So This Is Archaeology

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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! 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 🙂

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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.

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Helpful Hint: Mud does not work well in a screen.

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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.

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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!!

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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!

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14 comments on “So This Is Archaeology

  1. harrison1984 says:

    Reblogged this on Brook Of Inspirations and commented:
    Wow!

    • Glad you like it! Not all field schools are the same, of course. Sometimes you’re stuck camping in a horrid desert for a month or more, sometimes you’re working in a swamp, sometimes you get stuck in a lab for most of it, but each field school offers new experiences and skills and it’s absolutely worth it 🙂

      • harrison1984 says:

        That’s what professionalism simply entails. Our Interests play the biggest role our lives, because our interests create our choices. I love your blog.

        • Thank you so much! I don’t expect anyone to love every single thing I post, but if they see even one post that really grabs them, it makes me so happy.

          I’ve definitely spent a lot of my life working jobs that paid well but made me absolutely miserable. I went back to school in my mid-thirties because I couldn’t stand another day of torture in retail. I know I’ll never get rich being an archaeologist, but it makes me so happy, it’s worth being poor 🙂

          • harrison1984 says:

            Fulfillment in life is not all about getting rich and famous, but being happy with yourself and those around you. But i truly believe that one can get the best from anything he/she is happy with.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Any advise for people wanting to change careers in mid thirties….

    • Well, that’s a tough one. I spent 20 years in retail, and while the income was decent, I was absolutely miserable. I went back to school because I felt like I would be letting myself down if I didn’t at least try to realize my dreams.

      It’s been a mixed experience so far. College these days is so horribly expensive, especially if you need to take out loans. And depending on the field you go into you may never be well off financially. Anthropology is not a field to go for if you want to get rich, but it has also given me some if the happiest experiences of my life.

      I really can’t give you any surefire strategies for getting everything you want in life, I just go with the philosophy that it’s better to try than to not try and then regret it once it’s too late, you know?

      The best advice I can give is to research the field you’re interested in, look into the kind of training and education you’ll need and the potential costs, and what kinds of real jobs are out there. Find people who are already working in the field and get their insider opinions. If you think you’re interested in archaeology, find out if there are any digs in your area, and if they let volunteers from the general public come help them. That happens frequently at Fort Vancouver and its a good way to see if it’s something you’d really enjoy doing for a living.

      When it comes down to it, you’ll never know if you don’t try. I don’t know if that was very helpful, but it’s what I have 🙂

      • Anonymous says:

        Why thank you, no body’s ever been this helpful. If I could feast on your generosity a little more, I’d like to ask if you started at the Grad level and worked all the way up to your masters or did you take up a one year diploma course to become eligible for a masters programme. I am confused as to whether I should take up a diploma course or start at Grad level. I do prefer to start from scratch although I would feel as ancient as the relics I so want to study among teenagers! 😉

        • Well, I’m not sure I’m the greatest person to give advice, I’m in my 40’s and I’m still trying to figure out how to just be a grownup 🙂

          I only have a B.A. at this point, and it took me 5 different colleges and about 20 years to get to that point. I’ve spent a lot of years sort of wandering aimlessly, not sure about where I wanted to go or who I wanted to be. Still working on that one, actually. I had mixed feelings about being an older student. On the one hand it’s really nice to be going to school as an adult, knowing I’m there because I have a goal, not because someone told me that’s what I have to do when I get out of high school. I know many of my professors appreciated having adults in their classes, too. Must have been a nice break from a load of 20-somethings with questionable manners and that I-Know-Everything attitude. On the other hand it’s sort of difficult to be surrounded by kids, you do feel a bit out of place and ancient sometimes, but every school I’ve been to has had a large number of older students, so it’s not like you’re a freak or anything 🙂

          The way things are going these days, unless you have money to burn I would say find a program that will get you the education and degree you want with as little time and monbey as possible. The only thing keeping from pursueing grad school at this point is the cost. I’m already looking at some crushing debt just from getting my B.A., and the thought of adding tens of thousands more on top of it just seems horrifying. Oh if I was wealthy I’d spend the rest of my life just going to school and travelling the world 🙂

          • Anonymous says:

            My! its overwhelming how much you and I think along similar lines…..But since you’re a step ahead of me, in that, you are already doing something that you like I am thankful for your wisdom and help 🙂 God Bless!

  3. betunada says:

    thanks for your insight, detailed descriptions, and seemingly complete overview of your experience. neat that you showed a site dry one year, flooded the next. and the chronological quite informative ‘column’ of strata, etc. dug from surface down to wherever you ended up. this too, should be nominated … specifically something like “archeological blogs of southwest washington ! …

  4. rangewriter says:

    This was fascinating! I’ve always thought that archeology/anthropology might have been the perfect path for me when I was younger. But I didn’t “get it” then, the way I do now. There’s something so awe inspiring about finding traces of ancient people and cultures. BTW, just this weekend I was looking at some pictographs/petroglyphs and wishing I had someone with me who could interpret them.

    The magnetometer makes me think of dowser or divining rod to find water. Doesn’t really look like it, but just the walk across the field with that thing draped off a person…

    The china shard is amazing! Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • Finding traces of the past is one of my favorite parts of this field. It just fascinates me. It’s definitely not a great field for those looking to get rich, but I am far happier doing this than I ever was doing hourly retail. FAR happier. I’m so glad so many people are interested, and I plan to share more bits of my field school adventures very soon. 🙂

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