Just keep looking…

I’m already three weeks into my summer research on Bermuda, and I’m feeling very much in the “middle” of my project. It’s like taking a path into a dense forest and, finding yourself in the thickest part of it, discovering that the path has suddenly divided into ten different paths. You can choose any new path, but you can’t stay on the old one – it doesn’t continue. How do you decide which way to go next?

Speaking more specifically of my own research project, this is what happened. I sat down in the lab on the first day with the intent to find evidence of “Africanisms” in the archaeological materials recovered from an excavation undertaken twenty years ago at the site of Stewart Hall in St. George’s, Bermuda. Because I expected “Africanisms” (the term sometimes applied to elements of material culture indicating African influence) in materials associated with enslaved individuals on the site, I decided only to study those materials recovered from eras when enslaved individuals were known to have lived on the site. In short, I was only interested in the eighteenth century contexts. After isolating only the eighteenth century contexts from a list of about 350, I had whittled the list down to about 20 contexts. I created an Excel spreadsheet with each of the eighteenth century context numbers and their location, grid coordinates, terminus post quem (the date after which they were formed), and the numbers of the boxes in which their associated artifacts were housed. At this point my research was only paperwork, which doesn’t sound like much, but you should have seen the mountain of paperwork from whence all of that information came!

Perhaps the biggest challenge of this research project thus far has been finding the information I need. Though the original excavators and researchers left behind copious and thorough notes, everything is incredibly disorganized. There are three binders filled with the same charts, graphs, and context records, in addition to two Hollinger boxes full of site maps and loose leaf paper with rough sketches of the site’s phasing. After the better part of two weeks – spent wading through all of this and determining which of forms filed in triplicate is the final copy – I finally opened the first Hollinger box of artifacts.

And lo and behold! The very first artifact I pulled was a previously undocumented piece of colonoware! Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was quickly checked by the realization that most of the ceramic artifacts from this site were whisked off the island by the original researcher, who has yet to return them to their rightful home after twenty years’ hiatus. Additionally, the subsequent artifact inventory records conclude that most of the eighteenth century contexts I’d originally isolated actually date to the early nineteenth century. Having searched through box after box of corroded iron nails, glass sherds, and broken pipe stems, I’ve reached the middle of the forest.

Though I haven’t had an earth-shattering aha! moment, I have seen some evidence what I set out to find. Curious stamped patterns on usually pristine white kaolin pipes, straight pins bent into the shape of fish hooks, and beads of irregular shape inspire me to explore alternate routes of inquiry into the daily lives of Stewart Hall’s residents. I’ll be in touch with my professors at William and Mary for their thoughts on my pictures, sketches, and ideas. For now, I’m going to continue as I have for the past week or so, typing up artifact inventory records for each context, and inspecting the contents of their associated artifact bags. The present plan is to keep gathering data and making careful observations about everything – better to have a large data set and pick just one line of inquiry later, than to adopt too narrow a focus and miss something. So for now, I’ll  just keep looking looking looking…

 

Comments

  1. I totally understand your frustrations when it comes to dead-ends and new beginnings. Although some of my survey results followed my original hypothesis, I realized that everything was so much more complicated than I could ever imagine. I will definitely have to do some re-thinking of the scope of my project! I hope that in the end you are getting the data you need to produce something great – although I’m not too worried about you 🙂