Archaeology can take to some interesting places and for some interesting reasons. Today for instance, on the Day of Archaeology, I find myself sitting at a desk writing all day and doing various things that are heritage but not archaeologically related.
Let me explain. I am a contract archaeologist in the United States. For the past two years my work has primarily focused on providing cultural resource assessments for proposed telecommunications site. If you have ever notice cell antennas or towers, they are often located on rooftops or within small fenced areas (typically 100 feet by 100 feet [30.48 meters by 30.48 meters]). While this type of archaeology does not provide the window into the past that a multi-year excavation can provide, it does allow for many tiny windows over a large area. In just the past two years, I have been involved in over 100 projects in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
That perspective has allowed me to see archaeology from a much broader perspective. When you can work in the Appalachian mountains of Western Maryland (above picture) and the Sierra Nevada mountains in California (below picture) in the same week, you think about thing differently. These projects took place in November of last year.
In Western Maryland, I was evaluating a proposed cell tower that was going to be placed on a mountain top. The picture above gives one the idea of the condition. The ground was covered in boulders. The leaves provided the illusion of a ground surface. In reality the ground was 1.5-2 feet (0.46-0.61 meters) below the leaf litter. This meant that shovel test pits, a common survey technique in the eastern US, was not possible. However, there was still the chance that petroglyphs could be present on the boulders. After a few hours of crawling over boulders and trying not to break my ankles, I was not able to locate any archaeological artifacts or features within the project area. It was the atmosphere of that day that made it so memorable. A foggy, misty, early November with wet leaves on the ground and the trees barren. To be alone in such an environment can aid in the imagining of the different environments that humans have operated in.
The foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains provided a different kind of meditative experience (see picture below). This was an absence/presence survey of a potential site within a proposed cell tower compound. This time I was not alone. Acting as the Project Manager, I was working with a crew from a local CRM firm. Additionally, we were working with a tribal monitor from one of the local tribes. We excavated nine 0.5 meter by 1 meter test units throughout the project area over two day. We encountered fire cracked rock, rough flakes and bifaces, burned seeds, and charcoal. This lead to the early impression that we were within a potential ceremonial site for own of the local tribes. Having a tribal monitor helped to provide immediate context for the artifacts that we were recovering. It also provided an experience that I have not had on the East Coast, hearing about tribal life as a lived experience rather than being temporally detached. The location also provided its own splendor. These November days were warm and sunny with an excellent view of the valley below.
The point of this post is to let you know that you can find fulfilling archaeology in the smallest of projects. While I do not get to work a single great project or specialize in a unique subject, I have a better understanding of place because of all the places that I have worked in. From urban centers, farm fields, to mountain tops, humans have operated here. I have used this word ‘operated’ twice to describe people in a place because I want to incorporate all the activities that humans have done on a landscape (live, work, hunt, farm, fought, etc).
While I sit at a desk today, I know that soon I will be in the field, trowel in hand, in a place that I have never been in before. That is something to look forward to.