Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Top Ten Things You Never Knew About Archaeology

All---

As you might or might not know, I have a background in archaeology.  I've been on digs in Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Mexico.  It sounds extensive, but for true shovel bums, that's really nothing.  (Honest.)  Still, it's a lot of experience that others don't have and I feel fortunate to have had.  In honor of that, I present two top ten lists tonight.


Archaeologist J. Walter Fewkes:
hat, yes; whip, no.
Top Ten Things You Might Know About Archaeology: Quick Hits

10. Archaeologists do not dig for dinosaur bones.  Paleontologists do.
9. Archaeologists do not dig for gold.  Crotchety old miners do.
8. Archaeologists are given to substance abuse.
7. Archaeologists are usually geeks who also like the outdoors.
6. Archaeologists do find pottery and sometimes "treasure," but mostly they find the trash that people left behind.
5. Archaeology is a science.
4. Archaeology is not a science.
3. We don't name our shovels like cowboys named their rifles, but we really, really wish we did.
2. It's all about walking and digging.
1. We do wear hats, but we don't usually carry whips and guns.



And now, another list, a little more serious, and a lot more detailed:

Artifact from Site MA-52 in Jalisco
(Original photo by the author.)
Top Ten Things You Never Knew About Archaeology


10. Most archaeology in the US isn't done where we think there might be something; it's done where we need to demonstrate there isn't something that might be disrupted by major construction project.

9. There are a lot of specialties within archaeology.  Georchaeology, which looks at the geology of archaeological sites; zooarchaeology, which deals with animal remains; and bioarchaeology, which deals with human remains within archaeological sites, are three of the most important.

8. Archaeology proper is the study of the material culture of prehistoric people.  Historic archaeology is the archaeology of more recent people.

7. Archaeology is very conscious of scales.  A feature is found within a test unit (or "test pit"), which is part of a site, which is situated within a region.

6. Archaeological survey takes place in phases.  First, there's a ground survey, where the area is just walked, and the ground inspected for surface artifacts or features.  Second, there are random test units (often 500cm X 500cm or 1m x 1m) dug to sample beneath the surface.  Third, areas are identified that might be come to archaeological sites or artifacts, more systematic, and perhaps larger and deeper test units are dug.  Fourth, any well-developed sites may be exposed to a high level of detail.

5. Most archaeological field crews internationally are comprised of poor, local workers with very little training.  Most archaeological field crews in the US, Canada, and the UK (and probably some other places) are comprised of undergraduate college students.  Most contract archaeology is overseen by crew chiefs who hold masters degrees in archaeology or anthropology.  Most academic archaeology is overseen by faculty members with PhD's.  In the contract world, PhD's stay in the office and run the business.

Soil profile
photo by Richard Webb
4. There are different colors of dirt, even brown dirt, and archaeologists care about that -- a lot.  It helps give a sense of the how the soil, and the artifacts found within it, fit within the regional chronology.  It also helps explain what natural factors might have impacted a site.

3. While it does happen, archaeologists don't actually carbon date artifacts very often.  (Most artifacts recovered aren't organic, and carbon dating is a destructive test.)  Most often, when carbon dating is used, it's used to establish "no earlier" than type chronological brackets.

2. Archaeological test units and sites are described in layers called strata.  One of the fundamental principles that archaeology is based on is the idea that strata which are lower in the earth represent earlier time.  Also, strata that are lower than others, are earlier than those.  Therefore, an artifact found 40cm below the surface is usually presumed to be older than one found 15cm below the surface.

1. The most important thing: It's not just about how many test units you get through in a day.  It's also about how clean your profile walls are.

.Nevets.




17 comments:

  1. I'm disappointed about the lack of whips.

    Have you ever thought about writing an archaeological thriller?

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Gary - I was disappointed about the lack of whips when I showed up for my first field season, too.

    I have thought about writing an archaeological thriller. Once I have Sublimation about to my readers for revisions, there are a couple of short stories I hope to finish that touch on the idea of an archaeological thriller. I've drafted a few others. In fact, I have the first five chapters of an archaeological thriller I started circa 1992.

    In fact, here's a little known secret: I have the first couple chapters of a reboot of Sublimation from about eight months ago in which I was trying it on in an archaeological setting.

    Another little known secret: the main character of my second psychological thriller, Ennui and Malaise, is an archaeologist. Archaeology itself doesn't play much into the book, though.

    There's definitely a natural playing field for me there and I think I need to spend a longer visit there sometime.

    I have to be careful, because once I start talking about it, it doesn't take long to start talking myself into it. lol

    ReplyDelete
  3. So...X doesn't mark the spot? This was an interesting post. I didn't know you had experience in Archeology. I found the item about carbon dating pretty interesting. Good share.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Scott - X never. Ever. Marks the spot. Except on the floor of certain libraries.

    I've done several field seasons of contract archaeology, and my masters is actually in bioarchaeology so I've done some of the academic stuff as well.

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Really interesting! I used to want to be an archeologist, because I love history. But then I thought about it and realized that I don't do the digging in dirt thing all that well...

    :-D

    ReplyDelete
  6. Very interesting. I am ashamed to say that I didn't even know one of the things in your second list.

    Oh, and archaeologists should totally make naming shovels a thing. No, really.

    ReplyDelete
  7. No whips! Man- But you really could name your shovel if you wanted to-
    C.N. What would you name your shovel?

    Great post- I learned something new.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Misha - haha Yeah, if you don't do digging int he dirt, archaeology would get really old, really quickly.

    @Jake - Glad it was interesting! Maybe we can started an underground tidal wave on this naming thing. Honestly, though, we'd be more likely to name our trowels than our shovels. They're a little more personal.

    @Summer - lol I think I would name my shovel Helo and my trowel Athena.

    ReplyDelete
  9. And all this time I thought you guys were like Indiana Jones who travelled the world and fell in caverns with snakes and rats. My world is shattered!

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Clarissa - Well, we do travel the world. Not so many caverns for most of us, and we try not to fall into them. Plenty of snakes and rates, though. Also racoons, moose, bears, mosquitos, and angry farmers.

    ReplyDelete
  11. My friend posted this on her page..... working in CRM for the past 4 years, your list basically hits it on the mark! However, you forgot to mentioned the phase of contract archaeology that brings in the most money for firms.....monitoring! The job where one can have a 12 hour day of just watching dirt being moved, where you have to scramble to jump between scrappers with wheels larger than you with hopes you don't get run over, where crews can be hostile bc they just "know" you are trying to shut them down and where you end up making less money than the apprentice labourer!!
    Cheers- A monitor in California

    ReplyDelete
  12. @Sonia - Thanks for stopping by! And, yeah, watching the backhoes is always a hoot. :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. This is all just a cover to hide what you REALLY do...isn't it?

    My dad is a soil scientist and he's got these soil samples hanging on his wall in the basement. They are actually very, very, very cool and worth a lot of money to some people. Dirt. Go figure. :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. @Michelle - Well, if I told what we really did here, I would spoil any stories or books I write about it. ;)

    Your dad has soil samples on his wall? So very cool. I still like me some friable 10YR 4/3 of medium coarseness.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Plumb Bob Reggae
    Author - Joe Artz

    I first hear this song working with Joe in the Knife River Flint Quarries in North Dakota in the early 80's. There were more verses but I can not remember them.

    Sittin’ in the bottom of a god-damn hole
    Scratchin’ at the dirt like a god-damn mole
    Boss man says that you better take care
    Flatten your floor and keep your corners square

    And use your plume de bob, use your plume de bob
    You got to plume de bob or you lose your job

    My plumb bob’s dumb it only knows one thing
    For a brain it has a piece of string
    This one thing it does know well
    It points the way straight to hell

    And use your plume de bob, use your plume de bob
    You got to plume de bob or you lose your job

    ReplyDelete
  16. Okay, so guns and whips are out officially. Are Fedora's allowed?

    ReplyDelete
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