Shell Back Attack: A Tale of Data Recovery

As one phase of my research this summer draws to a close and the next phase begins, I would like to take a moment to reflect upon the joys, pains, and frustrations that are in play during the process of data collection.

Every day I would show up to Ewell Circle at 8 o’clock exactly to accompany the Summer 2011 field school to site. Every day I would wake up leaving enough time to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich and enjoy a giant cup of coffee. Every day I would collect data, hoping to complete research that some day might put a blip on the screen of archaeological studies.

The days were long and demanding, but some of the best of my life. I was surrounded by people all working on various aspects of one larger goal: understanding the people of the past- How did the Native people of this area use their landscape? What were the rituals? How and why did things change over time? The prospect of answering these questions is thrilling, but the execution was tedious.

The site is located primarily in the woods and we were always in the company of ticks, mosquitos, spiders, chiggers, and numerous other many-legged blood thirsty creatures. And thus, step one of my data collection was covering myself with bug spray. Step two was to actually excavate the data (oyster shells) out of the ground while maintaining provenience. A primary feature of the site is a large stratified shell midden. Professor Gallivan, who runs the site, decided to open two 2 meter by 2 meter test units which were roughly 2 meters deep in this trash pit. To properly excavate these test units, it was important to separate the shells from the dirt and artifacts. Once this was complete, I weighed all of the shell from each strata and arbitrary 10 cm level. I then sorted 50 kg of shell from each level, separating left whole oyster shells from right oyster shells, clam shells, and shell fragments.

Professor Gallivan regularly offered for me to have an assistant, but very few of the field school students enjoyed this task. Gallivan would joke that it took the “right personality” (still wondering what that meant) to be able to sort through dirty shell every day. It frustrated me that no one wanted to be a part of this task. I felt like what I was doing was important. I took pleasure in it. I knew that what I was doing served a larger purpose. I knew that I could learn so much about the foodways of the Native people from this data. The only pain I derived from this process was physical, not psycological.

Every once in a while I would be sitting sorting shell next to some of the field school students and staff and lay flat on the ground and yell “shell back attack!” By this I meant that there was a shooting pain and tingling sensation in my left shoulder caused by repetative motions and being hunched over. After a breif visit to the doctor and some muscle relaxers, that problem is no more. What remains is the data I have and the tasks I have accomplished.

And so Shell Girl (my nickname at the field school) goes on to analyze the data. Perhaps a less back-breaking process?


  1. kwjenkins says:

    This sounds really interesting! I am taking Intro to Archaeology and visited the Brafferton site a couple weeks ago to listen about the history of the site and what they have found so far!