Monday, November 22, 2010

Shovel Testing

I am an archaeologist. This is a fact that I have not discussed much recently, which is odd because I spend 40+ hours a week being an archaeologist. I travel as an archaeologist and every dinner party I go to I have to discuss being an archaeologist. Archaeology is actually a pretty diverse field. This is surprising to most people.

Typical conversation -
New acquaintance: "What do you do?"
Me: I am an archaeologist.
New acquaintance [is thinking, but how do you make money?]: "Who do you work for?"
Me: "I work for a cultural resource management (CRM) company."
New acquaintance: "So who pays you?"
Me: "I work for a private company that contracts with a variety of federal, state, local and private agencies."
New acquaintance: "Oh [then they decide to let the subject drop]. What is the coolest thing you have ever found?"

Everyone asks about the coolest I have found. I do not know the answer. Archaeology is about context. If a group did not have many ceramics and you find a sherd, this is cool. Ceramics are not as cool when you find 100+ sherds in every screen full of dirt.

Last week I was in Charleston, SC. We were working on a tract of land that has been a tea farm, rice plantation, and more modern housing. Did you know that tea was briefly subsized by the U.S. government? It was a largely failed enterprise as a whole. There is still one operating tea farm in the United States (see this). There were still wild tea plants growing across the tract.

Shovel Test

In CRM archaeology one common way of exploring an area that has not been previously surveyed is shovel testing. To shovel test an area a grid is established and regular holes are excavated throughout the grid. The distances are measured through pacing and the angles are determined using a compass. The dirt from each shovel test is screened for artifacts.

This is a sort of zen inducing activity. Walk, dig, screen, dig, notes, repeat. This is supposed to locate archaeological sites. Often it even allows sites to be roughly dated. Shovel testing is a necessarily flawed activity. What if a site is less than 30 meters in size and sits between shovel tests? Oh well... let me know if you think of another, better, way to find archaeological sites.

1 comment:

  1. Geophysics!!
    I also get put off by the "what's the coolest thing you've ever found" question...I think I'm just going to start making stuff up...