Welcome to the Jungle… of Nails
During this past summer’s field school, our six-person team excavated the remains of a building known as Station Terrace, which once stood on Abbot Road, just a stone’s throw from where the MSU Union currently stands. Following the field school, all of the artifacts we had discovered were washed and placed into bags that identify the unit, and the level of said unit, each artifact had been recovered. As a result, CAP now has over sixty bags of unsorted artifacts collected from both this summer’s field school and the shovel test pits (STPs) conducted at Station Terrace in 2016. Now, as an intern for CAP, my primary responsibility is to go through each of the six units and additional STPs – one by one, level by level – and sort through and catalogue all of these artifacts.
Ask anyone involved in the excavations at Station Terrace, and they will assure you the most commonly found artifacts at the site were corroded construction nails. Seeing as how the building experienced fire damage and was subsequently remodeled, plus an expansion in 1910, our discovery of an overwhelming number of nails is not completely surprising. As a result, after all the artifacts have been sorted based on material type – i.e. ceramic vs. bone vs. glass vs. metal – the nails are then further categorized based on their typology. This means that I am sorting the nails based on their length, whether they are square cut nails vs. wire nails, and whether they are common flat head nails vs. brad or any other type of specialized nail. Each of the six excavated units contained a significant number of nails, but Unit A’s Feature 1 and Unit B’s ‘Layer o’ Nails’ by far contain the most. Needless to say, sorting through and categorizing the hundreds of excavated nails is proving to be an extremely time-consuming task. For example, it has taken me an entire month –working three hours a week in the lab– to sort through Unit A in its entirety. Furthermore, at the time of this publication, I have been sorting through Unit B’s Layer o’ Nails for three weeks now, and expect to finish this level during my next scheduled lab day.
The nails we recovered from Station Terrace are being given an unusually large amount of attention. At historic sites nails are typically found in large quantities, and are used for diagnostic dating but typically they are not the focus of larger research questions. As a result, they are usually placed in a single bag and simply counted and weighted. However, since nails were the primary artifact discovered during the field school, and thus practically the only material we have in our possession to further study Station Terrace, they require a detailed analysis.
Nail profiles can be immensely informative in determining the general timeframe in which a structure has been built or remodeled. Given this fact, I have decided to conduct a research project on these nails in which I will attempt to use nail typology to focus on modifications made to Station Terrace over the building’s lifetime. In addition to examining nail typology, I am planning to use portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) on a handful of nails to determine which type of metal – iron, steel, or perhaps something else – these nails are composed of. Through combining these methods, I am hoping to test the plausibility of determining which nails were likely used in the original construction of the building and which ones were likely used during the renovations following the 1903 fire. However, the experiments using the pXRF are not likely to occur for another few weeks, which means I have some more time to continue sorting through the nails and selecting samples I believe will be the most informative in my analysis of the building’s construction.
Despite how long it is taking me to categorize these artifacts, I find myself enjoying the work. Since nails are such a common commodity that is so often overlooked, reading literature on how this technology has evolved over time is rather interesting. By combing through said publications, I am becoming proficient in identifying different types of nails, in addition to learning what kinds of tasks these different types were typically used for – whether it is to mount siding to the exterior of a building, installing roof shingles, or securing floorboards. I will admit that out of all the archaeological topics to become well-versed in, or even in which to develop a fleeting interest, construction nails may seem like an odd subject matter. However, society’s oversight of this simple, yet indispensable, piece of technology has sparked my curiosity about how nails can be productively used to interpret archaeological sites. Thus, as strange as it may sound, the research I am conducting on the Station Terrace nails is turning out to be rather fascinating and informative.