Learning from the Material Past

The stepped excavations at the blackwater draw site are indoors to protect the resources when they are not being excavated. Bones and a few measuring scales are visible.

Blackwater Draw Excavations: Clovis Type Site. New Mexico. ©ESP 2007


After a long day left to my own devices, I can create a disaster zone. Those who know me well, know I also have a compulsive need to put everything in its place. When my fiancé arrives before I expect, there is a good chance he will be able to deduce what I have or have not done with my day.

So here is the scene: My dirty clothing is suddenly piled into darks and whites. The shampoo and soap haven’t moved a millimeter. Dishes are piling close to bags of flour and sugar along with a muffin pan and a whisk. The television is turned at an angle. Pillows and my computer are in front of the television. A small empty Doritos bag is on the floor. See the drawing below.

Without knowing me, you can draw several conclusions. The area is a living space, domestic. You can imagine a kitchen area, entertainment area and bathroom. There are probably many more things you can guess about me. Based on the knowledge my fiancé has already collected about my habits and his knowledge of nearby locations, he can deduce more. I had good intentions to do laundry, but certainly abandoned my chore. The Doritos informs him at some point I must have put on some clothing and managed to walk down to the 7 eleven next door without bothering to shower. Clearly, I got cozy in front of the TV and played on the computer. I also managed to make cupcakes because I don’t make muffins.

Eliminate all notes and the drawing. Slowly take each item mentioned and mentally separate them until they are completely out of context. The television is in a museum. The whisk is being sold on eBay. The pillows rot in a forest. Someone who collects shampoo bottles now owns my shampoo. None of the pieces of the scene remain together. Once that happens, based on my things, the ability to draw any conclusions about where and how I live disappears.

Criminal investigations block off crime scenes and go over them methodically. They search for as many clues as they can to reveal what occurred. Context is critical. Each item removed is a piece of a puzzle disappearing. During an archaeological investigation, even the direction an item is facing is taken into account. The television tilted at a specific angle implies the direction I was sitting. The scatter of stone tool making from 4,000 years before present leaves the imprint of where someone was flint knapping in 2,050 BCE. Each flake of stone can indicate many of the movements that an individual made. It is exciting, and yet, evidence can be easily destroyed and never recorded.

The Reality of Choices:

I wish archaeologists were angelic protectors of the physical past, but the truth is always full of complications. For lack of time, I have seen projects focus on time periods considered of higher research value. The higher value is often that which is older. In order to get to it faster, whole puzzles get wiped away with a backhoe. I have participated in these projects all the while mourning the huge loss of potential knowledge.

Choices litter our lives and each life is full of difficult ones.

Population pressures create a demand for the new and repairs for the old. Fiscal pressures restrict time and money. Sometimes there is a need to create interest and prove worth before funding is pulled. The double edged sword is inevitable. Working in archaeology can break a sensitive heart a thousand times over, but it is not an ideal world. We all have to work within the limitations of imperfection.

In the United States, law requires in certain situations environmental surveys including archaeology be conducted. On land owned by government, specifically local, regional, state or federal parks, it is illegal to move or remove any natural or cultural resources. You can be prosecuted for taking any item within a park. There are some situations that may indeed enact laws effecting cultural resources on private property within the United States. Many times though, privately owned land is not as restricted.

Sometimes a house desperately needs new drainage yesterday. Land needs to be plowed. It is great if a potential site can be left undisturbed. One of the first things students of the physical past learn is that archaeology is a destructive process. Even small scraps that seem devoid of story gleam with bits of data while in the ground, but inevitably, avoiding the scatter of old items is not always feasible or practical. The present is imposing and important.

Barest of the Bones – Recording the Past:

It only takes a moment for any individual to note a few things to ensure data is not entirely lost. It would be monumental if professional archaeologists were always called upon to do work small or large. It is always worth asking an archaeologist, but I do recognize that this ideal is not always feasible. Land owners do not always have the time. Interested citizens do not always have the time. Professionals do not always have the time.  As always money is also a huge issue. Archaeology in the United States, like so many other things, is terribly underfunded. No archaeologist encourages the barest bones recording, but something is better than nothing.

It may seem crazy to assign a projectile point from a plowed field a number and mark the number carefully on a map, but later that information may add to a larger picture. The number should always be associated with the item and data kept together.  If possible data should include where, how deep in soil, as well as descriptions of an item and relation to any other items. Even if an artifact is given away or sold, the more information gathered, recorded and if possible reported, the better.

In many states you do not have to be a historian or archaeologist to record a site within your state. Doing so will help ensure that the site is taken into account when any research is done and add to your statewide inventory. Look for your state’s department of historic resources or the state historic preservation office. There are also many opportunities to volunteer and learn more about archaeology or historic preservation. If you are interested in learning more contact your local historic parks, the state, museums and universities that are involved in archaeology. Below the drawing is a list of a few places you can volunteer within the DC metro or a couple of hours drive. Please feel free to leave a comment with other places to volunteer anywhere in the world.

The Future of Archaeology:

Perhaps slowly if we all work together, we can move to repair some of the imperfections that currently confine us. Becoming aware of the current laws, the history of the area, and best practices for necessary disturbance is essential. Technology can be an amazing tool to aide in this endeavor. Most smart phones will take a picture and geo-tag it which automatically provides a location as well as visual information. Certain applications can be downloaded that provide further options, flexibility and higher accuracy. As technology becomes more accurate and sharp, our information will follow suite.

The drawing below is far from perfect, but it gives some of the necessary information. The drawing is actually my test experiment with AutoCad 360 for iPad. I was actually fairly happy with it, but graph paper is an easy efficient and probably better alternative which most archaeologists still use while in the field.


Volunteer Opportunities in DC, Maryland and Virginia

Place Opportunity Location Contact
Smithsonian Institute Various Opportunities District of Columbia metro http://www.si.edu/volunteer/
Virginia Department of Historic Resources Various Opportunities Virginia http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/homepage_features/how_involved_volmus.htm
Maryland Historical Trust Various Opportunities Maryland http://mht.maryland.gov/archeology_programs.html
Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Collections, Office… Virginia http://alexandriava.gov/historic/archaeology/default.aspx?id=39222
Mt. Vernon Museum, Collections, Office… Virginia http://www.mountvernon.org/more/volunteer
Kenmore and Ferry Farm Archaeology, Education, Gardens Virginia http://kenmore.org/foundation/volunteers.html
Washington College Archaeology Maryland http://www.washcoll.edu/departments/archaeology/opportunities.php
Old Colchester Park & Preserve Archaeology Virginia http://cartarchaeology.blogspot.com
Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum Archaeology, Trails, Gift Shop, Events, Office… Maryland http://www.jefpat.org/volunteer.html
Lost Towns Archaeology Maryland http://losttowns.com/signupvolunteer.htm