We set up our camp for an hour after breakfast. The rest of the day was spent with the other volunteers, mapping the site -- or getting it ready for mapping -- Nancy, the BLM archaeologist, spent the next week and a half surveying the area with a laser transit.
First we rode out in the backs of pickup trucks to the trailhead at Coyote Springs, then we had to walk about a kilometer from where we parked the vehicles, out to the site. The water table is high, and it's easy to get a vehicle bogged down in the area. We detoured around a couple or four square kilometers of marshy area with active (several gallons per minute), albeit brackish, springs. Wild horse tracks and other. . .uh. . .leavings were everywhere. East of the springs is the site -- salt-crusted mudflats and dunefields. Fortunately, Nancy ferried supplies out to us with an ATV, else we would have been carrying shovels, screens, water, coolers, and all kinds of other junk out there. We did enough walking as it was.
For the initial survey, 15 of us spread out in a line, with 5-10 meters between each of us, and we walked. If we saw something good, we sang out and someone came to flag it with a little pennant on a foot or so (pardon me, make that thirty centimeters or so) of stiff wire. The site was incredible. There were obsidian bits everywhere -- and the nearest obsidian source is 30 miles away, so you know people brought this stuff in. The flakes came from folks working stone to make tools. A significant scatter of obsidian was defined as 20+ flakes in a square meter -- and there were a lot of them. We also found ground stone (manos/metates, etc.), projectile points (aka "arrowheads"), charcoal-stained earth (from old fires), and potsherds.
The site was about 1 kilometer by 2 kilometers, and we traversed it eight times. We walked over sand dunes, through salt pans, around and through greasewood (some of it with inch-long thorns), and slogged through salt-crust and mud. Julia's combat boots, which she's had for 15 years and figured were pretty well broken in, started rubbing blisters on her heels before lunch. What with sore feet and not enough sleep, we were pretty miserable by the time 3:30 rolled around!
The second day of the dig was hotter ( I think I forgot to mention that it was blissfully overcast while we did all that slogging about on the first day -- a very rare event), but we didn't have to do all the walking, and we both had comfortable boots on (thank goodness we brought a couple of different pairs of boots each). The "head archaeologists," Dr. Duncan Metcalfe (head of the University of Utah Archaeology Center) and Nancy Shearin (BLM archaeologist in charge of millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management land in central Utah) picked two sites they wanted to dig, from the hundreds of sites we marked the day before. One had a lot of artifacts and possible features (things that aren't portable -- in this case mostly subsurface charcoal stains) -- probably Fremont Indian (Fremont: around 1000 years ago), the other was a possible site for even earlier habitation, Archaic (Archaic: around 8000 years ago) -- a very distinctive archaic style projectile point (arrowhead) was found there.
We got chosen to work on the possible Fremont site. Duncan had one of his Ph.D. students, Renee, in charge of that site, while he took the other site. He split the volunteers up in two groups, and we got pin flags, surveying pins, shovels, stakes, and measuring tapes and started mapping our site. We laid out grid lines and grid squares and mapped features all day long. Two days of hard work and we hadn't dug so much as a trowelful of dirt. So, why do they call it a dig? We found that out in the next few days.
On the first day, Nancy had used the laser transit to set up a grid line for the overall site, and from this we laid out a perpendicular grid line over to our site. We used 50 meter measuring tapes to triangulate and set up a grid system in our site. We marked it with surveying pins and laid out one meter grid squares with string for most of the site features. This ensures that everything can be pinned down (within human limits of accuracy and/or carelessness) to the nearest centimeter or ten. That way the spatial relationship of each feature or artifact to every other one is known. We gave each feature a number, and assigned a note taker for our site (did we mention that there was paperwork involved?).
The note taker was responsible for making sure every feature was mapped and described, and although she could ask other people to take notes on various features, she had ultimate responsibility for the site notes. Notes are absolutely vital. Without notes, we'd just be an organized group of pot hunters. After the site is destroyed -- and excavation does destroy a site -- you can never excavate it again. It's gone. So you try not to move anything until it's been described. Your notes have to describe everything so that you can go back to them and come to conclusions about the culture you are trying to find out about. So we do word descriptions, sketches, stratigraphic profiles, and more notes. We map in major features and artifacts. Photographs are taken of significant features and each photo is logged into the notes. Artifacts are bagged -- major ones get their own bag, others may be bagged all together by feature (37 obsidian flakes -- none more than quarter inch across and all from the same spot, would go in one bag; a desert side-notched projectile point would get its own bag) and a description of the artifacts, where they came from, and any other pertinent information is written on the bag. Each bag gets its own ID number and is logged into the notes. It takes a long time to do it all right.
Some day we hope to have less destructive excavation techniques. For now, unless the site is a "rescue archaeology" site (excavating one step ahead of the bulldozers at a construction site), current practice is to leave the better part of the site unexcavated for future archaeologists. Still -- the best techniques always come into play when you have enough time and labor. Sometimes one or both are limited and you just have to do the best you can.
A second note taker was assigned to the southern (the archaic) site. These note takers do nothing else and they're constantly busy. There's an incredible amount of detail to be tracked and recorded. There was also an overall note taker for the whole dig, which included both sites. He spent a lot of time trudging back and forth, doing overall notes and making sure the site note takers had everything they needed and were being thorough. Again, the notes are vital. If the notes get lost, the whole dig is useless -- worse than useless: a piece of history is irretrievably lost.
We began mapping the Fremont site in detail, or at least the note taker did. She documented the location of all our features and wrote up the initial site description. That completed, we started picking up and bagging all surface artifacts in each feature (a feature is something like a charcoal stain or a scatter of obsidian flakes -- an area that looked like significant activities had taken place there -- we try to define its boundaries and from then on, until the feature is closed [excavated and no longer exists], everything found in that area is assigned to that feature and described in the notes associated with it). We had about a dozen surface features.
These also included places where quite a bit of ground stone lay all together, and one place where ants had brought up hundreds of minuscule rock fragments, including a lot of obsidian flakes. As a side note, I understand that some paleontologists look for tiny mammal teeth in anthills, because the ants bring a lot of stuff to the surface
Julia and I got to bag the artifacts from that one -- it took forever because the stuff was so tiny, but we found two tiny broken-off projectile points -- very pretty, but without the bases they can't be identified as a specific type. There are a dozen or three different types with names like "desert side-notched," "rosegate corner-notched," "gatecliff pinto points," and so on. The bases are very important in differentiating them.
We also picked up and bagged (includes taking notes on the bag, of course -- did we mention the paperwork?) any remaining objects in the immediate area. These included ground stone (manos, no complete metates), a few complete projectile points (mostly rosegate or desert side-notched), hundreds of obsidian flakes ( geez somebody carried a lot of obsidian over those thirty miles from the source), some bits of bone, some potsherds, and so on. We ended up with two heavy five gallon buckets full of bagged surface artifacts from our site, which was about 25 meters by 25 meters.
Once this was done, we started digging a test trench. It's all very nice to look at the surface scatter and guess that there's something down below, but until you actually start to dig you will never know what's down there. Where to dig is sort of an educated guess. It's easier to approach something significant from the side -- you can see it in profile and use trowel work and brushes to expose it. So you want to get close enough to something to see that it's there, but be far enough away that you don't damage it with the pick and shovel that you sometimes have to use to get down in. Luck plays a big factor -- you can excavate a sterile area for weeks and never realize that three feet further to the North is the outer wall of a major settlement. You can improve that luck by moving a lot of dirt.
We started a hole 1 meter by 2 meters, sifting each layer as we dug it up. The top layer was full of obsidian chips, then there was nothing, then we got down into a layer with lots of charcoal but not much in the way of artifacts. This could have been a brush fire, so was not considered reliable evidence of human habitation. We wanted to dig down to the "Bonneville Marl," a caliche layer which was lake bottom for Lake Bonneville and so would have no human artifacts below it, but never did reach it in our test trench. We started getting very nice clay, though. Primo stuff that a potter would die for.
Julia took some of it and made a little pig -- she says she always made little pigs when she played with clay. It was indeed a work of art. We sun-dried it and put it in a sample tube labeled "cultic artifact." It was carefully entered into the expedition notes as Field Specimen 2001.
There were only a thousand and some odd real specimens and it was given its own page in the notes -- the fact that it is not a REAL specimen is made very clear in context. Fun is fun, but still... Dr. Metcalfe was much amused.
|Intro||Getting there||Setting the scene||The crew||tent city||The dig|