As I, giddy with excitement, boarded the Archaeological Minivan of Science, I realized that I had no idea what to expect of actual fieldwork. I had extrapolated fantastic visions of spelunking inside the ribcage of Magic (the flesh-laden elephant corps circa 1980’s), but what was in store was more exciting than my wildest dreams.
We were there to dig pits.
When our car ride of Anth-jokes and squabbling over music concluded we went for a quick tour through the site, where I had my first real experience with an archaeological pit. Pushing through the tall grass, I came about 10 centimeters from stepping in Magic’s excavation pit from last year; now flooded with stagnant dead-elephant water.
Regardless of the humor that stems from a digging up a dead elephant, archaeological pits deserve a second thought. The reason for their existence is to allow archaeologists to catch a glimpse of a different time. Whether it’s a Neanderthal burial, or a field of dead zoo-animals, the basic principal remains the same: Digging up the past also destroys it, so you’d better get as much information out as possible. This thought is perturbing to me, since it’s too easy to imagine myself blowing the most important find of a site.
Fortunately, in reality things are almost never that glum. When we got to dig our test pits (TPs) we were quickly instructed in all of the proper archaeological methods. Recording the local of an artifact when you find it, and not (albeit hard to resist) immediately yanking it out of the ground to clutch feverously, is just one of many methods we learned.
TPs are simple shovel-dug holes in the ground that allow you to see under the soil you’re standing on, yet they are more complicated than something so simple should ever be. White and King (2007:113) say that “[TPs] are small, square to round excavations generally measuring 40 to 50 cm (1.3 to 1.6 ft) across, with maximum depth depending on local geomorphology and the likely depth of cultural deposits”. Getting down to a depth where “cultural deposits” are likely seemed easy, until “local geomorphology” got in the way. It was often in the form of giant rocks that screeched loudly when hit with your shovel, and got stuck in the mud when you tried to remove them. Occasionally “local geomorphology” took the shape of thick roots that crisscrossed your TP, which made digging much more arduous than originally expected. Just being able to dig down a meter can be physically challenging, as it forced some of us to lie down and continue to dig while at 90º. The most challenging problem I encountered was a tightly buried burlap sack I found at about half the desired depth of my TP. This sack, although technically part of the “cultural deposits”, was immovable and ended up completely thwarting the path of my shovel. No matter how hard I tried it was impossible to puncture, or even dig around this frustration.
As I sweated with annoyance at this sack, my brain began to freeze up. How could a “cultural deposit” in my pit be hindering my attempts at finding something important? In a flash, the futility of trying to understand archaeology strictly in terms of “local geomorphology” and “cultural deposits” dawned on me. You can’t just read a book and then traipse onto the field knowing exactly what to do. Archaeology isn’t astrophysics or theoretical mathematics, no; it’s real science. You have to be able to adapt your theories in a pinch, stay scientific in the most difficult situations, and be able to evaluate whether or not to continue to struggle with a burlap sack. I’m glad to have learned this early on so I can later squeeze as much information as possible out of instructional archaeology texts, and use that information as a frame, not as rule.
It’s amazing what you can learn from a pit.
White, G. and T. King
2007. The Archaeological Survey Manual. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.