Post-Excavation: What happens after you dig a site?

For my PhD research, I have been working on a couple of Early Iron Age sites in northeastern Botswana. To put these sites in a comparable context, they are hilltop settlements from prehistoric farming and herding communities that date to roughly 1000 AD in the Kalahari Desert. The sites I am working on are only a couple of dozens of known sites clustered in the region in which I have been working, and the region (northeastern Botswana) is generally considered part of the broader geographical and cultural region of Southern Africa (including what is now South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique). Southern Africa experienced a substantial influx of settlement by farming and herding populations (who migrated south from Central and East Africa) in the first millennium AD, resulting in many hundreds of archaeological sites that now dot the landscape. Part of what is fascinating about studying communities from this time period (commonly called the Early Iron Age, for the metal-working technology the communities brought with them) is how interconnected they appear to have been, despite the often very long distances and harsh terrain separating various settlement locations. Evidence of shared technology, village organization, ceramic styles, and participation in long-distance trade spans across much of Southern Africa for this time period. But equally fascinating are the sites, or components of sites, that don’t appear to fit the ‘typical’ pattern – certain archaeological sites have yielded ceramics or other types of artifacts with unusual styles or other unexpected material, for example, with radiocarbon dates earlier or later than would be expected for that kind of material.

Southern Africa was not a place void of human occupation before Early Iron Age population began their colonization of the subcontinent. Hunter-gatherer communities had thrived in the many varied ecological zones found in Southern Africa – from the damp, misty Cape to the sunny, arid Namib Desert – for tens of thousands of years before Iron Age communities establishes themselves in the area. Hunter-gatherers continued to subsist alongside the newcomers under a variety of conditions, sometimes coexisting in separate communities on the same landscape, at other times disappearing from the archaeological record (either moving to new territory or becoming subsumed into the more sedentary farmer society), or setting up camp nearby and apparently trading goods and services with the farming and herding villages. Archaeologists believe that the presence of hunter-gatherers in Early Iron Age communities can account for some of the ‘atypical’ sites or site components – the pieces that don’t seem to fit the basic Iron Age ‘pattern.’ It certainly would make sense, if two vastly different socioeconomic groups coexist on a landscape, to expect to see something different going on from when only one socioeconomic group is around. Of course, you can’t get even two archaeologists to agree on everything (where would be the fun in that?), and so a lot of the research being done on the Early Iron Age is to understand HOW much variation comes from the presence of hunter-gatherers, or even what it means to be, or ‘stay’ hunter-gatherer as part of a farming community, as well as understanding that part of the variation in the archaeological record that cannot be accounted for by hunter-gatherers. The Early Iron Age lasted for several centuries. Many archaeologists, myself included, expect that populations during this time period did not have perfectly static behavioral or cultural traditions. We want to tease out and better understand more of the differences among communities – nowadays there is a lot of talk about ‘regional variation,’ based on recent findings. My work, for example, looks to compare geographically broad understandings, or models, of the Early Iron Age with the very site-specific findings of the sites I excavated.

The tricky part of making sense of all of this, as is usually the case with archaeology, comes when one tries to fit the ‘broad view’, or general model of how things are understood, such as I just described above, with a more ‘narrow view’ such as the data one collects during fieldwork on a particular site, or after fieldwork during post-excavation data collection and analysis. The Early Iron Age of Southern Africa looks very, very different when viewed at the level of one site, or one set of artifacts in a lab, than it does as viewed through nice, neat descriptions on the pages of journal articles; it takes quite a lot of work to get from one to the other (more than I myself can even say – as a PhD candidate I have not published anything peer-reviewed yet!). So how DOES one understand what is going on at just one site, or just one batch of artifacts, in terms of how it relates to an entire centuries-long, geography-specific cultural horizon? It is more than just counting and naming the types of artifacts we found during our excavations at the site (though that is a part of the process too), and it is a lot more than simply plugging in one piece to an existing puzzle.

Every archaeologist will probably give you a somewhat different answer to the question I just asked above, and there’s something about that which is crucial to understanding archaeology as a discipline – we don’t all work in the same way, because we not only have different specialties and areas of interest, but we also operate under some different sets of theoretical assumptions and employ some variation in our methods as well.  That said, here’s a rundown of what I have been working on in the last couple of months in the interest of advancing my PhD research:

  • Learning more about archaeological sites that are contemporaneous with the ones I excavated. I know – didn’t I take the time to read and research this before I set out on fieldwork? Of course I did, otherwise the National Science Foundation would have never seen fit to fund my work – but there is a major difference between what gets excavated at a site and what ends up published about it. I’ve been talking, endlessly, to anyone I can pin down in one place long enough to tell me more about the sites they worked on, and their assemblages, how they compare with mine, methods of analysis they used, and other information that I could not have anticipated before I did my fieldwork. Honestly I think some researchers see me coming and hide because they know I’m going to ask them more questions. But nevermind that – I want as much comparative, contextual information as I can (pragmatically) manage in order to understand the finds from my own excavations.
  • Cataloging finds and conducting basic analysis on some categories of finds. Inventory, inventory, inventory. I can’t say much of anything substantive about technology, behavior, diet or anything else from the Early Iron Age unless I know what I’ve got, how much of it I’ve got, and in some cases, what it’s made of or what class of thing it is. For example, how much animal bone and tooth was recovered, and where was it found on the site? Which excavation units contained glass beads or burned seeds, and at what depths? I can’t say how many times I’ve revised and revamped the spreadsheets and other forms that contain my catalogue, in order to make sure my data are being managed properly. The same ought to go for the artifacts themselves – it’s a bigger job in a lot of cases, but the artifact collections likewise need to be stored and managed so that they are properly preserved as well as easily accessible.
  • Networking with other researchers to arrange more in-depth analyses of portions of the artifact assemblage. I cannot do everything myself, especially since I do not right now have the specialized training needed to conduct radiocarbon dating, species-specific zooarchaeological (animal bone) identification, and a full-scale ceramic identification. I also don’t have the time – I am trying to finish my degree in about a year’s time, and each of these analyses can take months! Instead, as the lead investigator on the work at the site, I coordinate agreements with specialists to conduct some of the analysis for me. They get pay, and credit, and I get expert-level feedback which I can then cite in my dissertation. It also builds partnerships and may lead to further work down the road. It’s generally good for everyone.
  • Taking notes. Lab notes, field notes, conference notes, lunchtime notes if I have a sudden inspiration, whatever. Constantly documenting what I am doing and why I am doing it; who I’ve talked to and what they said, etc. Not only will this help me write the methods section of my dissertation, it has also proved crucial for maintaining a consistent and rational methodology while still in the process of collecting the data. It’s really easy to think you’ll remember why you labeled that artifact bag a certain way, but in your memory, that one detail is going to get lost among the millions of others eventually.
  • Asking for help. It goes without saying that I need help – I’m just one person, for starters, and I’m still a student running my first research project, for another. It also goes without saying that the networking, collaboration and feedback I talk about above would not be happening without substantial help from my advising committee, other graduate students, and colleagues who have stepped forward with suggestions and offers of aid. However, I also have had to push myself to ask openly for help, in the form of volunteer assistance, and faculty advice, loans of equipment, and all sorts of other things. No way I’d be pulling off this project without these. I am not the sort of person who instinctively or comfortably asks for help for just about anything, so it has really been part of my education to learn what I cannot do on my own, and how to seek that assistance.
  • Keeping up with the literature. It’s part of any academic’s work, and it doesn’t go away just because I’m actively dissertating! I had to scramble to brief myself on recent research findings just before a conference last month because I’d been so focused on data collection over the last year or so. I couldn’t believe how much I’d missed in just twelve months.
  • Working on other projects. As if all this weren’t enough, right? But it doesn’t pay the bills, unfortunately, and it won’t until I graduate and land a full-time position, so until then I make my way by teaching classes (when I can get them) and applying for small university-level scholarships and fellowships, some of which are stipends for smaller research or education projects. Then there’s also student loans, but I don’t want to think about those…

I am at the point now where I’ve collected the great majority of data I need for analysis, and arranged for the rest to be conducted by specialists. My own in-depth analysis of the data will be the next step: I am planning a multi-scalar spatial analysis of the material components of one site with the intent to compare them to some other contemporary sites excavated by other researchers in the past, with the intent to gain a better understanding of how much spatial patterning is the result of site formation processes and how much is the result of patterned, intentional cultural behavior. How much of this will end up in the dissertation is up for discussion, because that’s a LOT of work. But if there’s one way to sum up archaeological research, it’s this: there’s always more to do!