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School of hard rocks

Archaeologists-in-training dig deep for marks

Photos, clockwise from top. Amanda Crompton is teaching the archaeological field school on Signal Hill this summer. A student carefully sweeps away the dirt surrounding the barracks site. Some of the 2,500 artifacts uncovered by Memorial’s archaeology students. A piece of a bone comb. A domino, likely made by one of the soldiers stationed at the barracks. A copper lion’s head medallion.

By David Sorensen

As classrooms go, this is better than most. Students enrolled in the archaeological field school are wrapping up a six-week stint perched on the edge of Signal Hill, excavating an early 19th century barracks building.

Amanda Crompton is a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology who was hired this summer to teach the archaeology field school, in which archaeology undergrads take a series of three classes to learn to become “actual, factual archaeologists,” she said. “They learn what it’s really like to do this for a living.”

In a discipline that demands field work, there’s only so much you can get out of lectures and research papers, she said.

“It’s one thing to read about archaeology in a textbook, it looks glamorous and exotic, and doing archaeology can be glamorous and exotic but often it’s a very different experience,” she said. “You learn that you get dirty, you have to lie on the ground, you have to work in the rain, and it’s a much different experience than it might appear if you watch the Discovery Channel.”

The field school component of the Department of Archaeology has been around for some time, but in order to teach in the field, clearly you need a site. Enter Parks Canada. “We got together and they suggested ‘why not come and dig here?’ Fantastic. They provided us with the site but they are also providing us with logistical support and, most importantly for the students, they are providing funding.”

The field school students – 16 of them this semester – do one class during intersession, and during the summer session they take two courses: the field course on Signal Hill and a lab class where they learn to process artifacts.

Samantha Slaney is an archaeology student in Ms. Crompton’s class on the hill. She said the course has been fun but also a great learning experience, adding that the occasional cold, wet day has not been a problem thanks to the “great crew” of fellow students and the thrill of a successful dig.

“When you find something really interesting, it doesn’t matter what the weather is like.”

The site on Signal Hill is a large barracks building adjacent to the Ladies Lookout on the hill. Construction of the barracks began in 1799 and the building stood until at least 1880. The site had been partially excavated by Parks Canada in the 1980s.

Because the barracks building was where the soldiers lived, meals and slept, the dig is unearthing a range of items from everyday life, said Ms. Crompton. The dig has unearthed broken bottles, earthenware, utensils, pipes and more.
“We’re finding all kinds of little broken-up artifacts that tell us something about the lives of the ordinary soldiers who would have lived here,” said Ms. Crompton.

The field school wraps up Aug. 8.

The Signal Hill National Historic Site was the reception point of the first transatlantic wireless signal by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901, as well as the site of harbour defences for St. John's from the 18th century to the Second World War.

For more on this project, check out Amanda Crompton’s blog at