Cold Weather Brings Hardware Times in the Lab

by Kayla MarciniszynField Archaeologist

On this blog, we often discuss the life cycle of an artifact from dirt to desk to collections. In the lab, artifacts go through a series of stages including washing, drying, rebagging, cataloging, labeling and then storage. Cataloging is a stage of analysis where we research the types of artifacts we have uncovered. One of the things this does is help provide us with more accurate dates to each soil layer and the site as a whole. We have recovered a number of diagnostic artifacts from recent excavations on Old Colchester Park and Preserve, including nails. Yes, nails!


Nails, like ceramics, have stylistic elements and traits that can help us determine a specific period of time for the layer from which it recovered. With the help of our architectural historian, Elizabeth Peebles, I have spent some time researching nail types and some of the stylistic traits that older nails have. I have seen hand wrought nails before, but the amount of detail and precision in the wrought nails we are currently uncovering has astounded and amazed me. It is easy to see that the blacksmith took time, effort, and care in forging the nails we are currently finding. This tells me that the owner of this land might have had the means to afford the product of a skilled blacksmith. However, there was also a good possibility that the nails were brought from England. Nails were a highly valued commodity in the colonies because they required a lot of effort and material resources to produce.

Nails today are pretty universal in design. There’s a round head, threading on the shaft, and a sharp, pointed tip. We refer to these nails as wire or extruded, because they are produced from coils of metal wire and fed through a machine. Wrought nails, however, had varying head and tip types based on their use. If the nails were used in furniture and the head would be seen, the blacksmith might try and make it more visibly appealing or artistic in design, or some might not even have had a head at all. Some wrought head types include rose heads (more decorative), T-heads, L-heads, and double-struck heads. Once machine cut nails and mass production began to replace the need for blacksmiths, heads became universally square in shape, lacking the previous stylistic elements of hand wrought heads.

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Fairfax County African American History

A new historic marker has been installed in Burke to commemorate the important contributions of African Americans building the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Research found that during the Civil War, many formerly enslaved persons braved work outside Union lines, were captured, and sent back into slavery.  The marker was made possible by the tireless efforts of several appointees to the Fairfax County History Commission. Thank you for shining the light on what could have been a lost part of our community’s heritage!

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Biweekly – 20 February 2015



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Fishin’ around Ash Grove…

by Sheila Koons – Lab Archaeologist & Lithic Specialist

Much of our recent lab work has been focused on cataloging the artifacts from the Ash Grove meat house. As one might expect, a great deal of bone was recovered by our field crew (in addition to ceramic, glass, metal, and some lithics). Some of the bone has butcher marks and some has been gnawed by rodents. Interestingly, a high percentage of the bone is fish bone, particularly fish skull elements. I say interestingly because fish remains are small and fragile. They are typically lost during conventional excavation and recovery processes. According to Olsen, “Even when fish bones are present, excepting vertebrae, their form and structure are such that they can be easily overlooked or assumed to be fragments of bones of larger animals” (1968:3). Our current recovery methods have offered us a unique opportunity to study these artifacts. I am truly amazed that the spines on the vertebrae have survived perhaps two centuries, so great job to our field crew and our dedicated group of volunteers in the lab!

Found by the Colchester Archaeological Research Team at Ash Grove in Fairfax, Virginia: Fish precaudal and caudal vertebrae, jaw bones, ceratohyal bones of the skull

From left to right: Fish precaudal and caudal vertebrae, jaw bones, ceratohyal bones of the skull

In order to determine the types of fish species found at Ash Grove, we are getting some help from a group of ichthyologists at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. Ichthyology is the study of fish and so we are hoping these scientists can help us figure out what sort of fish the residents of Ash Grove were eating. The fish skull bones from Ash Grove are very similar in size and shape so it is quite possible that there was a dietary preference for a particular type of fish or perhaps a restrictive diet based on the species of fish that were readily available in the area. As our investigations progress and our collaborations increase, the dietary preferences of the inhabitants at Ash Grove will become more apparent.


Olsen, Stanley J. (1968). Fish, Amphibian and Reptile Remains from Archaeological Sites. Part 1. Southeastern and Southwestern United States Appendix. The Osteology of the Wild Turkey. 3-12.

Reitz, E.J and E.S. Wing 1999. Zooarchaeology. Cambridge University Press.

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Job Opportunities at Montpelier

Our friends at James Madison’s Montpelier have two job openings. One is for an Archaeological Lab Manager and the other is for a Public Archaeology Technician.  Montpelier is an amazing and beautiful place.  It is packed with history significant to our nation.  The staff do amazing archaeology and are great people to boot.  Click on the image below for descriptions.

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Look at what Mount Vernon is doing!  This is fantastic. Data. Geography. Management. Preservation. Awesome!

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Metal Detectors and Archaeologists

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Image from Preservation Magazine.

On Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at 5:30 p.m. (EST), there will be a very interesting discussion on Google Hangouts.  Dr. Matthew Reeves of James Madison’s Montpelier will be participating in an online forum, hosted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation,  discussing how archaeologists and metal detection enthusiasts can work together.  The discussion stems from this recent article in Preservation Magazine on the topic. Google+ users can join the hangout here.

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