Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Day in the Life

I am an archaeologist. I love that I get to say this whenever anyone asks the inevitable question, "What do you do?" The inevitable response: "Oh! I always wanted to be an archaeologist." Which leads me to ask them, "So why aren't you?" The answers to that one vary from, "my parents never would have supported that", to "well I discovered I wanted to be a ______ more", but most commonly, "well i never thought you could really make a career out of it". To which my answer is usually (silently), "It's not that hard!".

In any case, the profession of archaeology has a sort of mythos amongst the general populace. The stereotype is somewhere between Indiana Jones (rugged, outdoorsy, unshaven, and adventurous) to Lara Croft (sexy, rugged, outdoorsy, adventurous, and um... shaved?) In any case, whatever our use of razors, we are apparently either hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine, and we prefer the jungle to the library. The latter is probably true, but the former not so much.

Whatever the gender, the other representation that the public has of archaeology is through extraordinarily dry and boring TV shows on PBS, Nova, and the History Channel. The actual work of what it means to be an archaeologist, what it is really like, is rarely accurately represented in the media. So I guess I've decided to take it upon myself to try to change that.

So what is a day in the life of an archaeologist like?

Well, the true answer is that there is no typical day. And that is probably the best part. Even within a single profession, we wear many hats, and routines change frequently, moving across the globe in many different settings. On one day, you might find me excavating at a site somewhere in India, and on another day find me in a library, a university classroom, a lab, walking across a landscape, or staring at the most minute aspects of an object, like a bead drill hole, using a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM).

The truth is that aside from the manner in which most archaeologists divide their time between teaching and research, there are many, many different things that constitute doing archaeological research. To start with, I'll outline a day in the field, excavating, since that's where I was most recently, and that may be the most fun part of the job. But keep in mind that the amount of time spent excavating is frequently a rather small percentage of an archaeologists time. Out of a year, most archaeologists are lucky to spend 2 months in the field excavating, and even that is limited by funding, research permits, and other constraints. With that in mind, here we go, down the rabbit hole, a typical day in the field:

5:45 am - Wake up. It's still dark outside. I have set at least two alarms to make sure I drag my sorry, exhausted, carcass out of bed. I am not a morning person, but to dig, it's worth my while to wake up. It's not uncommon for me to form some expletive, out loud, or in my head, as my first waking thought. "****. I have to get up. ****. Oh, but I get to dig!" And I hop out of bed.

6:00 am - Get dressed. Field clothes: usually some sort of REI cargo pants, many pockets, hopefully vented for air circulation, and a cotton shirt. Applying gobs of SPF 50 waterproof sunblock. Applying some sort of bug repellent.

6:15 am - Get packed for field. Backpack must contain: Trowel, notebook, clip board with necessary recording forms, pencils, measuring tapes, line level, plumb bob, cloth and plastic bags to collect artifacts, sharpies to write on said bags. Also need four liters of water, extra sun screen, extra bug spray, first aid kit.

6:30 am - Departure. On my most recent field project, we stayed in the rather luxurious accommodations of a hotel. This isn't always the case, but it certainly is nice. We'd hit the road by 6:30, stopping on the edge of town for breakfast, on the way to the site.

8:00 am - Arrive. Start digging. Well, actually, start making notes. Making notes, recording observations, taking measurements, and writing down every possible piece of information is the most important part of digging. We don't just dig things up out of holes in the ground to admire them aesthetically. The artifacts, whether they are pottery, animal bones, beads, charred seeds or wood, stone tools, are meaningless without context. Without understanding where an object comes from, it is essentially meaningless.

So for the sake of argument, I'll just say we're starting to excavate a new "level". What is a "level", you might ask. A level is an volume of dirt, which is a layer of soil, as it was originally deposited there, hundreds or thousands of years ago.

At Kadebakele, the site where I was recently working, our units were 2x2 meters square, though the area being excavated might combine multiple 2x2 meter units, up to 4x4 or 4x6 meters together. These areas were selected because they represent different parts of the site, areas where different activities were occurring. Because people did things differently in different areas, there are different layers of soil in each place. Our job is to understand what was going on in an area at a particular time, and that means taking out a layer of soil which is horizontal, which was deposited as the result of some activity in the past.

Because we dig deeper, and deeper, and as we dig, we remove the dirt above, in effect destroying it, we must record the exact position and relationship of objects in a layer, (or level). To do this we have a piece of paper called a "Level Form". A level form helps us keep track of all the relevant information. For instance, how deep were we when the level started.

To measure this, we have set up something called a "datum", a point for which the exact elevation (in meters above sea level) is known. From the main datum, we then set up a point near each trench, called the "sub-datum" to measure the depth of things within that trench. We set up the sub-data (plural of sub-datum) because sometimes the trench is a long way away from the main datum, and because we can. Once we know the elevation of the sub-datum relative to the main datum, we can also know the elevation of everything inside the trench.

Because dirt accumulates over time, in layers, the layers on top are the most recent, and the layers on the bottom are the oldest. This is the law of superposition. Things frequently don't work out as neatly as this, but for the sake of argument let's just pretend that today they are. That means that identifying the layers, as they were deposited, and digging each one up separately is the most important thing we can do, in order to understand what was going on in the period in which that dirt was deposited.

So the top of the form. We write down the starting depths of our level. We use the metric system, because well, it makes sense. We write down 5 different depths, each of the four corners of the square unit, and the center. We do this because though things are deposited in layers, those layers aren't always exactly flat. Sometimes they slope down, or make a hump up, or do a million other things.

We then record things about the soil itself. What kind of soil is it? Is it sandy? Is it silty? What color is it? We use the Munsell soil color chart as a way of specifically identifying the color so that it can be compared later. "Brown" isn't a very useful or descriptive term. We also describe how compact the soil is, it's texture, and how densely filled with artifacts it is.

We start digging. We look for changes in the above mentioned aspects of the soil. We want to take out all the dirt that is the same together. We want to leave dirt that is different for the next level, or if it's a smaller area than the whole unit, like a pit, we will call it a "feature".

I scrape the dirt with my trowel. Is the dirt the same color as it was above? Is it the same texture, the same compactness? Any sort of change might be grounds to stop excavating this level, and start a new one. Everything artifactual, mainly pottery, animal bone, charcoal, beads, bangles, assorted other objects of human manufacture, is placed in some sort of bag and container, and labeled with the information about it's origin. It is labeled according to the designation of the site, the trench, the unit, the level, the depths, the type of contents, the date and the people excavating it.

These objects will be analyzed later. This is one of the other ways in which I (and many other archaeologists) actually spend a lot of my time. It's not enough to dig up a bunch of stuff. In order to really understand it, the people who made it, what life was like at that time, we have to employ many different methods to analyze these different kinds of artifacts. This is food for future blog posts.

In any case, the principle is, if the dirt is different, it may belong to a different time period, and the objects found inside should be kept separate. They can always be combined later, if it is decided that two separate levels really belong to the same time. But this determination is left until later when other data, like radiocarbon dates, can be employed to help determine whether or not these differently colored or textured deposits of dirt are different or not.

We dig more. All of the dirt that comes out of the unit is put through a metal screen, of at least 1/8th of an inch mesh. This helps us catch all the small things, that would almost certainly be missed if we just had to go by eye. Everything is important. Everything is data. For instance we will collect the animal bones, and they will be identified later to help understand what people were eating, and how their diet and habits changed over time. If we didn't use the screen, if we didn't collect the small bones, we'd have a very biased perspective. It would appear that people ate mostly large mammals, such as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and maybe wild animals like deer. With the bones we collect from the screens, we find that people were also eating small birds, small mammals, and fish.

We put these different artifact categories into different bags. We label the bags carefully. We keep track of how many bags there are, by writing that information on the form. We also collect items like charcoal, and measure the exact coordinates of that charcoal, in order to get the kinds of radiocarbon dates I mentioned before. Ideally we'd like to have a date for each layer that we excavate, so that we can see the full sequence of dates and understand the deposition of the layers at the site.

Still digging. I notice that the soil is becoming more compact. It's also a different color. I'm coming to the end of my level. I remove all the dirt from above this change in the soil, and call that the end of the level. We record the ending depths, four corners and the center. We make more notes about the contents of the level. We draw a map (in plan view) of what the bottom of the level looks like. Is there a house? are there stones making up the wall of a structure, is there a pit? These kinds of things have to be mapped, because they will be removed and destroyed in digging up the next level.

If there is something like the outlines of a structure visible in the holes where wooden posts once stood, or in the stone foundations, this is important. We want to try to figure out what kind of structure it was, and if possible excavate the material inside the structure as separate from the outside. This will help us understand what kinds of activities took place inside the structure, and what kinds of activities went on outside. We may not be able to tell if something is a house, or some other structure until later, when we do analyze the contents.

In this system of excavation and recording, something like a structure becomes a 'feature'. It gets a separate kind of recording form, and it will be excavated so that we can see what's going on inside it, versus outside.

What I am describing is a very oversimplified version of how these things usually go, but it's meant to help you non-archaeologists understand. So I hope my fellow archaeologists will stop rolling their eyes now at the over-simplification, and let me go on.

In the case of one of the trenches I was recently supervising in excavation, the major 'feature' of the trench was a large pit. Actually two large pits, to be exact. Pits are tricky to understand because they get filled up with dirt, but their filling-up is usually un-related to the reason why they were dug in the first place. As far as we archaeologists can understand, people most frequently dug pits for storage. They needed a place to put things, food, or other important stuff, and without cabinets and shelves, and tupperware containers, the easiest place to put things was in a pit in the ground. But then most pits don't fill up with the sorts of things people actually wanted to store. Most of the time it would appear people took out their food or clothes, or whatever they were storing, and filled the pit up with other dirt that wasn't important. Sometimes they may have filled in the pits on purpose, and other times they may have been left open and un-used, and filled up over time, rather unintentionally.

So I finished excavating my first level. At the bottom of this level I have noticed two different kinds of soils, not just one. Around three edges of my square 2x2 meter unit, I found a mud-plaster surface, a surface someone prepared intentionally, perhaps as part of a house or courtyard. This surface is very compact, and it's light colored. But the surface doesn't cover the whole unit. There is a giant pit. The soil inside the pit is much looser, and darker brown. It's also much more full of artifacts. In other words, it's full of garbage.

In this case, the pit is identified as a 'feature'. It gets excavated separately. It will also get excavated first, because, by definition the pit is a later intrusion into the surface which it is dug into. The surface had to be there first, in order to have the pit dug into it. We will try to excavate out the contents of the pit before excavating the material around it, so that we can also avoid mixing the material from these different time periods.

Even within the pit, we try to dig out different layers of the dirt inside the pit separately. Among the most important English phrases the Kannada-speaking villagers who work with us have learned is: "separate separate", right after "different different".

Oops I left out lunch. Oh well. We usually stop for lunch around 12:30 or 1:00pm. We eat a picnic lunch of plain and masala buns, with fresh veggies like cucumber, tomato, and onion, and an occasional hard boiled egg. We have additional snacks like (the eponymous) tasty nuts, dried fruit, and a box of apple juice. Reapply sunscreen. Especially those as pale as myself.

4:00pm - Quitting time. Pack everything up. Carry back to the village all buckets, tools, etc. More digging will have to wait 'til tomorrow.

4:30pm - Back to the hotel. Long ride home. The scenery is beautiful. At least on the main road, the traffic can be atrocious. Hopefully we'll be home in an hour. Sometimes it takes as long as two.

6:30pm - Lab work time. Now that we're back at the hotel, and (hopefully) freshened up, it's time to do all the work on the computers to record all the key information from the day. Primarily this involves checking in all the bags of artifacts that we collected, and entering them into the database. Once they have been entered, the pottery can go back to the village where some of the local women are employed to wash the dirt off it, so that we can study it more easily later. The rest of the things get sorted by categories and locations, and put in to various trunks and boxes for later analysis.

7:30pm - Dinner. Meet the crew and go out for some grub. Exhausted, starved, and sometimes bedraggled and dirty, we are always an interesting sight to see at any of the restaurants around town.

8:30pm - Back to the lab. Usually there's still work to do after dinner. More data entry, more organizing the finds.

10:30pm - Bed. Totally and utterly exhausted. Not a minute spent in my day doing anything besides working, eating, bathing, and working. Barely enough time left over for breathing. I'm usually asleep before I've even hit the pillow. Have to make sure the alarms are set for tomorrow.


5:45am - ****. ****. Time to get up and start another day. OOOH! I get to dig up stuff no one has touched in over 2000 years!

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