**Becca Peixotto was one of six scientists that made up the Advance Science Team on the Rising Star Expedition. Read more here**
When Becca Peixotto was a young girl, she used to dig up things at her grandparent’s farm and put them in the ‘museum’ she’d made in their garage. “I loved thinking about the people who lived on the farm long ago”. Her motivation is much the same today, though enhanced by a big dollop of theoretical and technical know-how: to uncover unknown or untold histories, especially of marginalized people and places.
Peixotto recently completed her MA in Public Anthropology at the American University, where she became involved with the Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study. The Great Dismal Swamp – which straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border – sounds spectacularly uninviting, and sure enough even just getting to the field sites could be challenging. “Sometimes,” says Peixotto, “we have to wade through thigh-deep water. It’s a pretty fun commute, especially when we don’t see snakes.” It was this very inaccessibility that in the 17th-19th Centuries turned the Great Dismal Swamp into a refuge for escaped slaves, and a key part of the Underground Railroad. Up to 50,000 ‘maroons’ – as the escaped slaves were known – are now thought to have lived in hidden communities within the Great Dismal Swamp, but the necessary secrecy surrounding their existence means that very little is known about them. Enter archaeology, with it’s power to illuminate complex human lives, one fragmentary artefact at a time.
Becca Peixotto’s MA research used portable X-Ray fluorescence (where you can zap something from your hand-held X-ray gun, and it will tell you what elements that thing is made of – all very Star Trek tricorder!) to identify the likely origins of tiny glass fragments found in the Great Dismal Swamp. From this she was able to start to reconstruct who the maroon communities were meeting and trading with, including slave communities working and living near canals at the edge of the swamp, and thus get a better idea of the isolation – or otherwise – of their lives (you can read abstracts of her conference papers here).
Since her MA, Peixotto has been working as a field archaeologist and applying for PhD programs. She dropped everything for the chance to take part in the Rising Star Expedition. “Paleo is a totally new research direction for me, but working in physically challenging and potentially dangerous environments is not,” she says. “The chance to combine my technical outdoor skills (from my previous career in outdoor education) with archaeology…was something I couldn’t pass up”.
Written by Tori (@toriherridge)