Sunday, July 11, 2010

Big Fires and Little Fires

During the very hot and steamy Week 5, we investigated several pit features which showed evidence of burning. As you can easily imagine, native peoples of Ohio used fire in numerous ways. Perhaps the most common was the simple hearth, what most of us today would call a campfire. Most hearth features appear as thin layers of burned soil, charcoal and ash. The small hearth found in the pit house last year is a very well-preserved example. More frequently, though, these shallow hearth features are destroyed by plowing long before any archaeological work is done. We have now uncovered three different kinds of pit features which once contained fires. The smallest is Feature 10-23, a shallow, flat-bottomed basin that contained heavily charcoal-laden fill and burned siltstone fragments. This small pit (shown below) is reminiscent of the smudge pits we found in abundance at the Burrell Orchard site back in 2008. As their name indicates, these specialized features were used to smoke deer hides.

A functionally different kind of thermal feature is Feature 10-30, a large but shallow pit that contained dark soil and FCR. As the image below reveals, this feature consisted of an upper layer containing gray-colored ash above an inky black layer of carbon-rich soil. Traces of

fire-reddened sediment could be seen along the margins, which tells us that a fire had been made in this pit. Just a few cordmarked body sherds and one rim were found in the fill, but the more noteworthy aspect of this pit was the greasy feel of the soil. It stuck to the trowels and brushes used for excavation, as well as to the hands and clothes of the excavators. A really sticky mess! My guess is that that slick soil may actually contain the residue of animal fats derived from the cooking of meat in or over this fire pit. A prehistoric Woodland barbecue, perhaps.

Feature 10-21 turned out to be the biggest and most visually spectacular fire pit found so far. This large, ovoid feature was shaped like a bathtub, as seen in the cross-section image below, and showed vivid red oxidation on its sides caused by a very hot fire. Beneath the layers of fill

was a layer of carbonized logs that undoubtedly represent the fuel for the fire. The closeup image below shows that the grain of the wood is still visible in the charred remains.

Further excavation exposed large patches of red soil along the walls, again indicating the intense heat of the blaze (see image below). Unfortunately, very little cultural material was

recovered from the fill. Strangely, no bone or other food remains were found, which may mean that cooking was not the function of this firepit. Possibly the fire was kindled for some kind of ceremony or ritual display. In addition, a second, probably intrusive pit, Feature 10-32, was identified at the west end of the large firepit. The cross-section image shown below reveals that this too is another thermal feature, but much smaller. Feature 10-32 contained several pieces of Woodland pottery, FCR, and a basal layer of burned soil. It appears that this small hearth was constructed after the large firepit was filled in.

So is this co-occurrence of fire pits simply a coincidence? This is surely a possibility at such a heavily used site; however, I don't suspect it is. Instead, I think these features share a location within the oval enclosure that has some particular significance, perhaps they both existed within a structure or at a spot where certain ceremonies or feasting events took place. The proximity of the large post (Feature 10-13), just two meters to the southwest, may also mark this location as somehow important to the Woodland inhabitants of the site.