Perspectives: Archaeological Field Methods

Archaeological Field Methods

By Michael Pante

The field of Archaeology, which was once a hobby for upper class men in the 19th century, has been evolving ever since. What we consider Modern Archaeology was not being utilized until the 1960’s when innovative minds such as Louis and Mary Leakey, J. Desmond Clark, Glynn Isaac, Lewis Binford and J.W.K. Harris revolutionized archaeological excavation methods and theory. When discussing archaeological field methods a number of aspects must be considered which include, locating the site, excavating the artifacts, and recording the information obtained from the excavation. This article will use the methods of the Lamoka Lake Field School, which was organized by Dr. T. Cregg Madrigal and Rutgers University, to explain how an archaeological site is excavated.

Finding an archaeological site involves luck and reasoning. A good place for an archaeologist to begin searching is where artifacts have been found in the past, or in locations that seem habitable for people living without the luxuries of modern day technology. Places where sites are commonly found have easy access to water, food and possibly shelter which makes caves, lakes, streams and shorelines a reasonable place to begin searching. When searching in any of these areas, which have not yet been excavated, archaeologists use a technique known as surveying. This involves walking around and looking at the ground for any artifacts that may have been exposed to the surface and digging shovel test pits, which are small circular holes that are placed at consistent distances from one another to find and map the dimension of a site. When previous excavations have taken place, maps and bench marks are used to avoid already excavated areas. This is how Cregg Madrigal decided what areas to excavate at the Lamoka Lake site. Once an the area is singled out the archaeologists can begin the most exciting aspect of archaeology, excavation.

Methods of excavation are extremely precise and time consuming. Archaeologists do not just dig holes of random sizes until something is found. The dimensions of each hole is determined before excavation begins and is sectioned off with rope, usually in one by one meter units. Once the excavation starts the hole is dug down evenly in levels. At the Lamoka Lake site each level had a maximum thickness of no more than ten centimeters and was ended at any change in soil color or texture, but this is not the case for every archaeological site. It is imperative when digging the unit to keep all walls smooth and straight and to excavate soils of different colors within a level separately. These areas of different soil composition are designated as features and are caused by rodents, fire, organic material that has decayed and human activities. All soil removed is then placed in a sieve, which is a screen that lets soil pass through and traps artifacts that would go otherwise unnoticed like small flaked stones and fish and rodent bones. All artifacts and bones found insitu (in there original resting place) are mapped and excavated using a mason’s trowel paint brushes and even chop sticks to avoid any damage. All charcoal found, which is used for radio-carbon dating is placed in tinfoil and never touched by hand to avoid contamination. While the excavation is taking place, the more tedious aspect of archaeology, recording ones findings is also occurring.

Recording and mapping all findings during excavation, while time consuming, is the most important task an archaeologist has. Each level of a unit is described in various ways, including, start and stop depths, soil color and texture, and a list of what was bagged and removed from the hole, for example charcoal, soil samples, artifacts and bones. Every artifact and bone is placed in a bag designated to a unit and level, which intern receives a catalog number. When features or artifact and bone concentrations occur a plan map of the level is drawn to show there specific location and when a unit is complete or not producing any further finds a profile map of the walls is drawn to show soil changes through the unit. Photographs of features and completed units are also taken to further document the excavation. . Once a unit has been excavated there in no way to go back and check for overlooked information, which makes it imperative to continuously record all findings to maximize the knowledge we can obtain from any given excavation.

Modern archaeological field methods have made it possible to piece together at least some of the puzzle of human prehistory. In utilizing modern techniques to locate, excavate and record archaeological sites our knowledge of our ancestry has increased by an exponential rate, giving man an idea of the long road of evolution that took place, creating a species that dominates all others, Homo sapiens sapiens.