Digging for Treasure

When I embarked on a summer research project in 2006, I was lucky enough to have the chance to tag along with an archaeological team each Friday. The team, led by Lucianne Lavin and Marc Banks, was excavating the property of Venture Smith, whom I was researching. There was red tape galore – the site was on the property of a nuclear power plant that was in the process of being decommissioned. But through Lucianne and Marc’s kindness, I got a real taste for the grittier and messier cousin of history: archaeology.

I learned a lot about the discipline. Chief among these realizations was that I was not very good at it. My first day I learned how to dig a 30cm square by 1 meter deep test pit. Dripping with a potent combination of sweat and bug spray, I gamely attempted to dig straight down in even, 10cm increments, pouring the shovelfuls of dirt and stones onto my excavating partner’s sifter so she could look for artifacts. Needless to say our test pit gradually took on a fun-house mirror appearance, especially in comparison to the other, perfectly dug pits around us.

My partner suggested we switch off so she could fix some of my mistakes. I was relieved, until I realized that I had to sift dirt while looking for any kind of material culture. Easier said than done. She carefully showed me the difference between a piece of fire-baked pottery and a normal pebble. I nodded understandingly, confidently lifted up the sifter, and promptly realized I was at an utter loss to tell the difference between a rock and pottery shard. Over the weeks, I got slightly better – to the point where I was throwing out more rocks than pottery, but only just. They finally learned their lesson and ended up having me map out each boulder, tree, and test pit on the small section of property using a tape measure and a series of graphing sheets.

Despite my incompetence, I managed to gain a deep appreciation for both the immense challenges and rewards of archaeological research. There is something truly thrilling to be standing and digging on the very spot where your subject of historical research lived. Although I get the same thrill from a manuscript or document, they lack the tangible reality of a material artifact you excavate in the field. Marc and Lucianne’s analysis led to a series of insights into my research that I never would have gained – they discovered the remnants of a dry dock that implied extensive river trade and activity, a faded cart path that likely corresponded to one mentioned in a land deed, and the foundation of a two-bay house and at least two other structures on the homestead. All of these were exciting and valuable contributions.

On the other hand, I was met with the frustrations of what I saw as broad speculation. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference between a rock and a nail, but hearing theoretical conjecture about Venture Smith’s life and activities based on tiny bits of pottery raised up red flags for the careful, source-oriented historian in me. I am guessing it is simply another form of source evaluation, one that I am far less comfortable or adept with. Just as I would judge a historical record based on its author, writing style, and context, I’m sure Marc and Lucianne bring to bear an equally careful evaluation of material artifacts.

Finally, I can’t resist linking to an article from the Economist’s Technology Quarterly – titled “Armchair Archaeology.” The article discusses how archaeologists are using satellite imagery such as GoogleEarth to plan expeditions, identify sites, and do surprisingly complex analysis. One cool example is using imagery to identify the quarrying and transportation routes of pre-Hispanic obsidian stone: “Mapping these routes has helped archaeologists reconstruct production and trade patterns, and hence economic, social and political relations in the region…” And the best part? It’s free.