PIT Project – Part II: Digging Deeper

Excavation continues through the middle of the week.

Across the mound, work continues through the middle of the week.  The tinny echo of trowels on soil and the gentle swish swish of pebbles across screens serve as the soundtrack to this vocation.

Most archaeologists would agree that excavation is the most exciting part of their job.  Finding “stuff” is what archaeology is all about.  Here, volunteers take turns peeling back layers of soil 10 centimeters at a time.  At their disposal are trowels, shovels, picks, dust pans, and brooms.  Some of the volunteers have even brought their own kits.

A volunteer shows me his; two different types of trowels, an arrangement of picks, a measuring stick, line level, compass and a half-dozen paint brushes of various size.  He says of his kit, “Most of this I picked up at the Home Depot.  I did a lot of research online to see what I needed.  This is what people suggested.”

Volunteers record information about unit features including soil type and color.

While some dig, others sit hunched over clipboards. Field notes are also a crucial part of the excavation process. Artifacts tell part of the story, but it is the soil itself that completes the narrative. Charcoal flecks, black stains and fire cracked rock may be evidence of a hearth.  Tiny shell fragments can indicate a midden. Even the size and color of the soil grains can paint a picture of the past environment. An archeologist must wield a careful eye and be constantly searching for change within the matrix of their unit.

Excavation Unit #7 is drawing to a close. Crouched in the 90 centimeter deep hole, Forest Service archaeologist, Erin Bucher, gently sweeps the floor, preparing it for the final few steps of the process.

Erin, a Forest Service Archaeologist, cleans the unit floor before moving on to the next level.

The bottom of each level is carefully sketched on to the level form, providing archaeologists with critical details; soil features, ground stains, rock and root inclusions, changes in soil type. Pictures are taken and a Munsell chart is used to accurately identify the color of the soil. Then the crews begin the tedious work of returning all of the stone and soil from whence it came.

Karen, a Forest Service Archaeologist, sketches in the many rocks discovered in her level.

“You can’t just leave a unit open,” says Erin Bucher, “Backfilling is part of the archaeologist’s responsibility to return the land, as close as possible, to the way they found it. This is especially important in National Forests, which are intended for many different uses. From loggers, to ranchers, to ATV riders; nobody wants to end up falling in a hole when they are out here.”

The small plastic bags of artifacts are gathered up. Some units yield hundreds of flakes over the course of the excavation. All of these discoveries are transported back to the field lab where they will be cleaned and sorted.

While the data has yet to be analyzed, it hasn’t stopped people from speculating about the sites possible uses. Tim Van der Voort contemplates for a moment before providing his interpretation, “I think what we have is a place where local tribes came in the summer months and traded goods. If it is anything like it is now, who can blame them?”

He has a point.  As the sun dips west, it is hard not to enjoy the pleasant breeze and the beautiful scenery around us.  It will be weeks before our crew can take a look at the abundant amounts of data that have been collected and form a more solid interpretation. In the meantime, Tim’s interpretation works just fine.

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