archaeologist

Waterlogged wonders from Must Farm: Bronze Age boats, bowls, boxes and buckets

As an independent wood specialist, I’m spending the day sat at my computer, finalising the text for the waterlogged wood assessment report for the timbers excavated from the Late Bronze Age pile dwelling at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, UK. The excavations at Must Farm and in the surrounding landscape over the last ten years have been truly astonishing, turning up the remains of nine Bronze Age log boats, and – most recently – a breathtakingly well-preserved settlement, built on piles above a river channel. Must Farm is one of those archaeological sites that presents a tangible snapshot of how past lives were lived, beautifully preserved in the anaerobic conditions of the river muds.

Overhead view of the excavation (Courtesy of CAU)

The document I’m working on needs to outline all the waterlogged wood that was excavated and recorded on site, assess its significance as an archaeological assemblage and lay out the case for the analysis that could be carried out. I’m dealing with remains of the wooden structures that once stood at the site, the tools and wooden artefacts that they used in and around their homes, even the woodchips that resulted from building the settlement. All the different material types – pottery, metalwork, bone, textiles, and many others – will have a specialist assessment which will be brought together to produce an overarching document summarising all the discoveries made at the site. The archaeological contractor (Cambridge Archaeological Unit) will then work with Historic England and the developer (Forterra) to decide how to move the project forward into the analysis and publication phase.

Although we’re not carrying out any detailed analysis at the assessment stage, it’s already proving to be a fascinating process. The spatial information is starting to be pulled together in GIS, so we can now ‘see’ a lot of the settlement’s wooden structure on the computer screen. This is essential as it’s a really big assemblage, with about 5000 pieces of wood recorded. I’ve been working closely with Iona Robinson Zeki, one of the site supervisors. Although I was on site a lot, it’s not the same as being there every day and it’s that fine-grained knowledge of the excavation which is now helping to bring the construction of the settlement into sharp focus.

Some of the plan data for Roundhouse 1 (Courtesy of CAU)

We spent a lot of time as a team, talking in the trenches about how the roundhouses were built and, although there’s still a lot we don’t know, it’s great to see some of our ideas and theories down in black and white on the page (well, screen).

Key Structural elements of Roundhouse 1 (Courtesy of CAU)

There are around 170 wooden artefacts which Vicki Herring, CAU’s fantastic illustrator, has drawn. As the artefacts are now all in conservation at York Archaeological Trust, the illustrations are proving an essential resource while pulling together a catalogue of the material.

Wooden beater (Courtesy of Vicki Herring / CAU)

I’m really looking forward to reading the full assessment document and beginning to see all the different strands of evidence come together. Then it will be time to crack on with the analysis, and really get to grips with what the wooden remains can tell us about the lives of the people who lived in this settlement 3000 years ago.

Being Better Gatekeepers of the Knowledge Bank

This summer was my first not in the field in over a decade (I know an apt time to write a Day of Archaeology post but it is the first time my brain wasn’t fried by the sun). While it has been challenging not to work in the field, sweating digging, troweling, and picking, it has afforded me time to engage in other things archaeology: finishing research, attending conferences, attending archaeology classes and thinking, lots and lots of time alone thinking.

However, the best thing that my time off from field work has given me is time to travel with my fiancée, a non-archaeologist but avid learner of everything. We have seen everything from National Parks and Ancestral Puebloan ruins to Parchi Nazionali and Roman fora. Just because I wasn’t excavating didn’t mean I was avoiding archaeology, just engaging with it in a different way.

Being trained as an archaeologist since undergrad, visiting such sites and understanding them is a well practiced skill for me. I have learned how to navigate the stones, pits and poorly written signage well. But as my fiancée has not spent years in school for archaeology, she found it incredibly frustrating (and made sure I knew it) to visit poorly signed sites both home and abroad. Faded state plans surrounded by blocks of text made no sense to her until I was able to decipher and focus the information. Sometimes even my own excitement got ahead of me and caused confusion, that was till she lovingly told me to slow down – after which I focused my slew of information to create a richer tour for her without beating her over the head with every foundation stone and pot sherd. And while she loves having her own personal archaeologist tour guide, not all people visiting our beloved sites will have one on hand (unless we start going on a lot more dates with non-archaeologists).

These experiences demonstrated to me that we archaeologists need to be better stewards of the knowledge that we uncover every summer. This is more important now more than ever with sites coming under attack from governments, militaries, and too much love. This is not to say that we should be more restrictive in who sees the knowledge or even dumb down any of the facts we share, but the flood of information needs to be better managed. Archaeological parks and sites need cohesive Cultural Interpretation Plans (CIPs) that will help guide creating focused signs and thematic units for parks. Every time a person leaves a site thinking that was just a bunch of rocks or worse yet, a person chooses not to enter a site because all they think they will see are a bunch of rocks, we lose. We lose the voices and support we need in the public to save these places, find new ones, and prevent looting. With increasing pressure to be relevant and useful, we need to show how irreplaceable the sites we cherish are. The time to move on from archaic old styles of sharing information is now. For if we wait longer, will there be any sites left to save?

Andrew Carroll

@MagisterCarroll

Animated Archaeology

With one year of survey, three years of excavation, and one study season completed in the past few years, this summer has seen the final year of study for the Palace and Landscape at Palaikastro (PALAP) team. From excavation to conservation, we have been hard at work reconstructing the history of our site here on the island of Crete.

Palaikastro

Over three millennia ago, Palaikastro was a thriving Minoan settlement situated on the east coast of the island. The town was rediscovered by archaeologists more than a century ago, but new campaigns have continued to reveal more of this fascinating site, and the five year PALAP excavation project has uncovered several multi-occupation buildings.

For the past two seasons, our study has focused on reconstructing the history of the site through the excavated material.

Palaikastro 2017 Study Season

In the lab, this has included the careful washing and conserving of objects, the photographing and drawing of selected material, and the organization and cataloguing of all conserved artifacts.

Palaikastro 2017 Study Season Palaikastro 2017 Study Season Palaikastro 2017 Study Season

Digital tools such as GIS, combined with the study of conserved artifacts and notes from the field, enable us to better understand these objects and contextualize their histories within Minoan life.

Palaikastro 2017 Study Season  Palaikastro 2017 Study Season 

Combining artifact analysis with excavation records, digital data allows us to reconstruct a comprehensive picture of ancient life at Palaikastro.

Palaikastro 2017 Study Season  Palaikastro 2017 Study Season  Palaikastro 2017 Study Season

Whether we’re digging in the field, finding pottery joins in the lab, or writing final reports, archaeology is both challenging and immensely rewarding. But no matter what, we always find time for some fun!

Palaikastro 2017 Study Season

Palaikastro 2017 Study Season

Archaeology and Family Life – The Joy of the Summer Holidays!

As you may have guessed from the fact that my Day of Archaeology post is a day late, my Day of Archaeology was pretty chaotic and to be honest I had completely forgotten it was the day for the blogs!

I work in the commercial archaeology sector in the UK, and things are far less glamourous than the view which many have of us sweeping away with a delicate brush in a far flung exotic location! This week, and for the next few months at least, it is very unlikely that I will be doing anything at all which is site based. I am working my way through a pile of illustrations and the desk based elements of a number of projects – whilst trying to balance being self-employed with family life. Family life at this time of year (those lovely, long summer holidays) is predominantly concerned with childcare – or perhaps more to the point arranging childcare!

To this end my day starts just after 9, having just dropped off the wee one in a sports club for the day. I make a cup of tea – because caffeine is pretty much what I run on, and check through my emails. I sort out a few queries and tenders before tackling the next childcare issue. My partner and I run an archaeological company together and share both work and childcare, and with the help of grandparents on both sides and some school/sports clubs we just about get by. Sometimes things don’t come together as hoped, and yesterday morning was on of those mornings! Checking through the jobs for upcoming week, I realised we had a day where both of us were at all day meetings on the same day in different places – so frantic checking with grandparents ensued! Luckily the wonderful Mamgu (granny for those not from South Wales) has come to the rescue and will be child-wrangling all next week so we can both work full time. So 2 weeks down and only 4 to go!!!

After the minor crisis has been solved it’s a day at the computer, digitising some building elevations for a Level 3 Building Recording which we have recently undertaken, followed by making a start on the phasing, analysis and building description. Lunch is eaten at my desk (which looks like a bomb has exploded near) as I have to knock off by 3 to pick up the little one from her club, and spending a few hours hanging out with her.

It feels a little odd thinking about the impact of the school holidays as our daughter turned 4 last week, and has only been at school for the mornings (9 – 12.30) since last September. I had not really though about how much we had both come to rely on that block of time to cram in as much work as possible before one or other (or a grandparent) would pick her up, (work would them more often than not resume for a few hours in the evening after she has gone to bed). Before this we used to split childcare between us with one or other out on site or working on desk based elements – and again this would result in a lot of work being done in the evenings after the little one is in bed. Hopefully this will get easier again when she goes full time in September, with the option of breakfast and after school clubs.

This post has veered somewhat off topic towards parenting as an archaeologist, but I am just going to run with it as it is something that we have only recently started to talk more seriously about in British archaeology. It has long been known that despite slightly more women entering archaeology in their early 20’s there is a large drop once women hit their 30’s and, although the reasons discussed are complex and there are a number of factors in play, parenthood is seen as the key reason behind this. For a large number of women working in archaeology is fundamentally incompatible with raising a family – particularly the field work element.

There has been a raise lately in the number of articles about women still digging whilst pregnant, including some which have been picked up by national papers like the Guardian which can only be positive, but for some reason most of these focus on pregnant academics who do one field season a few weeks long whilst visibly pregnant (usually somewhere hot and photogenic). The accompanying narrative is “women having it all” and “look I can still do things even though I’m pregnant” but they fail to look at how this differs from the experiences of those who work in the field day in day out through their entire pregnancy because it is their job. Things like how do you deal with morning sickness when people don’t know you’re pregnant and think you are hungover, avoiding areas where there are sheep, the fact that you have to go a bit easy on the lifting/barrows, sites with contaminants or the risk from needles, over zealous risk assessors who don’t bother to discuss things with you first or the opposite – people who refuse to make any concessions whatsoever because it is your choice to be at work and you’re being paid aren’t you (not all my experiences but drawn together from the experiences of female archaeologists). Then throw in short term contracts and the fear of being laid off/contract not renewed so to avoid maternity pay, the assumption that you will not be returning to work after having a baby or the fear of even telling your employer you are pregnant and things look much less rosy.

Even after listing these things when pregnant, it feels somewhat depressing to say that it is actually after you give birth that things get really difficult for women working in archaeology. For me I had an emergency cesarean so even had I wanted to go straight back into the field it would have been physically impossible – then there is breast feeding and simply not wanting to be separated from my child, childcare cost and, well you can see where this is going……

For me I was lucky in a way because although being self employed meant I wasn’t entitled to any maternity pay, it also meant I could work from home and set my hours around when the baby was asleep. As mentioned in a few other blogs, I used a sling to keep the baby close and she would happily sleep snuggled up to me whilst I was typing reports/drawing/washing finds. Her Dad did similar and apart from breast feeding (which he wasn’t much cop at) we could both share all baby related responsibilities, and we were both able to work full time for the first few months with relatively little adjustment. I know this is not the case for everyone – we were just very lucky that once we were out of hospital she was just a very healthy, very chilled baby.

Things got much more difficult as she got older and by the time she was a few months old the only time to both work was when she was asleep – which was getting less and less, but was still allowing us to do a reasonable amount of work. As she grew up things got harder to manage work wise as we had pretty had to resign ourselves to only one or other working at a time – partly because sharing childcare worked for us as a family but also because we simply could not afford to pay for childcare. Being self employed meant a massively fluctuating income so having large regular outgoings – especially as we would have to pay for childcare to keep the place whether we needed it or not, was simply not an option. Childcare costs are a massive issue for many families and although as a graduate profession archaeology is considered to be poorly paid there are many families worse off – but what these costs do mean is that as there are fewer (read very, very few) part time jobs in archaeology it is often not worth the family member earning the least to go to work. In my experience that family member is the archaeologist so we see an exodus from the profession.

Now I am going to digress further again here and talk about the difficulties faced by parents of young children when they are employed primarily or exclusively in fieldwork because again when archaeologist blog about having children in the field with them when they are digging these people are working on university or occasionally community excavations. There is no way whatsoever you could take a child to work on a commercial site – it is simply too dangerous so the pictures you see of children on sites are on open days not work days.

The way that commercial archaeology works in Britain (I am unsure about Northern Ireland as I have never worked there) is that although companies are based somewhere, most cover a massive geographical area and you can be called upon to work anywhere in the country with little or no notice. Away work is not great when you have a family as it is hard on everyone not to be there at night during the week, but even if there is work in the local area site hours which generally start at 8 am make getting childcare almost impossible, and if you can get it it is even more expensive. So basically it is virtually impossible to stay primarily in the field unless you have a partner who is able to take over all early morning childcare and drop off, and that your family is able to deal with the absence of a parent during the week – or sometimes for weeks on end if the site is a great distance from home and you simply cannot get back on weekends.

This is the reality faced by families of archaeologists and by parents who are archaeologists – some are able to make changes and stay in the profession but a lot are not. With the massive upcoming infrastructure projects like HS2 there is a shortage of archaeologists, and more worrying a major shortage of experienced archaeologists. We have a lot to do as we change and grow and it is worth reflecting that PPG 16 only came into being in 1990 and in effect the sector has largely grown from this. It is now time to reflect on how we got here, is it a good place and how do we move forward in a more inclusive way? Staff are going to get older and their family situations will change – can we really afford to shed staff in large numbers after they have worked for ten years or do we need to think how to retain them, and how to allow then to return to the profession after taking time out to have children? Do we want a profession where women are underrepresented at senior level? Can relatively small changes such as enabling parents with young children to work from home (obviously only applicable for non site based work!) and more part time options allow more parents, especially mothers, to keep their hand in and stay connected with their company? Change is needed and now would seem to be the time for it.

Finally I am also going to add in a cheeky plug for a Facebook page that I mange with two other archaeologists with kids (the lovely Vickki Hudson and Shelly Bull – one of whom took around a decade out of the field to raise and family and one who has been forced to leave the profession) called “Diggers with Kids”. It is a group founded because of the need to talk to other parents in similar situations and to support each other as much as we can. Archaeologists with children can feel very isolated because so many of our contemporaries have left the profession or conversely the archaeologist may have left and is feeling left behind and frustrated. Since it was launched a few months ago it has grown to 240 members so if you have recognised your situation in any of the post above or if you are interested in the issues raised then please join us. P.S although we originally started off as “Diggers with Kids” we have recently added the tagline “for parents working in archaeology and heritage” as it is not a group exclusive to digging staff!

Marvellous medieval tiles-public engagement at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales

There really is no such thing as a typical day in my role as curator of Medieval and Later Archaeology. Recent days have involved dealing with treasure items, answering public enquiries about our medieval collections and sorting out a massive post-medieval pottery assemblage from the Herefordshire/Monmouthshire border, a project I’ve recently worked on with a brilliant bunch of Cardiff University archaeology undergraduates.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the Day of Archaeology falls during the Festival of Archaeology, and if you work in museums then the FoA is always an important date in the calendar! This year we have held a variety of events, celebrating archaeology at AC-NMW, such as behind the scenes tours exploring the hidden depths of the museum, talks on the Saving Treasures project (https://museum.wales/portable-antiquities-scheme-in-wales-saving-treasures-telling-stories/) as well as a (plastic) skeleton-sorting exercise! Fortuitously, my event happened to fall on the Day of Archaeology.

I like a challenge, and being a fan of all things medieval I wanted to design an activity that would make medieval floor tiles as exciting to everyone else as they are to me.  But could it be done??

So, this is what I did. I took the design from a set of fourteenth-century tiles from Neath Abbey (the tiles depict a hunting scene-see below), asked our illustrator Tony Daly to trace the outline design and blow up the image to make a giant tile puzzle. These ’tiles’ were printed onto paper, cut up into small squares where participants were asked to colour them  however they liked.

Ably assisted by Joel Curzon, a Cardiff University undergraduate we drew in a crowd of budding medieval artists to help complete our puzzle. Whilst we didn’t quite manage to complete the entire set by the end of the event, we certainly had quality over quantity in terms of colour and patterns used. Here is the final result.

The colouring element was really great fun but the best thing for me was the wide-ranging interest shown in these small but beautiful objects, in particular the meanings behind the motifs used on different medieval tiles. One of my most enthusiastic participants, a six year old girl who completed a couple of the tile pieces, quizzed me on the hunting scene and  was amazed by how dogs were used in the past. She didn’t reckon her pet dog would have much luck against a deer. Perhaps I achieved my objective after all.

 

10 Weeks of Excavation: Masters Research & Negative Results

This post could have been written ahead of time, since I was pretty aware of what we were going to do on site today, but I was delighted when I realized that the 2017 Day of Archaeology fell on the last day of my excavation in Ferryland, Newfoundland. Not only the last day of the dig, but the last day of the second (and final) season of fieldwork for my Masters degree!

Sitting at the top of a new trench with my Death Positive shirt. Photo by Ian Petty, 2017.

I’m Robyn Lacy, and I am an MA candidate in Archaeology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. I am a historic mortuary archaeologist, and sometimes something of a landscape / geo-ish archaeologist as well. Basically, I rarely examine material culture in my research unless it comes in the form of a burial carving or sculpture (gravestones) and spend most of my time looking at maps, aerial images, and stratigraphy. My MA research explores the spatial relationship between 17th-century colonial burial grounds in British settlements in North America, looking at how the burials were situated with relation to the settlement area itself, and structures and spaces that it might be associated with. I used that information build a statistical frequency analysis model to look for patterns in the placement of burials in similar settlements, and applied that information to Ferryland, Newfoundland to aid in the search for the early 17th-century burial ground at the enclosed settlement. The so-called ‘Colony of Avalon’ was founded in 1621 by George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore, and my project was to be the first systematic attempt to locate the burial ground from that first group of settlers.

In 2016, I ran an excavation at Ferryland for 6 weeks over the summer. The excavation locations were guided by the statistical analysis, archaeological evidence from the past decades of research at the site, and a 3 day GPR survey to narrow down areas to put our trenches. While we tested a load of the site, covered much unexplored ground, and learned a lot about how Ferryland was constructed, we didn’t manage to locate any evidence of human burials to the east or the south of the settlement. I resolved to return in 2017, as we didn’t have a chance in 2016 to excavate in the most highly-probable location, according to the statistical model: Inside the fortified settlement itself!

Map made by Robyn Lacy and Bryn Tapper, 2017. Excavation area for 2017 indicated by the circle. Excavation also extended directly south.

This year I once again called for the aid of volunteers, and readied myself for the additional 4 weeks of excavation! This was a big choice to make, since waiting to do another season of fieldwork would delay when I could finish my thesis and push back when I could submit to reviewers by several months. Doing this means I’ll also have to pay continuance fees this fall (which is the really unfortunate part), but I just couldn’t leave those areas untested!!

View from the bastion at the Colony of Avalon, Ferryland, Newfoundland. Photo by author, 2017.

Within the first two weeks of the dig this year, we had already covered all of the areas that I’d planned for the entirety of the 4-week excavation, and with no sight of burial shafts in the subsoil, I was left scratching my head for a while. It would be a long shot, but it was decided that we would sink two trenches into the side of the bastion, the large artificial mound in the southeast of the settlement that once held cannons to defend the area from marauding pirates! This was very exciting, since the bastion itself had never been excavated other than a small portion on one side so we had no idea how it was constructed. What we did know, however, was that stacked up layers of sod were in some way part of the construction. The reasoning was this: If the mound was built from sods and loose soil, it would be easier to bury the bodies of people we know died in the winter in a freshly thawing previously-dug mound than into the hard, rocky ground that Newfoundland has become famous for, right? Fingers crossed??

South wall of unit E88 S23, showing very pronounced layer of sorted stones. Photo by author, 2017.

The trenches we dug were very soft to begin with, nearly no rocks to be found…but that quickly changed. Within a few cm from the surface, my volunteers in the trench west of my unit were coming down on a layer of well sorted, quickly deposited cobbles and boulders. It was a quick deposition, with next to no sediment between the rocks leaving spaces large enough to sink your hand into! This was either part of the fill for the bastion, in which case there wouldn’t be burials in it by a long shot, or something was made of a pile of rock on top of the mound that had later been pushed over, in which case there might be burials underneath it…either way we’d have to dig through to find out!

Yesterday, we reached the bottom of the rock layer and in the unit pictured here, E88 S23, we were met with a layer of clay, with black decomposed sod underneath it. And guess what? There was a piece of wood in the middle of the layer too, burned on one end and nearly decomposed, but wood none the less! This was amazing, organic material doesn’t survive well at all in this region because of the acidic soil! That was the highlight of yesterday as we finished up the trenches an prepared them for photography.

Day of Archaeology:
It’s Friday at the dig, and the very last day of my Masters excavation. The trenches on the bastion had gone down as deep at 1.5m in several places with no sign of subsoil beneath the fill; instead we only found layers upon layers of sod and clay, with loose-packed stones between them going endlessly down. It would have been unsafe to keep digging down with such loose walls, and I resolved that we should call it on Thursday afternoon. While this tells us a lot about how the handful of settlers built this massive earthwork in the 1620s, it doesn’t tell us where they were burying their fellow settlers’ corpses. Yes, the bastion was negative for human burials…

Trench 7 refilled. This was the deepest of the trenches dug during my project! Photo (and replaced sods) by author, 2017

Today was spent, instead of madly recording a last-minute find as is often the case in archaeology, by back-filling the trenches on the earthwork in the morning sunshine. This is always the worst part of an excavation. Not only is back-fill pretty physically demanding, but you have to slowly watch all of your progress vanish before you very eyes. I find back-fill a bitter-sweet end to an excavation, but there is definitely a feeling of satisfaction when you did good job (or a mediocre job) getting all of the sods back in place.

With the help of my amazing volunteer team and a few extra hands from around the site, we had the trenches back-filled by lunchtime and after surveying our work with a sigh of relief that it didn’t take any longer than a few hours, headed off to Ferryland’s ‘Tetley Tearoom by the Sea’ for a much deserved Friday lunch!

After lunch, I had some paperwork to do, which isn’t very exciting so I didn’t actually end up taking a photo of it for this post, and my team measured some of the backlog of artifacts from the excavation. There really weren’t very many artifacts to measure though, considering we’d found nearly nothing over the last two weeks. This was due to the bastion itself having been built so early in the European occupation of the area that there weren’t any historic artifacts to find! If we’d found the old ground surface, there may have been potential for very early indigenous artifacts, but we didn’t have that luck!

With that, my 10 cumulative weeks of excavation at Ferryland were finished. While I didn’t location the 17th-century burials, we know so much more about where they are not buried which has removed the questioning of ‘is there a burial ground here?’ from a lot of different places at the site. While of course I’d love this post to be photos of beautifully preserved graveshafts, my results are very useful to our understanding of the site and I’ve learned the true value of the phrase “Negative Results are Still Results” over my time at Ferryland and throughout my MA program!

If you are interested in reading more about my excavation, check out my research blog ‘Spade & the Grave‘ and follow me on twitter @robyn_la

-Robyn Lt

Archaeology and Iowa’s Project AWARE River Clean-up

By Elizabeth Reetz, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist

Paddling a stretch of more than 17 miles of river is something I haven’t done since working as an archaeologist in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But yes – I have continued to find a way to mesh my love of canoeing with my profession of archaeology, and integrate it with environmental education!  Paddling a stretch of more than 17 miles of river is something I haven’t done since working as an archaeologist in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But yes – I have continued to find a way to mesh my love of canoeing with my profession of archaeology, and integrate it with environmental education!

Pretty soon after moving to Iowa, I learned about an absolutely incredible (hyperbole intentional!) community event called Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness and River Expedition). Project AWARE, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and now in its 15th year, focuses on a different stretch of a different waterway in Iowa each year to increase awareness about, and community involvement in, water quality issues that impact the health of Iowa’s aquatic resources. The crux of this project is removing trash from the waterway. Just as important though is the project’s integration of place-based education focused on each year’s route to promote engaged conservation and stewardship. It’s just amazing – I wish every state had an event like this!

OSA's Cherie Haury-Artz engages 2016 volunteers with Iowa's archaeological timeline of artifacts.

OSA’s Cherie Haury-Artz engages 2016 volunteers with Iowa’s archaeological timeline of artifacts.

Playing with altatls and spears in the Project AWARE campground.

OSA’s Cherie Haury-Artz helping volunteers with altatls and spears in the Project AWARE campground.

Where this event links in with archaeology is simple: People use and have always used waterways and their resources. Most of Iowa’s 29,000 documented archaeological sites have been found along the state’s thousands of miles of rivers and streams, which means that Project AWARE participants have passed hundreds, if not thousands of archaeological sites over the past 15 years and, until recently, didn’t even know it! My office started doing one-day guided archaeological canoe trips for the Iowa DNR Water Trails program, community talks about the archaeology of Iowa’s water trails, and evening campground programs for the Project AWARE participants in 2014. In 2016, my colleague Cherie Haury-Artz and I signed on to be “resident archaeologists” throughout the 5-day canoe journey. As resident archaeologists, we give educational talks and showcase artifacts and traditional toys and games in the evenings. More importantly though, we’re available as informal educators and interpreters while canoeing the river. Archaeology is not only about objects and artifacts, but about how humans have used the land throughout time. A long stretch of river will pass numerous landforms, landscapes, and confluences, all of which have a human story to tell.

This year’s route covered 55 miles of the upper Cedar River, from the Iowa-Minnesota border to near Nashua, Iowa. Before the trip, I did a search through our archaeological site records and found about 50 previously recorded sites within 100 meters of the banks of the Cedar River (hear more during the last 20 minutes of this Iowa Public Radio program!), including highly visible remnant dams and bridge footings. Of course, we couldn’t see most of these sites, because what remains is below the ground, but that still doesn’t mean that the land isn’t telling a human story!

Map of archaeological sites across Iowa and Project AWARE route

Iowa’s 29,000+ documented archaeological sites are clustered around rivers and streams. The Project AWARE route on the upper Cedar River is highlighted.

A selection of artifacts from sites recorded along the 2017 Project AWARE route.

A selection of artifacts from sites recorded along the 2017 Project AWARE route.

The longest day of the 5-day paddle was 17.5 miles on Day 4 (July 13), which is an incredible amount of paddling combined with pulling and hauling tons of trash from the river. That day, we passed 19 recorded archaeological sites, ranging from undiagnostic prehistoric artifact scatters and Woodland and Oneota villages and mounds to a historic hotel site in downtown Charles City. Most of these sites were recorded between the 1970s and 1990s, because this stretch of river traversed a pretty undeveloped part of Iowa. Where there is little to no development, there is little to no contract archaeology. Therefore, we strongly emphasized to participants to pass the word about our need for land owners and artifact collectors to help us build the story of Iowa’s archaeological past. A huge misconception in Iowa, which ranks 47th with less than 3 percent public land, is that archaeologists will either “take control of your land and tell you what to do” or “tell everyone about where you find artifacts.”  To Iowans and beyond, I just have to say, neither of these things are true!

But back to the paddle…

Crew hauling heavy tire from river

It takes a small village to “excavate” some of the trash!

We started off the day during morning announcements by presenting what type of archaeological sites the participants would pass along the route and then headed to the launch. My partner for the day, Dante (a Theater student from the University of Iowa), was participating in this 6th Project AWARE and was pretty well versed at spotting trash – in a way, its own type of archaeological survey! Our first big find of the day was less than a mile into the morning. Often paddlers will come across others working on projects, known to some of the participants as “excavations,” and stop to see if help is needed.  We came across Mirm, a first year participant who moved to New England from the Netherlands, and Ron, a second year participant from southeast Iowa, working with a team to remove a large tire from the river bottom.  The tire still had the rim, which meant it was heavy. After draining the mud and water from the tire, it took a small village to hoist it onto two canoes, which we roped together to make a “canoe-maran” for safer and sturdier transport.  Because the first trash collection point was nearly four more miles away, we paddled as hard as we could to haul this estimated 300-lb beast and drop it off before the cut-off time.

Creating a canoe-maran to safely and securely haul oversized and heavy trash.

Creating a canoe-maran to safely and securely haul oversized and heavy trash.

After dropping off the beast and unhitching from Mirm and Ron, we enjoyed some pie and ice cream and got back on the water in search of more “trophy trash.”  We found lots of aluminum cans that collected downstream from a highway overpass and part of an old truck precariously eroding out of a steep river bank.  Hello, nettles. Towards the end of the journey, we came across a huge team working diligently on a huge mess. As an archaeologist, I am both fascinated with and astonished by the array of material culture found in these rivers. This large trash dump – mostly in the river – contained one of the largest varieties of items I’ve seen in one river dump.  There was barbed wire and fencing in the bank and along the river bottom, tires, parts of a TV or radio, a car hood, a conveyor belt from some farm machinery, and weird metal bits us archaeologists like to refer to as, “unidentifiable metal objects.”  Canoe after canoe was called over and filled to the brim, and to my knowledge, no one got to finish cleaning up this dump before the sweep came by to get participants back to camp.  We had another hefty load. At the end of the day, my arms were as dead as a day full of non-stop shovel testing.

The canoe-maran team that hauled the beast! Mirm, Ron, Dante, and Elizabeth.

The canoe-maran team that hauled the beast! Mirm, Ron, Dante, and Elizabeth.

Loading up volunteers with trash from a large dump in the river.

Loading up volunteers with trash from a large dump in the river.

One of the big questions is, are some of these trash dumps actually archaeological sites?  Truth is, in a technical sense, they could be. What we focus on here is context, integrity, and knowledge about the past that we don’t already know. If these items are loose and in danger of washing down the river or hazardous (sharp and rusty metal, broken glass), I’m okay with them going in the trash. If these items are certain to erode away and become a bigger hazard, again, I’m okay with calling them trash. Rusty metal is not at all good for water quality, so let’s get it out of the rivers. People are not digging into the ground to remove objects.  Participants are well-educated about private property and bank stabilization, and leave these items found in these contexts as is. The “excavations” mentioned before are where items (usually tires, oil drums, and old cars or farm machinery) are eroding out of the river banks, with enough obvious exposure to catch someone’s eye. Also, what happens to archaeological artifacts that are found in the river?  As far as I know, no one the past two years of me being a resident archaeologist as come across any prehistoric artifacts.  If these artifacts are found, we encourage people to get a photo and, to the best of their ability, a location so we can later record or update a site file.  We practice a “leave no trace” ethic and do not collect artifacts.  Artifacts in the waterway are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

This event is hands-down my favorite archaeology outreach event of the year.  I’m proud of what this team of nearly 500 incredible volunteers accomplished this year! Just to brag a little bit, here are the end stats from the Iowa DNR:

  • Total Trash Removed – 28.0 tons (55,945 lbs)
    • Tires – 368 tires (7.3 tons; 14,500 lbs)
    • Scrap Metal – 14.9 tons (29,860 lbs)
    • Recyclables (redeemables, plastic, cardboard, glass, household hazardous materials) – 2.5 tons (5,045 lbs)
    • Trash – 3.3 tons (6,540 lbs)
  • Trash Recycled: 88% (49,405 lbs; 24.7 tons)

We can’t wait until next year!

canoe full of river trash

The home stretch of the 17.5 mile day with a canoe full of trash.

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Cotswold Archaeology: A typical (start to the) day on the front…

As an archaeological site manager, I like to arrive on site in advance of the team, open the access, welfare cabins and tool stores and prepare the daily briefing. Gradually, my colleagues will start to arrive on site; the fresh-faced, enthusiastic trainees, keen to crack on and get out on to site as soon as possible, then the crew bus carrying all the necessary equipment, cameras, GPS units, laptops, milk (possibly the most crucial item on site!) and the all-important site archive. This is followed by intermittent arrivals of the older, more experienced individuals who time their appearance to the last minute and then the odd one or two blurry-eyed latecomers who may or may not have been out late last night…

The daily cat-herding ritual ensues and then, once we’re all together, I deliver the daily briefing which can contain elements of weather forecast, site conditions, any specific health and safety considerations, progress on site, delegation of tasks, new demands from clients, feedback, praise or criticism from project managers or curators, details of the latest site interpretations and any interesting recent discoveries. In an effort to keep the team engaged during this meeting, I (usually vainly) try and keep things as light-hearted as possible where I can!

My briefing over, there’s a bit of nervous shuffling as I decide on which of the lucky site supervisors gets to deliver the requisite toolbox talks; this week it’s ‘Sunburn’ as, although we’re currently standing in a mist of fine drizzle, it did get a little bit warmer towards the end of Monday afternoon, and the old favourite ‘Personal Hygiene’… cue the inevitable banter. Toolbox talks delivered by a relieved supervisor, I wrap up the assembly by asking if anyone has any questions or concerns, issue the rallying cry of ‘Okay, let’s archaeologise!’ and we’re off onto site, a small, ragtag group of bright yellow troopers.

At some point I hope to be able to leave the paperwork and turn my attention to the fantastic archaeology we’re turning up. Perhaps I’ll get a brief slot around 4 this afternoon…………..

Mark