In case you don’t all know, I have a degree in Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology. Last Saturday I began my third season of working with an Archaeological field school in Southwest Washington. I wanted to share some of what I do with all of you, and give you an idea of what sorts of things archaeologists do.
A lot of people get most of their knowledge about archaeology from movies, and I’m afraid that reality is rarely quite so dramatic. We don’t get chased by Nazis (Though some projects occasionally do encounter various rebels, insurgents, looters, and other potentially dangerous folk). We don’t use whips, though we do get to wear cool hats. Really, you’re not a real archaeologist unless you have a cool hat 😉
There are many shows on tv on the National Geographic Channel, and others like it, but they usually just show you the cool parts and the end result. They rarely show you the tremendous amount of work that goes into finding all those cool tombs and treasures. And the paperwork. Oh man we often spend more time doing paperwork than we spend actually digging, and it’s for a good reason: An archaeological site is very much like a crime scene. We are often investigating a moment frozen in time, and just like a crime scene we must be very sure to document everything we see and do, because once you start touching things and moving things, you can never put it all back exactly the way you found it. This is why we take tons of photos, draw maps, take pages and pages of notes and measurements.
And many archaeological projects don’t find tombs or mummies or buried treasure. Often all we will find will be some stone flakes, or some stains in the earth where some support posts used to be. It’s not always glamorous, these things we find, but they are still full of wonderful information about the past and the people who came before us.
With that introduction, I’ll show you some photos from the 2010, 2011, and 2013 field seasons I’ve participated in. I can’t share the exact location with you, but I can tell you that the main purpose of this field school is teach students the basic tools and skills they will need to work in the future. We actually do very little digging; most of our focus is on practising basic skills and surveying the landscape for information that is visible on the surface. Every field school is different, of course, but here’s what mine is like. Enjoy 🙂
This is me on my first day of my first field school. The meadow we had to cross to reach the site had flooded, so we spent much of the day wading through hip-deep water, alternately getting hailed on, rained on, and eaten alive by gigantic mosquitoes. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
One of the tools we learn to use is a magnetometer. This is a cesium magnetometer, but there are several different kinds and they all use sensors to detect magnetic anomalies under the surface. This is a great way to find out if we’re in an area we should explore without having to dig. Digging takes time and money and it disrupts the landscape, so if we can figure out that an area is basically empty without having to dig, that’s great. It can also tell us where we absolutely should dig by revealing potential building sites, refuse pits, roads, etc.
One of the wonderful things about field school is being able to work outdoors in a beautiful location. Here we’re walking out to explore a lake where local Native peoples traditionally harvested wapato.
One of the many challenges of field work is coping with changes in the environment. Here you can see that the water levels changed drastically from one season to the next. We were planning on coming back to this location to examine the riverbank, but we had to move to a different area. It happens, you work around it.
The weather can also be challenging. When it rains, you get a tarp and keep on going. Mosquitoes, ticks, rain, sunburn, stinging plants, there are all kinds of discomforts, but you learn to adapt and improvise and get the work done! 🙂
Another one of the skills we learn is surveying. This is how we map out a site, taking specific measurements both horizontally and vertically so that we can make a 3-D map of the site and chart the exact locations and elevations of all of the features and artifacts. These tools are absolutely essential for creating good records that can be referenced by people in the future who need to know about the site, because once the season is over everything is filled in and covered up and you often can’t go back to the site at all.
Another skill we learn is how to cut and draw profiles. A profile is usually a horizontal wall of some kind that we cut with our trowels, making a very flat, smooth surface. This shows us the various layers (known as Strata) that make up the ground in a site. You can have multiple layers of sand, or soils, or clay, or river stones, or all of the above. This tells us a lot about how the area was formed. We can see if there was seasonal flooding, or if a forest fire came through (This will leave a visible layer of black, sometimes with chunks of burned wood in it), or if there was a layer that was once the floor of someone’s house. We can learn so much from this, and it’s one of my favorite things to do. Here the students are practising by cutting into a river bank to look at the various layers of silt and mud and clay and sand that make up this part of the riverbank.
Once we have a nice, smooth profile with all of the layers exposed, we start to draw. Though photos can capture some of the details, sometimes the different layers are so similar that only a drawing can really capture all of the information. This student is holding a page from the Munsell book, a book full of little chips of every single color of soil, sand, etc that you can find in the ground. Once we find the right color for each of our layers it gets noted on the drawing. It’s all part of the information we collect to describe the site.
Here’s an example of a completed profile. The top half is lots of thin layers of sand and silt, and the bottom half is a thick layer of very dense mud/clay, also with multiple layers inside of it
During my first season we found a trench that was being dug to put in a water line. In the wall of the trench we happened to find what turned out to be a trash pit from the farmhouse that had been nearby in the 1850’s. This is a shard of a serving platter we found. After taking it to the ceramics expert at Fort Vancouver, we discovered that this specific china pattern was imported from England between the 1850’s and 1870’s. Almost all of the imported good coming to the West Coast back then came through Fort Vancouver and they have excellent records of much of the trade that happened there. It was a really cool find 🙂
Another tool we use quite a bit: The screen. There are different kinds of screens for dry sediment and wet sediment. Here we’re screening some soil to look for signs of charcoal to see if the area was used for a hunting camp, or maybe a wapato processing site. We found a little bit of charcoal, but not enough to draw any conclusions. Sometimes that’s how it goes. Sometimes we don’t find anything at all, but there are times when finding out what’s NOT there is just as important as finding out what is. If we can determine that an area doesn’t have anything archaeological to look at, we can move on and let everyone know that there’s no reason to spend time digging there.
Helpful Hint: Mud does not work well in a screen.
Here’s a shot of four connected units where we were carefully digging down, centimeter buy centimeter, to look for any signs that people had been working, living, or making tools in this area. We found a few stones that looked like they may have been simple tools, and a few bits of charcoal, but that was it. This area was also right next to a field that has been used for farming for over 200 years, so it’s very possible that the soils we were digging in have been disturbed by plows over the years. This is another potential difficulty that archaeologists deal with. Sometimes you’re in an area that has been disturbed, and it can make it very hard, sometimes impossible, to tell what exactly happened in the past. Layers are mixed together, artifacts moved around. Sometimes we have to just give up and move on, but it’s still good practise for the students.
One more potential hazard of fieldwork: Local animals. We had made a line of wooden stakes out into a field, and the next day we discovered that the local cows had ripped them out of the ground and chewed on them. BAD COWS! NO EATING THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL EQUIPMENT!!
This is just a tiny sampling of the kinds of things we do out in the field. I have hundreds of pictures, but these few will at least give you an idea of the kinds of things we do. It’s definitely not like the movies, but it’s still so much fun. I love it!