US National Park Service

My day of archaeology…

By Jed Levin, Chief, History Branch Independence National Historical Park Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA  (Posted by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum webmaster)

Did I really spend over an hour today trying to arrange for a technician come to the park and install a tape backup drive on a new computer server…and then, spend additional time trying to figure out where we would house the darn thing once we finally go it set up? I did, and it is hard to reconcile those efforts with my job title.

I work for the US National Park Service where I serve as Park Archeologist and Chief Historian at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The park’s mission is to preserve sites associated with the founding and early history of the United States, and to interpret to those sites and their associated history to the public. In support of those goals Independence Park has had an active archeology program since the early 1950’s.

My day today was fairly typical, which is to say it was filled with tasks that often ranged far afield from what I thought I’d be doing when, decades ago, I first decided to become an archeologist. Also typical is the fact that, like many of the archeologists I know, I wear several hats. I split my time between managing the history program, which involves overseeing historical research conducted to fulfill the parks mission and coordinating the park’s efforts to comply with federal law and regulations related to the preservation of both cultural and natural resources. We have to carefully consider how what we do might affect everything from historic buildings and landscapes to archeological sites and air quality. And, yes, I am also responsible for the park’s archeological studies.

I started my day by checking my e-mail, then I gave a presentation to a group of high school students who are participating in a summer program here at the park that offers students the opportunity to explore history as they develop their writing and artistic skills. We talked about the President’s House site, one of our recent excavations here in the park.

After my adventure in IT, which I mentioned at the start, I spent much of the rest of the day reviewing two construction projects: one planned and one on-going. In one case I had to determine if a list of proposed last minute changes to the renovations to the underground museum in Franklin Court, a project nearing completion, might adversely affect archeological or historical resources on the site. The other project involved the same kind of review for a new underground power line the electric company wants to install.

Before the day was over, I did get to visit the park’s archeology lab were the staff and a dedicated group of volunteers are working to complete the cataloging and analysis of artifact recovered during excavation at the National Constitution Center site, here in the park. I went specifically to review the progress of our efforts to scan the thousands of pages of field notes and thousands of photographs that document the excavation of the National Constitution Center site. Once digitized, an electronic copy these irreplaceable paper and film records can used in the analysis and report production, while a complete backup copy of the data can be stored safely off-site, in case of a disaster. We still have a long way to go, but accumulated data for this project currently exceeds 275 gigabytes. Hence the need for that new server we are installing.

My days always end happily if I get to spend at least some time, however brief, in the lab (or, when we have an excavation underway, in the field). When I see the freshly turned earth or the trays of artifacts that the soil yielded up, it never fails to reignite the sense of excitement that first drew me to archeology. These tangible connections to the past fill me with wonder and raise countless questions.

Jed Levin

English Camp, San Juan Island National Historical Park

I just got back last Wednesday from a dig in the Pacific Northwest of the United States’ Pacific Northwest. As part of on-going rehabilitation work undertaken by the US National Park Service, we conducted limited excavations at the Crook House at English Camp in the San Juan Island National Historic Park. It’s very near to Vancouver, BC and Victoria Island. Beautiful surroundings; the Olympic Mountain Range on one side and the Cascade Range on the other. The dig site is interesting because of its importance to Native Americans, the British, and the Americans. All have stayed here, all have left their marks.

The Native Americans used the area regularly. Their use is chronicled by enormous shell middens that underlie most of English Camp and beyond. The British terraformed the site, creating a parade ground and terraces. The Americans, i.e. the Crook Family, homesteaded the land after ownership of San Juan Island was ceded to the United States. It is thanks to the Crook Family that any part of English Camp remains. Instead of removing the British-built buildings, the family adapted them for farm work and, luckily, preserved them. Even more luckily, the family donated the land to the US National Park Service so anyone can visit.

We had a good crew, hard working and wise-cracking. Laughter was no stranger to the work site. There were many visitors, not all of them human. There were several deer who nibbled on the greenery and ignored us with aplomb, and foxes who would crash through the underbrush whenever we got near. One day, a beautiful barred owl hung out for a while.

Part of archaeology is the excitement of trying out new things. This trip tested my mettle by giving me the opportunity to excavate underneath the Crook House. Armed with a fashionable, hot-pink hard hat, a respirator, a trowel, and paperwork, and lead by our experienced principal investigator (and crawlspace buddy) we made our way through an opening in the siding under the porch. Since the house is set on a slope, the luxurious space under the porch rapidly narrowed as we began the survey of the site. Slowly we worked our way towards the back of the house, talking to each other to distract from how cramped we were getting. Once we got to the center of the house, judged by the joists, it was time to set up a couple of test units.

Digging in cramped quarters is not unusual in archaeology, but it’s new to me. My crawlspace buddy worked even farther back than I. While lying on her stomach, she would fill a corrugated box lid with soil that she’d pass down to me, I’d put it into a bucket and wrestle it to the porch opening to be screened by another member of the crew.

Hard work, but a great story to tell. It will be interesting to see what we find out from materials we gathered during this quick look at the site.


NPS Archaeologist, B. Horton, leads the way.

NPS Archaeologist, B. Horton, leads the way.

Cramped, but fascinating.

Cramped, but fascinating.