Micronesian Diary
Felicia R. Beardsley

Soil mapping
Collecting dating samples

Kosrae State, FSM - May 1999

May 24, 1999

Nena with the soil bookNena profiled the other wall of the stratigraphic trench, which meant he had to define the soil layers, measure them, and describe them. I sat in a chair behind him watching, advising, answering questions, profiling (while he measured), and recording the descriptions sometimes after much discussion on what was this or that. Our five crew guys stood around the trench too, watching, listening, and becoming part of the discussion, pointing out soil boundaries, calling out soil colors. And, in a lull, they learned how to use a compass, and caught on right away. One fellow even took the digital camera and took some pictures. Stan's son (one of our crew) hammed it up for the camera.

The profile took the whole day. At the end of it, after the guys had left (they only work until 3 pm), Nena and I finished the descriptions of the last two soil layers, and collected charcoal samples from three different parts of the fire pit in the wall he had just profiled.

He did a terrific job with everything and I was really proud of him. The guys were quite funny throughout the day, teasing Nena mostly; they completely neglected the last bit of their clearing work or cutting steps into the slope down to the stream, where we will waterscreen our sediments. But, if they learned something today, I am content. They always have tomorrow to cut the steps and do the tidy-up stuff.

Stan's son hams it up
Tofol, Lyndon Andrew, Stan's son, messes around

Nena consulting the soil book
Tofol, Nena reading the soils

Dr. Beardsley oversees stratigrapic work
Tofol, Nena and Dr. Beardsley work in the statigraphic trench

Nena ponders the trench wall
Tofol, Nena checks the trench wall

May 25, 1999

We have no archaeological supplies yet, other than what I brought and what the office has on hand already. If we were to wait on our site work until all the supplies were on-island or had arrived from the mail orders, we would likely be waiting a long time. So instead, Nena and I more or less pieced together a workable, though limited, means of getting by --- the caveat was, keeping the crew busy until we could get our excavation equipment in place. This morning they were to cut steps into the slope down to the stream where we would waterscreen our soils (in the event they proved too difficult to get through our screen). But by mid-morning, they were all lounging around. I asked them about the steps, and they said they were finished. Really? Finished enough for their needs, they said. You won't slip down the slope? Will I slip down the slope? They just laughed at me, and I had to take their word for it.

In the meantime, Stan and I went trolling the local hardware stores for supplies to allow Nena to build a screen. We had one small piece of screen, salvaged from their past excavations, but it had no frame. Stan or someone the other day had managed to salvage some lumber for the frame, but Nena needed things like nails. So off we went. We got Nena his nails, I got a bucket and a whisk broom, we got some dust pans, and Stan picked up a few things for the office. By the time we got back, Nena and a couple of the guys were busy with the screen. Nena did a great job, one with an ulterior motive. He built it in such a way that if he were the screener, he could simply sit in a chair and relax while sifting soil.

Building the sreens ---

Lyndon (left) and Alik (right) enjoying the moment

Waiting for the screen, Berlin took off to pick up some scrap rebar (for the corners of our excavation units) and I decided to dig a second stratigraphic trench. This would, I reasoned, get the rest of the guys involved in identifying and describing soils. They have no excuse, they are going to learn something while I am here.

The end of the day was devoted to putting up our first unit. It was adjacent to our first stratigraphic trench, intended to open up the area of the fire pit. Nena set it up and got the guys started in the excavations. We only got through the topsoil, but it was great fun. This was more or less a test run, I guess, as the goal was to remove the topsoil and get directly on top of the fire-cracked rock that covers the fire pit. We did that, although it was a new experience for them having to dig carefully, peeling back the soil and not throwing out the rocks they hit, but leaving them in place. I hope we can do enough to keep all the guys occupied tomorrow. As it was today, a couple of them were bored because they were not directly involved (we just started, after all), so they rummaged around my field box, found a couple of permanent markers and gave themselves tattoos.

Tofol, setting the line
Tofol, setting the line

Tofol, setting the unit
Tofol, setting the unit

Tofol, stratigraphy trench 2
Tofol, the second stratigraphy trench

Tofol, working the stratigraphy trench
Junior, Yosiro, and Alik working the stratigraphy trench

May 26, 1999

We got a second excavation unit started today so we can keep all our guys busy, as well as explore a larger area of the site through our excavations. Nena is in charge of the new unit. It was placed at the south end of the site, over an um, which is an earth oven; one of our goals is to get sufficient dateable material to place this site into some kind of chronological context. Anyway, on the surface of the area selected for Nena's unit were three flattish basalt boulders placed in a configuration suggesting the corner of a square outline, just the sort of outline you expect to find in an um. He laid out his unit over this, and began to take it down in natural soil layers.

Tofol, unit screening
Swinger G. Charley on the unit screen

We have the choice of excavating in arbitrary, measured levels or spits (10 cm, 20 cm, etc.), or we can take a unit down by natural soil layer. Our site overall is relatively shallow, and with a stratigraphic profile in hand, we are quite able to take it apart soil layer by soil layer. Both Nena and I are excavating features, distinct components within the site: he is taking apart an um; I have a fire pit which acted in the same capacity as the um, only I don't have the surface architecture to go with mine.

We split the crew in half, or as much as you can with five guys, and got busy with our respective units. Nena's bunch consisted of Yosiro Abraham, Alik L Sigrah, and Swinger G. Charley. Working with me --- Lyndon Andrew, and Junior K. Ittu. With only one screen between us, however, we must take turns and ensure that the screen is cleaned up before the other unit's soils get dumped into it. Me and my guys peeled back our fire pit layer by layer, examining each in turn. They learn very quickly, and have become quite expert. Nena did the same with his guys and his unit. All in all, it was fairly productive in spite of the rain.

Unit A1 --- we began taking out our burnt soil layer. This is a very red thin layer of soil burnt to a crisp, which would have been at the bottom of a very hot fire.

Tofol, Unit A1, sweeping
Tofol, Unit A1, sweeping

Tofol, Unit A1, burnt soil
Tofol, Unit A1, burnt soil

Unit A2 --- you can see the um architecture (the three small flattish boulders) still in place. At the base of their layer was really red burnt soil, right in the area defined by the small boulders.

Tofol, Unit A2, start up
Tofol, Unit A2, start up

Tofol, Unit A2
Tofol, Unit A2, burnt soil

May 27, 1999

We continued in our respective excavation units, Nena in Unit A2 and me in A1. Nena is in the process of removing the soil that had surrounded the um (earth oven) that is the focus of his excavation. In the photo you can see the outline of the um in his excavation wall. The top dark (almost black) layer of soil is a rather disturbed layer. This part of the site has been burned over quite a bit, as we have come to find out not only in the stratigraphic trench I did at this end of the site, but also from Nena's unit profile. Just below this dark upper layer are the relatively undisturbed soils that mark the time and occupation of the site, and use of the um. There is a bright red layer of burned soil resting on a thicker, almost elliptical shape of darker brown and black (charcoal) soils that meet at the base of the unit in the dark stain you see on the floor. That is the base of the um, and it is almost solid charcoal. Some of the pieces are large enough, I think, for a specialist to identify at least to species level. The um itself is surrounded by small boulders and large cobbles, used to contain the burning area.

Tofol Unit A2, um side and back
Tofol Unit A2, um side and back

The construction of the fire pit/um we see in Unit A1 is in accord with traditional methods of fire pit construction: a hole is dug and lined with rocks, which are then covered with soil, and then the fire is built up. It burns hot, hot enough to burn the soil and turn it red; stones are then piled on top to be heated and used for cooking. Remember the ums we saw in Pohnpei? Well, these are essentially the same thing, only on a smaller scale, used to cook for the household (not a feast, as in Pohnpei). Cooking, by the way, was traditionally the man's job; mainly because he had to build the um, stoke it, prepare the cooking rocks, and when the heat was just right, begin the process of cooking the food.

Tofol Unit A1, top layer
Tofol Unit A1, top layer

Our excavation in Unit A1 is virtually complete, with only profiles of the excavation walls remaining. We have by now removed all the cultural soils, leaving behind the base or parent soil (what we call the C layer, a saprolite that is culturally sterile). In the photo marked 'base of II', we are actually in the process of removing the cultural layers, and have one thin layer left (layer III). But you can already see the basic construction of the fire pit/um we have been investigating. Between the two photos you can see the beginnings of its construction. The large basalt boulder appears to have been in place prior to construction of the fire pit/um; it was incorporated into the architecture of the pit. At least one side (the side we have exposed) is defined by a length of columnar basalt. This was set in the ground through the aid of a hole dug into the C layer; the idea was, I think, to seat it in its current position, make it steady and solid and practically immovable. In fact, you can see a portion of the hole that was dug to seat it. In an effort to stabilize this piece of basalt, the same soil dug out of the hole in the first place was put back in (only now it became mixed with some of the upper soil that had been removed; this became our layer III) and packed around the stone. Additional soil was than packed into the entire fire pit/um, and on top of this a fire was started and kept burning; the fire was banked against the basalt boulder. From our excavations, we noted that the red burned soil extended up to the boulder, but no farther. The fire pit/um continued to be used, and eventually a rather thick layer of charcoal spread over the top of the pit and the larger boulder, covering everything and obscuring the details of the pit architecture. On top of this charcoal layer was a layer of cooking stones, cracked, broken and recrystallized from the heat of the fire. Then, the site was abandoned. Soil built up over the area and buried the fire pit, until, that is, I hit it with the first stratigraphic trench in this site.

Next: Tofol: completing the job