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!