first step. After all the planning, surveying, digging, and testing, what happens to the artifacts? Where do they go? How are they used? We will answer these questions and more next week when the Northeast Museum Services Center explains how these artifacts go from shovel… to shelf!
Desjardin, Thomas A. Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Dukes, Joel. Personal interview. 18 December 2018.
Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
GettysburgNPS. “Little Round Top Prescribed Fire.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKy_j3VCq_E.
Haskell, Franklin Aretas. The Battle of Gettysburg. 1864.
Jacobs, M. Notes on the Rebel Invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania and the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1st, 2d and 3d, 1863. Times Print. House, 1909.
“NPS Office of Policy: NPS-28, Cultural Resource Management (Introduction).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/nps28/28intro.htm.
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg – The Second Day. The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
“Successful Prescribed Burn Completed at Little Round Top (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/articles/successful-prescribed-burn-completed-at-little-round-top.htm.