Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Find Us the Lion"

"Find us the lion." At the unset of this year’s Field Course, this (half-joke?) request seemed simple enough to the innocent and ignorant students that we were. After field walking and a first round of test pitting, the cruel reality came crashing down on us: knowing it’s there and actually finding it are two, very distinct things, at the heart of the archaeological problem. Whether relying on the vague memories of senior Park employees or on trade records millenniums old, archaeologists are constantly faced with the problem of finding ― in a more or less vast landscape ― the remains of things past.

Through survey, general areas can be delimited, but there again, vegetation, terrain or simply the cruel yet unstoppable passage of time can hinder our best efforts. The thriving vegetation and uneven terrain of the old Park Safari cemetery offer a concrete example, in which the field walking techniques we implemented may not have been the most appropriate. In any which case, surveying is often the first step taken in an archaeological project, for it may reveal the presence of sites or simply delineate areas of interest. What scanty results we did came up with, coupled with accumulated knowledge about the site and a desire to answer some questions concerning specific areas gave us a general portion in which to conduct test pitting.

Despite some promising results composed of “Park Safari garbage”, the remains of the lion, or any other animal for that matter, were still eluding us. Since the aim of this project is the study of mass graves, and not of the disposal patterns of Park Safari garbage, all those ropes, twines and plastic labels were of little interest for the opening of a proper trench if they didn’t came with the bones we’re ultimately after (Glassow 2005:137). In that regard, some more test pits had to be dug, which is what we devoted ourselves to on September 24th.

Armed with our pointed shovels, which seemed very appropriate given the thickness of the organic layer and the general nature of the soil (Glassow 2005:140), we conducted a “targeted search” in the north-western portion of the site. Through this small-unit testing, defined as the excavation of an area too small to actually enter (Glassow 2005:144), we intended to establish the nature of the deposits below our feet, in addition to finding the lion. Despite our failure to uncover any bones, which is in itself somewhat informative, we did obtain some valuable information linking the terrain variations we observed during our field walking to varying thickness and richness in deposits, which can further direct our search for the elusive feline.

However laborious and potentially frustrating test-pitting might be, it can also offer some useful information on the stratigraphy and general layout of a site, and section drawing is a good way to record this information (Roskams 2001:144). However, since by nature the deposits we are after are the result of disturbance taking place over a relatively short period of time, section drawings are unlikely to give us any valuable information on chronology. Even if there were several levels at the site, the mere action of digging a grave is likely to crosscut them and thus make a straightforward interpretation of stratigraphy unreliable. Nevertheless, the sections exposed and subsequently drawn did display a superposition of layers, the analysis of which can lead to some interesting conclusions. For instance, it would appear that “Park Safari garbage”, to which previously excavated burials were associated, is to be found at least 20cm below the surface and sometimes at over twice that depth; a disturbed clay layer is a promising clue, whereas an undisturbed one means that interesting material is unlikely to be found below. Since all measurements were made from the surface instead of from a common datum level, direct depth comparisons between different test pits could be misleading; however, once recorded on a section drawing, these information can be connected and can help create a more accurate picture of the underground reality of the site. Moreover, since the spirit of test excavations often dictates that the objects collected be reburied during backfilling (Glassow 2005:145), our section drawings are a good way to record their disposition and depth relation one to another.

All in all, this frustrating absence of bones made us realise the importance of survey and test excavations, for it is now clear that opening a full-scale excavation trench in an area that simply looks good, without prior knowledge, or at least an idea, of what’s below, would defy all logic.


Glassow, M.A. 2005. Excavation. In: Maschner, H.D.G., Chippindale, C. (Eds.), Handbook of Archaeological Methods. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, pp. 133-75

Roskams, S. 2001. Excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Your Mission: Walk in a straight line

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How hard can it be? After all every sober person on this continent is expected to do it. Every child from the age of three or so will proudly demonstrate his or her ability to waddle in a straight line from mommy over to daddy.

Yes, the directions sound simple enough but when you are a) trying to walk in a straight line with 5 or more people, or b) trying to walk through some impenetrable vegetation such as tall grass, rocky meadows, or a tree, or c) walking over large distances, it can become quite a challenge.

Despite this Archaeological Survey methods, such as Field Walking, are the essential first steps of any archaeological project. In some cases the site may only ever be surveyed and recorded without being excavated. Though the techniques range from aerial photography, to remote sensing, to topographical mapping, one of the simplest and cheapest methods is to line up a bunch of archaeologists and ask them to walk across the potential site in transects.

This was one of the things we learned to do on Friday Sept 17 2010. It was our first day on the site and for many of us it was our first introduction to archaeological field methods. We had a lot of difficulties walking through the tall grass which was almost a meter tall in places. We even reached clumps of elephant grass which was more than 150cm tall! (I know this for sure because I am exactly 155 cm and there were times when the grass was taller than me). In addition the ground is uneven and full of holes that are covered by the vegetation.

Besides the difficulty of merely walking across the field we also had to make sure that we were walking in pace with our other team members. This could be very hard to do when visibility was low, so we had to rely on each other to look out for those closest to us and pass the news along the grapevine if someone was falling behind.

We also had to make sure that were walking in a straight line! Now this is very hard to do if you don’t have a compass to check your bearings with. However it is very important to take the time to do this because if you don’t you risk cutting into another person’s transect meaning the same ground may be covered twice while another area is not covered at all. As White and King mention (2007) it is the crew chief who sets the pace and the others must pay close attention to him as well as to each other since you may not only be crossing each other’s paths but you may also be covering the ground at different levels of intensity. Depending on the project a more fine-tuned approach may or may not be needed and this will be determined by the crew chief.

Despite all the initial challenges we did find a lot of bone remains scattered on the surface as we surveyed the area on the east side of the road. By carefully sweeping the grass aside with our feet and legs we were able to spot them where they lay on the ground. The finds consisted of various leg bones and pieces of black plastic bags which our instructors said were often found in association with the animal remains. They also told us that the bones were probably churned up by the bulldozers that had passed there to collect soil for backfill.

Such initial finds are often the first clue to identifying new sites. However, as Roskams argues (2001), Field Walking can also provide a lot of information in its own right. One of the problems with the technique is that it assumes that the level of artifact scatter on the surface is somehow proportional to what’s below (Roskams 2001). Though this may not always be true the results do give us an indication of what may be there.

All in all it was a very productive day, and we learnt a lot even with the challenges we faced. It seems fitting that our first steps as Archaeologists, and our first task in this course, mirrored the first steps of many archaeological projects.

Works Cited

Roskams, S. 2001. Excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, G. & T. King, 2007. The Archaeological Survey Manual. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek Calif.