ground penetrating radar

A Third Day In The Life (Of An Archaeological Geophysicist)

Wow, time has flown. This time last year, I was doing radar work in Ballarat on gold mine sludge. But that’s more geological than archaeological, and it should have been covered in last year’s non-existent post (what happened last year, admins??), so I won’t discuss that further.

Let’s see… what was I doing this year?

Ah, yes. Friday. It was the last day of an eight-day project using ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves in a cemetery. The day didn’t really involve any geophysical surveying as such – all that had been done over the preceding week. Instead, Friday was spent using one of my new toys – a Topcon Power Station robotic total station. I love it. It has reflectorless mode so I don’t have to walk around the cemetery to map things. Set-up is a breeze with re-sections (I was previously using a 25-year old reflector-only total station that required two operators and couldn’t do re-sections).

Can you tell from my passion for a robotic total station that I don’t have a romantic partner?

Anyway, I don’t want to sound like a Topcon salesman, so I shall move on.

Basically, what I did that day was map the headstones that were present in the cemetery. That took me from 7am until about 1pm.

It’s one thing to have a geophysical survey performed, but you really need to have a map of the surrounding “stuff” so you know exactly where the geophysical survey was performed (and, hence, where all the unmarked graves are located). If you don’t do this, you’re just wasting time (and the client’s money).

Once I collected all the points needed to create the site map, I packed up, headed to my motel room and entered all the data into GIS (I use Global Mapper. It’s far easier and better than anything else. Yes, including ArcGIS. Deal with it. 😛 ). Then I spent the afternoon colour-coding the different points and lines and shapes and what-have-you. Little trees to indicate trees. Dark grey areas to indicate marked graves. Light grey areas to indicate concrete slabs for the lawn section. A crossed orange line to indicate the cemetery boundary fence. You get the idea. Make the map look pretty. Then whack a north arrow, scale and legend on it and Robert is your mother’s brother. And then the clock hit 5pm and it was time to sleep. (This week involved working from 6.30am until about 7pm each day. So I was overjoyed to see the bed Friday night).

So that was the excitement for my Day of Archaeology.Until next time, live long and prosper.Dave The Grave HunterPS: Sorry for the lack of photos. Here are some on my Facebook business page.

Human Remain Detection Dogs Help Archaeologists Find Unmarked Graves

As you probably know by now if you have been following us on twitter (@FPANNrthCentral), we have been out at Munree Cemetery in Tallahassee today. We have been working with specially trained dogs called Human Remain Detection Canines, or HRD dogs. They have been helping us to find unmarked burials that are at minimum 100 years old! The Munree Cemetery is a historic African American cemetery with over 250 known burials, most of which do not have any type of marker present. Some of the graves are visible at the surface, but some areas we were unsure about. Of course, we wanted to avoid excavating in a cemetery, so we brought in the dogs! Two of the dogs and their handlers came all the way from Louisiana to help us out today! We also had a local dog handler and her HRD dog volunteer  to help us out. The dogs were able to identify several areas that possibly contain human burials. Tomorrow morning we are going to bring out the ground penetrating radar (GPR) to see if we can find any anomalies in those areas. The cemetery is five acres, and it would take us days to GPR the whole thing, and even longer to process all that data, so the dogs have helped us narrow down the areas to those that have the greatest probability of containing burials.

Jada and Dixie, both specially trained HRD canines, traveled all the way from Louisiana with their handlers to help us today!

A museum archaeologist

As the archaeologist and curator for the Lost City Museum every day is different for me.  One day I might be entering the museum’s catalog records into the computer and the next I am doing research on trash middens or getting down and dirty while restoring the museum’s adobe pueblos.  The museum where I work is an archaeology museum devoted to the study of the Virgin River branch of the Ancestral Puebloans (you might know them as the Anasazi). As a museum archaeologist I don’t get into the field as much as I would like, but the trade off is that I get to handle some pretty awesome Ancestral Puebloan artifacts.

Pueblo restoration

Giving the Lost City Museum's adobe pueblos a facelift.

My predecessors conducted more fieldwork than I have been able to for two reasons. One is that the valley where the museum is located experienced a lot of growth over the past 25 years, and often the places where people wanted to build their houses were located on archaeological sites. The landowners would sometimes grant the museum archaeologist permission to excavate as much of the site as possible before construction began.  The excavation of these sites has led to a backlog of artifacts to be processed and cataloged because as is often the case in archaeological fieldwork, the excavation of the site is the easy part, and the processing of artifacts is the tedious (and unglamorous) part of the process. I would guess that most museums with archaeological collections have some sort of backlog of collections that were excavated and essentially forgotten without an analysis or formal report on the findings of the site.

This backlog has led to the second reason why I am not currently conducting field research. There has been a shift in the past five or ten years towards analyzing what is already present in a museum’s collection to obtain information about a site or a culture because the information is already available. Excavations are expensive, and there are perfectly good artifacts sitting in museum storage waiting to be analyzed. Another reason for this shift is connected to the realization that archaeological sites can be better preserved by not excavating them and waiting for technological advances that make archaeology a less destructive process. Advances in technology already allow archaeologists to “see” what is at a site through the use of ground penetrating radar, which means archaeologists can make better informed decisions on when, where, and how much of a site to excavate.

The great thing about my job as a museum archaeologist is that I get the best of both worlds. I can help out on the projects of other archaeologists, do site visits with site stewards, or conduct research on rock art sites when I need to get out into the field, and I have the satisifaction of knowing that I am helping to protect prehistoric artifacts that are over one thousand years old. Plus, as a museum archaeologist I get to see all of the great stuff that isn’t out on display!

Cleaning a pot on display at the museum.