Archaeology: Watching Other People Dig

It’s an early morning for me, earlier than usual. I have two archaeology jobs these days – one as the webmaster for archaeologyfieldwork.com, and also my full time job working for a government agency in the northeast US. I wake at 4am and have just enough time to post some new archaeology jobs to the website, then it’s a quick rush to get ready for work!

I am adhering to the schedule of a subconsultant doing work on our property. An environmental company is planning a soil remediation project, essentially stripping away dirt that has tested as contaminated, and removing it from the site. Generally one thinks of archaeologists as the ones doing the digging, but today I will be watching someone else digging.

This is only my second week on the job, and the first time I’ve been in the field in a long time. I’m still learning the ropes at my employer and figuring out the right people to talk to, where to look up information, and even mundane things like where various equipment is located.

I’ve gathered the requisite equipment and spent time mentally preparing for the job at hand. Before you go into the field, there are certain steps that need to be taken. Part of the process is doing research on the area where you will be working. I needed to figure out what previously recorded archaeological and historical sites were in the vicinity of the project area, and what was found. Geographic information system (GIS) maps and site files are consulted in the search. Soil survey maps are also studied and can provide something of a preview of what you can expect to encounter. It’s important to also know the topography of a project area – is the landform flat, a severe slope, a hilltop? Related information is also important such as proximity to a water source (including seasonal water sources, or even one that existed only in the past). Some predictive models have been developed using those factors and other criteria to provide an educated guess on where sites may be found. Knowing something about the history of an area is also helpful. Is the project area near known Native American trails, or historic routes? Were structures present? What do we know about land use here in the last few hundred years? Archaeologists try to arm themselves with as much information as possible before an excavation ever occurs, however, you really don’t know what’s out there until you conduct fieldwork.

I did my homework, packed my truck, and headed out to the site to meet the contractors. I’m usually a bit obsessive about being early, but following a slow moving dump truck on dusty roads for miles and miles, I show up just on time. The contaminated soil is in association with a historic structure whose foundation remains. The contractors spend a bit of time debating the various methods of removing the soil, and I busy myself taking measurements  and photos of the ruins and proposed excavation. Nothing too exciting here from an archaeological perspective, even for someone enamored of historics like myself. Poking around the fill in the foundation turns up a few modern artifacts – sewer drainage pipe, PVC plumbing and plastics.

The excavator begins to strip the top few feet of soil, which is recent fill. I find a dark colored lens with charred wood in the excavated wall, likely a modern burn episode. The excavator operator is a local and informs me this is where trash was sometimes burned behind the structure. I ask more questions about the surroundings and compare the info given with my previous research. It’s often beneficial to hear what folks have to say, and sometimes you can obtain useful information. Any archaeologist who has been working in the field long enough can tell you stories about how a local informant clued them in to what was really going on (and usually where the real sites were).

The excavation comes to a halt, as there is a delay in bringing containers on site from another contractor. After spending time waiting for the containers to show up, the decision is made to cease operations for the day. I pack up and drive back to the office to write up my notes. The containers may not be arriving until next week, so I shift my attention to the next project and put this on the back burner for now. Shovel testing is planned for Friday at another site, and I need to complete my research before heading out. And so the cycle begins anew. Onto the next project!

notes from an archaeology webmaster

Couldn't do this every morning without COFFEE!

It’s 5:00am here at my house in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, USA. The baby is sleeping, the house is blissfully quiet, and the first pot of coffee is on. I sit at my computer and begin work on updating an archaeology website I’ve been maintaining in one form or another for the past 16 years. This early morning ritual of job postings to archaeologyfieldwork.com is well-known amongst my colleagues (and the poor souls I’ve had to share a hotel room with on projects).

I’ve been working as a field archaeologist longer than the website has been up, but over the past few years, my employment has been sporadic. I have two young children, and I can count the archaeology projects on one hand that I’ve participated in since becoming a mom. Being a field archaeologist and working within cultural resource management in the U.S. usually means a life of travel. In the past, a new archaeology project may have found me in Frostproof, FL, Wilmington, DE, or Penn Yan, NY. Quite often a phone call was received on a Thursday or Friday with the news that I would be somewhere across the state, or several states away on Monday morning. I used to spend so much time on the road that I rarely bothered to unpack my truck. Once I went nearly 5 months without seeing my apartment.

Fieldwork for me is on hold for the time being, and I must be content with running archaeologyfieldwork.com. The most popular part of the website is the forum for daily employment postings. Sometimes employers come to the site and post their own jobs, and often they are mailed to me to post on their behalf. However, the bulk of job adverts are forwarded from elsewhere on the internet. Each morning and throughout the day as time allows, I laboriously search employment aggregators, government websites, archaeology groups, company websites, e-lists, RSS feeds, and have mastered the art of incredibly targeted Googling. On a good day I’m able to find 20 or 30 new jobs, and on a slow day or a holiday weekend it may only be a few. Through the years I’d guess that tens of thousands of job adverts have been posted to archaeologyfieldwork.com. In a way, finding and sharing this information appeals to the archaeologist part of me that I’m still reluctant to give up.

Once you get archaeology in your blood and find yourself doing something else (whether it’s an office job, or being a stay at home mom), you miss it like crazy. I look forward to the day when a local archaeology position may manifest, or the kids are old enough and I may have the opportunity to be a shovelbum once again. In the meantime, running archaeologyfieldwork.com helps me to feel connected to the archaeology community. I’m not actively “doing archaeology” on a daily basis and getting my hands dirty, but by running the website I feel like I’m giving something back to my colleagues. The truth is, archaeologyfieldwork.com is helping me as much as it is helping others, and without this connection to the world of archaeology I would probably miss it even more.

I still have my archaeology dig kit in the closet, though. Hopefully it won’t be gathering dust for too long.