Playing Archaeologist

Each year our office hosts an Earth Day event for the public, hoping to encourage military and civilian families to come learn about what we do in cultural resources.  This year we hosted an open dig at an old homesite on Fort Bragg.  All nine of us in the office are invited to take part, even us three non-archaeologists.  (We are the architectural historians and the oral historian.)


I am not an archaeologist by training, but with a little help my knowledge of archaeology did return and I had a good handle on what I was doing.  I remember plow scars, and the A horizon vs. E horizon, anomalies, using the line level, digging in 10 cm increments, units are divided into quadrants, those sorts of archaeological terms.  I’m not sure I could recall all of the theoretical, analytical ideas, but I’ll save that for another day.  I did remember how to sketch anomalies or artifacts onto the quadrant maps and I had a lesson on transit-use and filled out unit-level forms.  For those few days, it was like archaeology class!


However, any archaeologist will tell you, as they told me, that shoveling (digging) and tossing the dirt to the screen requires a rhythm.  Your triceps will be sore after that first day of screening. Your hands will get calluses.  And here in North Carolina, you will find ticks.  That’s how it goes.  They fall from trees, I learned.  I wore a hat for the first two days and then got over my tick related fears, but still used tons of bug spray. Bring on the DEET! Once you find that first tick, the shock wears away and you understand that they can easily be removed without much trauma to yourself.


Dirt poses the most problem.  I obliviously walked in front of the dirt being tossed into the screen because I walked in front rather than behind it.  Had we rehearsed that moment, it wouldn’t have been as perfect.  I may as well have been the screen.  On another time, everyone left me, the non-archaeologist alone in my own unit since all I had to do was dig and really, it’s not that hard, especially when nothing is turning up in the quadrant.  We were digging in a very rooty area since we were on an old homesite in the longleaf pine forest.  As my shovel encountered a root, I figured I could just cut it with an extra pull up on the shovel.  Instead of breaking the root as intended, the root acted as a slingshot, flinging the dirt on the shovel up in the air and catapulting all over me.  Dirt managed to land down my pants, my shirt, on my head, everywhere.  It was terribly uncomfortable!  Since we had a porta-potty out there in the woods, I could shake off in there.  But due to the heat roasting the interior, I think I would have been better off just shaking out my clothes further in the woods.   My coworkers, all seasoned archaeologists, laughed at my story, agreeing that it happens to everyone (mostly newbies like myself.) 


Playing archaeologist for a few days provided an excellent change of pace. Typically, I’m always doing the same project in the same place, and it’s very rare that I am given a chance to take a working break for a few days and participate on another project.  Public outreach days are some of my favorite days because it gives me an opportunity to use other preservation skills and to interact with the public, even if it is just explaining my job.   Some families came to watch the dig, college kids, a boy scout troop (those young eyes excel at surface collecting!), and other folks just saw our signs and followed them 2 miles down dirt roads, back into the woods. 


Aside from encouraging the kids to help me screen (I always say “sift” for some reason), I always enjoyed the quiet time in the woods.  I see the attractions that might lure potential archaeologists: we sit by our units, hang our lunches on trees, wear clothes covered in dirt, sometimes play music, talk while we work, occasionally find something neat, and generally have a good time.  Since I didn’t spend too many days in the field, I could overlook the fact that this, too, would eventually become monotonous and lab work is always more time than field work.  By nature, I could not be an archaeologist, but it is extremely interesting and valuable.  Overall, I understand why my archaeologist friends are drawn to the discipline.


My favorite lesson in archaeology was how it can teach us about buildings.  I love the combination of everything: historic research, maps, chimney piles, road beds: all of these give you clues as to where a site would be.  An anomaly in the soil could mean that there was an eave above without a gutter.  Or perhaps the structure burned.  It is a strong, encouraging reminder of the inter-connectivity of our respective preservation-anthropological related fields.  Our most important lesson to keep in mind is how much we can work together to solve mysteries of the past and to bring outsiders from one field to another, enhancing the power of cultural resources everywhere. 




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