That Field Isn’t Going to Walk Itself.

Standing Water in an Ag Field.

As I rest at home in PA, I keep looking back on the past month where I worked on three different projects. It was a good month and I really enjoyed working with the crew that I had. They’re just good people who are good at their jobs and good to hang out with. That can really make a crappy project go by fast.

One of the nice things about working with a crew is being able to talk with people with similar experiences. CRM Archaeology is a very tight field, and we have a very niche existence. It’s nice to share stories, swap advice, and learn from one another about how to survive in the field. One thing we always come back to is how no one really knows what or who we are.

Most people think we’re construction workers. Usually, because we have to wear certain things in the field, hard-hats, safety-vests, work-boots or muck-boots (often steal-toe). We’re usually covered in mud and dirt, and most of us don’t really put on our Sunday best to crawl around in the field. It’s understandable and I don’t get irritated by it.

I do like the moment though, when talking to the people we encounter at gas stations and the like, is the moment of reveal when I tell them I’m an archaeologist. They usually look surprised, and then excited, and then they ask me if I found dinosaurs or gold or aliens…but whatever, it’s still fun.

It’s also difficult to explain to people, in the five minutes I’m talking to them while I wait for the bathroom, what all CRM is and does. It’s probably not what they’re thinking, and I don’t have time to explain it all.

First off. I’m probably not excavating anything, and I’m not looking for anything specific. (unless I am, but that’s few and far between outside of the academic circles. I’m not an academic btw, nothing against academics.) What I probably doing is some version of a phase one survey where I’m really just walking around, in a systematic way, looking for things, often digging holes on a grid.

Simply, I go where no archaeologist has gone…probably in a long time or before…and then I dig some holes!

A Nice Place to Dig.

The reason for this is, we need to sample the area, and unless we can see the surface of the ground without grass or crops or trees, we have to dig to see what’s below the surface. This gives us the added advantage of finding a buried horizon, which is soil stratigraphy out of order (yes there’s an order). That can indicate human involvement, so we like to keep an eye out for that.

And yes were also looking for artifacts of all kinds, not just prehistoric…but also prehistoric…

A possible scraper, or chert core.

There’s as debate/rivalry between the historic and the prehistoric people…and it’s mostly a joke…mostly…

Anyway, if we find stuff, awesome! But most of the time we don’t. It’s not a loss though. The point of phase one is to see if there’s something there, and how else can you find it if you don’t go looking.

Now sometimes, we don’t have to dig right away. Sometimes we just walk.

And yes you can find things by just walking a plowed or newly harvested field. I actually prefer this because it’s very satisfying to look behind you after you’ve walked a few rows back and forth and see a cluster of flags where a potential site might be. It’s also a little more of a group project, so you can see all your coworkers and sometimes talk to them while you walk. It’s like, getting paid to hike.

Point base.

After that though, we dig…this is for the same reasons as before. We’re looking at the soils. Though agricultural field soils can be…sticky sometimes.

The clay in this field was…challenging.

Then, of course, there’s the times when we need to see what the soil really look like, like deep down below the surface at a depth no digger should dig alone. This is called deep testing or trenching, and its what it sounds like, we dig a nice deep trench into the area and examine the stratigraphy and keep an eye out for features in the soil that could be traces of human occupation. To do this, we use special equipment.

Yes that’s a backhoe.

I am always impressed with the skill of the backhoe operators I’ve worked with. Somehow I’ve lucked out and worked primarily with people who know what they’re doing and used their machine like an instrument of art. I’m always impressed at how well they can scrape back just a little soil at a time, and keep everything flat and even. I also desperately want to drive the backhoe, but they never let me…like you need to know how or something…

The two biggest things about trenching is watching what the bucket is doing, and keeping an eye on your back dirt. You don’t need to screen every bit of the dirt, but it’s a really good idea to sample it regularly and shovel through it routinely as the backhoes goes. You never know what’s going to pop up.

Screen and sort your back-dirt!

And then, that’s it. That’s phase one, at least everywhere but the West. They hike a lot there I hear, and you know what, more power to them. 10+ miles a day sounds…fun…yeah…fun…

I work where it’s muggy and there’s groundwater, mosquitoes, and ticks. That’s home, that’s fun. Nothing like something the size of your freckly being a lethal vector.

I digress (kill all ticks).

I like working in the woods, especially around old farms and such. It’s always interesting to see what people do with their land, or what they perceive as their land. It’s a great way to study humanity, society, and modern culture. It can be quirky, it can be scary, it can be sad. It can just be plain weird sometimes.

Tree inside a tire. Nature doesn’t care.
And just in case you were wondering, phase threes have their moments too.

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Check out Jeb Card’s new book Spooky Archaeology : 
Myth and the Science of the Past

And Ken Feder’s new book Archaeological Oddities: A Field Guide to Forty Claims of Lost Civilizations, Ancient Visitors, and Other Strange Sites in North America

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