Monday, June 3, 2013

May 31: Expect the Unexpected, by Bronwyn Schell

When I told my friends that I was going to be working on an archaeological dig this summer, one of them immediately asked, “What could you possibly be digging for?” She seemed to be under the impression, as I’ve found a lot of people are, that all artifacts and discoveries one reads about in magazines or sees in museums or on TV are found as they are, whole and complete, either in caves or churches, or perhaps in temples out in the jungle, a la Indiana Jones. While the truth may appear far less glamorous, and is indeed much more work, it is also much more important scientifically, and I’d argue, much more interesting!
Since our dig has only just begun, finds are still fairly small, few, and far between. However, that does not give us an excuse to be anything less than exact in our work! Having done initial survey out in the field across the narrow access road from our sites, we moved on to the job of choosing our plots, clearing the ground, and laying out our squares for excavating. This takes more than it sounds, involving several people, a machete, a weed-wacker, several shovels, and hours of work.

Now that our plots are exactly laid out and marked, we began digging. After clearing the initial weed-filled uneven sod, we find the highest corner of our plot to mark as the ‘datum’, the location from which the depths of all other points are measured. The goal is to dig down in even, 10cm layers, so that the location of all finds and points of interest can be accurately recorded in our field journals. Even with two people working on each plot, work is fairly slow going. If you’re trying to make a 2 meter square plot exactly 10cm deep at all points, you can’t just dig in with a shovel! It takes us at least a day to go down a layer, measuring constantly and digging carefully and often by hand, trying to remove intruding roots without disturbing the layer beneath. The layer a find is discovered in can tell us what time the artifact ended up in the ground, because objects further down are usually older than those deposited on top. Once you reach the bottom of a layer, it is time for celebration!

It’s not as simple as just digging a hole, though. Even working with trowels and by hand, plenty of valuable artifacts slip through in the removed dirt. To make sure we don’t miss a single thing, we first save every single shovel and handful of dirt, in buckets, on a tarp, or in a wheelbarrow, and first sift it all through a 1/4 inch screen by hand, removing larger roots and rocks and checking for medium sized artifacts.

After this, we’re still not done with the dirt! We save it in the wheelbarrows and buckets until we have collected a decent amount, then we take it down closer to the handily located river, where a large hose and a pump bring up a steady, pressurized stream of water. In a process called ‘water screening’, we carefully put each shovelful of dirt through a second windowmesh screen on sawhorses, letting the loose dirt run through and keeping anything that doesn’t filter out. We put whatever is left in the screen in labeled bags, to be carefully hand-checked later in the lab.

Although water screening is a very necessary part of archaeological excavation, sometimes it’s a little difficult. You have to be careful, or you’ll look like you’ve just gone in swimming!
When not digging, eating, or sleeping, we go on field trips to sites of cultural relevance and importance. For example, this week we went to Cherokee, North Carolina to visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and a living history park, Oconaluftee Village, to attain a better idea of the origin, history, importance, and creation of the artifacts we are looking for and researching.
Of course, occasionally we run into things we didn’t expect!


May 30: Signs of Life, by Nolan Russert

And so it began, another beautiful day in the Tennessee backcountry at archeological site 40WG11. The temperature has been fairly mild for late May, but today was one of the warmest we have had so far.  The day began with each team continuing to dig further in the soil hopefully to uncover more artifacts.

Most teams were on their second and third levels, which is approximately 20-30cm below the present-day surface.  All of the excavation pits are located on the north and northeast side of the cornfield, not far from the swift-moving Nolichucky River.  The backdirt piles began to accumulate as we reomoved more and more earth.  The main process that occurred today after removing all of the soil was water screening.  The soil is put into a windowscreen mesh, and a water pump pulls water from the river to wash the soil.  The soil is placed in the screen and through the process of continual water movement and the students' pushing it through with their hands, the loose soil is washed away, leaving behind artifacts caught in the screen. Today, we discovered many pottery sherds.  As we dig deeper and continue to water screen hopefully more artifacts are found to give us further knowledge of Spanish contact in east Tennessee!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 22: You Got to Flag ‘em to Bag ‘em, by Daniel Scott

After an evening filled with rain we arrived at our new field site with childlike enthusiasm. The owner of the field had just recently plowed and planted this season’s corn making our systematic survey easier – as the recently plowed ground clearly exposed ceramic sherds, lithics, bone, shells, and fire cracked rock. With conditions right we spaced ourselves – three corn rows dividing each individual – and began the process of slowly walking North East through field marking the beginning and ending of “hot spots” (which provide invaluable information as to the manner in which the town was organized while also guiding us to the best location where we might place our units and begin excavation). The previously mentioned surveying conditions along with the relatively flat field allowed us to locate, identify, and finally flag artifacts with ease, with the only hiccup in the day coming when all the flags were expended.

Upon the completion of the flagging process – the following day – the epicenter of the site revealed itself to be the most level ground on very east of the field, nearest to the Nolichucky River – a common location as discovered through previous field projects in the region – while smaller scatters of artifacts were found outside this main concentration.

Once the flagging process was completed we began to collect the artifacts by way of dog leashes. This method is executed by placing one’s self in a group of flags and collecting everything within a five meter radius of their center – we began at the south western tip working our way across the field, avoiding isolated finds as often as possible. The center of each dog leash circle was given a designated number, flagged, and plotted on a map sketch of the area in order to keep the integrity of the town’s organization. The vast area along with the large amount of findings prohibit a swift completion of the gathering of all artifacts. Scenarios such as these are often conducive to looters, however, our daily presence at the site along with the benefit of its location on private property has allowed us to avoid becoming another chapter in the long book of looted archaeological sites.

Prior to the onset of the Iraq war in 2003 archeologists in the area and throughout the Middle East were brought home without the ability to clean up or finish that season’s work. Martin Gottlieb’s article in the New York Times on June 12, 2003 quoted the University of Chicago Dr. Gibson as he described the aftermath of the looting of several active archaeological sites as a “devastated landscape” which resembled “Swiss cheese” due to the deep holes dug by looters. This example is just one of the many challenges that archaeologists face during a successful and prolonged dig. [1]

Figure 1. Aerial view of the devastated site of Umma, southern Iraq, in September 2003. Looter pits eclipse scientifically excavated areas identifiable by walls and mounds of spoil in their immediate proximity. Courtesy of Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale.[2]

[1] Martin Gottlieb, Looters Swarm Over Remote Sites, Study Finds, New York Times, June 12, 2003:
[2] Kathryn Tubb, Irreconcilable Differences? Problems with Unprovenanced Antiquities, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Vol. 18 (2007):

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

May 27: A little work, a little celebrating on Memorial Day

Our very ambitious plans for research goals this summer do not allow for much time off. We started Monday morning bright and early with more systematic survey work at 40WG11.

After the initial survey of the fields completed last week, we began systematic collections of the artifacts visible on the surface. The locations of these collections will be plotted on the site map and the artifacts will be analyzed to look for patterning in the number and kind of artifacts in different sections of the settlement.

Towards the end of the day, we also selected the location of excavation units. The excavations are located in a vulnerable area of the site, where the Nolichucky River has flooded sometime in the distant past and washed away an unknown amount of the settlement. The units are located near this area that has the potential to be further damaged by river flooding.

After this very busy day, we got together for a barbeque. The Field Director, Beau Carroll, was also the master of the grill and campfire:
We enjoyed a delicious dinner together and were glad to have a little time to reflect upon the service, sacrifice, and commitment of all those who have served our country.

Mini-Video: Meet Bronwyn Schell

Bronwyn Schell is a student at University of New Mexico.