Serious digging--do you know where your trowel is?

digging line

Thursday, Aug 12, 1993

Dr. O'Connell, a well-known archaeologist from the U of U who Julia has had for several classes, came down for the day. This was during his vacation and he had insisted that he was just going to stop by for a few minutes and wasn't going to say anything (he does have a reputation for being a bit of a curmudgeon).

Well...to say that he got excited after looking over the site might be a bit of an understatement. He started telling us that "if this were a Hadza site, this would have been a temporary hunting camp up in the dunes in order to harvest from the marshes. . ." He went on to describe how they would have been doing things here and the kinds of things we ought to be looking for. (the Hadza are an African hunter-gatherer tribe he has studied). He and Dr. Metcalfe got into some serious discussion, the end result of which was that we got a backhoe at our site. Backhoe? They had already planned on bringing the backhoe in to dig a trench through a sterile area of the dunes to get a good profile of the stratigraphy of the overall site. But bringing it up to our dig (all 1 m x 2 m x 1.5 m of it) was something else.

big digger When we first heard they were going to use a backhoe for an archaeological dig, we were a little scandalized. Wouldn't that ruin our features? He pointed out that we had no idea what was down there, that we had just over a week left to show whether this site should be on the federal register, and that careful use of the backhoe could show us just what we did -- or didn't -- have here.

So they did it. It was WONDERFUL. It would have taken months to excavate the slit trenches that the backhoe did in a morning. Renee, the Ph.D. student who was running our site, mapped out where it should dig, trying to get the trenches to cut through as many of our features as possible. We also wanted it to dig down to the Bonneville Marl down at the "sterile" end of our site. It took us a whole day to get a 1 x 2 meter trench 1-1/2 meters deep with people digging with shovels. The backhoe operator carefully dug a trench 25 meters long, at least 3 meters deep at the deepest point, and two side trenches about 10 meters long each -- the whole thing shaped like a cross -- and all before lunch.

He dug another hundred meters of trench through a couple of sterile areas for the geologists to do their stratigraphy in, and down where they were hoping to find an archaic site. No such luck down there -- the trench was sterile.

Back at our site, Dr. O'Connell walked into the trench as the backhoe left, took his trowel and scraped down the side of the trench -- and a perfect charcoal lens appeared. There was a clear cross section of a shallow bowl-shaped floor, filled with charcoal-stained debris, and a pit hearth. We had found the remains of a habitation a thousand years old. And there was another on the wall of the west trench, and something that looked like a fire hearth on the wall, VERY deep, in the east trench. The backhoe had definitely struck pay dirt (so to speak)!

We spent the rest of the day shoveling dirt away from the edges of the trenches so it wouldn't collapse back in, and doing an initial survey of all the goodies revealed in the side walls of the trenches.

digging During the next few days we found out why the activity we were taking part in was called a "dig." We became very well acquainted with shovels, their use and characteristics, as we cleared dirt away from the trenches. We found out that the flat shovels were very good for smoothing the sides of the trenches, the pointed shovels were best for clearing dirt away from the ground level and the bottoms of the trenches. We had to clear all the backhoe fill away from the sides, then clean out the sides and bottoms of the trenches. Then we had to move the dirt again, and again. This was because for one, we had to open up a connection between the main trench and the eastern one. The pile of dirt blocking the eastern trench was about two meters deep and at least a meter across. The macho guys made a bet with Renee that they could do it before ten o'clock. They did it. We were amazed. That night Renee cheerfully came up with the beer they'd agreed on.

We dug a walkway on the western side of the main trench. Julia decided that going on a dig when in one's early twenties is a Good Idea. Going in one's early forties, an out-of-shape secretary, does not prepare one to dig. She hucked dirt for about fifteen minutes, panted and gasped for about fifteen more, hucked dirt for about twenty minutes, panted and gasped for about twenty more . . . you should get the picture. Brook traded off with Julia and agrees that youth is wasted on the young.

Finally, that afternoon, we had enough digging done that we got a chance to look at the features we had found. One of the teams had cleaned up the feature on the east wall of the main trench, and the head archaeologists had taken their trowels (you do remember trowels, now, don't you?) and carefully traced the various strata. It was exciting to see the feature delineated this way. We also cleaned up a very similar feature on the south wall of the west trench. There were also charcoal stains in the wall further south on the main trench, close to where it dipped drastically down to the (still damp and slippery) Bonneville Marl.

The other team, the one on the possible Archaic site, only had one trench and got it cleaned up very quickly and started digging down. They found thousands of gastropods (snailoids), but no sign of human habitation. However, we know some group was there in Archaic times, because we found a characteristic Archaic projectile point during the surface sweep. They just didn't leave anything on the particular site we chose to dig. They could have been anywhere else -- including three meters further south than the trench was. We just don't know. Those are the breaks -- sometimes you dig down and find marvels, sometimes you just find lots of dirt.

During the next few days, we got even better acquainted with the shovels -- and with our trowels. Once the shovel work is done in the trenches, the trowels come out. And they have to be sharp to work well. We sharpened both sides (right and left sides, that is), but only on the top of the trowel. Then they can be used to clean dirt off sides of trenches, pound dirt clods in sifters, clean out features, etc., etc., ad infinitum. We learned that real archaeologists don't use just any trowel -- it has to be a Marshaltown trowel (according to Dr. Metcalfe, anyway). Marshaltowns are forged in one piece and tempered so that they can bend and flex without breaking as easily.

We got out gloves so that we didn't wear our hands out. We learned what we'd need to carry around every day -- five meter measuring tape, trowel, gloves, brushes, water . . . did we mention that it was hot? We needed a lot of water. We did most of the heavy digging in the morning, before it got too abysmally hot.

After just digging, digging, digging for what seemed forever, we finally got to do something with the features. Julia got to dig the charcoal stain in the southern part of the main trench. This entailed brushing the surface until we found what looked like the outline of the charcoal stain, constantly watching for the slight change in color that signaled the layer we were interested in, gently removing all the surface soil off of it until the whole lens was exposed, and then Very Carefully taking out the charcoal-stained dirt (with trowels) and putting it in a bucket. Of course we took photographs and notes as we went. Brook carried off the buckets (five gallon plastic buckets of the sort one can get from any bakery) and sifted the dirt for artifacts.

Brook got very good with the screens that we sifted all the dirt through. This was a fun job because all the neat artifacts that people didn't find as they scooped dirt out of the features into buckets came up in the screens. Of course all these artifacts were put in bags (tiny little zip locks for good stuff, labeled paper lunch bags for general obsidian chips and bone fragments and stuff), and labeled for the feature they came out of. We used quarter inch screens and eighth inch screens -- quarter inch where we really didn't expect to find much, because the dirt goes through them a lot faster, and eighth inch screens wherever we expected to find (or had found) artifacts. If we came up with something while using the larger screens, we'd switch to the smaller ones.

This charcoal stain was part of a feature that had been found and labeled before the backhoe went through, although the backhoe had put a lot of fill dirt on it and the surface had become compromised. But once we started cleaning it out, we followed the charcoal layer to reveal what was probably the face of an old dune into which a shallow pit had been dug -- for a fire pit. There weren't a huge number of artifacts here, but there were some.

arrowhead The real good stuff was coming out of the other side of the dig -- the northern end of the main trench where the two lenses had been found in the walls. Those of us on the "boring" feature kept hearing things like, "We've found another Rosegate," yelled from the sifters up there. (A Rosegate is a type of projectile point, a small corner-notched point style dated between 700-1300 a.d.) We wanted to find a Rosegate! (Or anything else exciting, for that matter.) Of course, anytime something neat was found, everybody scrambled over to look at it.

So once the charcoal stain was dug, cleaned up, and photographed, we got to go to another feature.

Somewhere along in here we got to see the Perseid meteor shower out where the stars were so bright it was marvelous. Some of those meteors were truly spectacular -- a bright burn all across the sky.

Sunday, August 15th

The wind blew hard all day and we turned into sand monsters (that'll teach us not to dig on Sunday). It was miserable. Sand in your ears, sand in your eyes (we had two contact wearers who ended up in serious difficulty -- one lost a lens -- she glanced into the wind at the wrong time and it lifted the lens right out of her eye), sand in your mouth and nose. We all got windburned -- much of it due to the continual scouring action of all the wind-borne sand and dust.

It was impossible to clear a feature without having more sand and dust blow right back over it. Screening was miserable, and you had to keep moving around so you weren't getting dust blown around and up into your face or blown from you back onto the poor folks trying to dig. We finally gave up and headed in two or three hours early. It was very dirty work, and we were incredibly grateful for hot water and sun showers.

We found the remains of three pit houses and associated fire hearths. We found lots of projectile points of various styles, an obsidian drill, beads, potsherds, burned bone, and lots of charcoal. The characteristic styles tell us this was a Fremont site, from 700-1100 A.D. The carbon dating they'll do on the charcoal will give us better dates. It looks like it was a long-term occupation, though, so dates may be spread out over time. They probably lived on the marshy edge of a lake shore (Tule Lake, a remnant of Lake Bonneville) and hunted all sorts of animals -- we found definite rabbit bones and "ungulate" (probably antelope?) bones as well, many of which were definitely fire-burned, and several of which had been smoothed and carved (for instance: a "game piece" -- a thin 1" x 2" rectangle of bone with a little picture carved on it).

The big trade-off with having the backhoe come in was cleaning up after it -- filling in all those trenches. We were going to have to knock off the dig two days early just to have time to do it. And then something wonderful happened. One of the portapotties died -- its flushing mechanism (yes, they even flushed) broke and it started to get pretty ripe. So Nancy (the BLM archaeologist, remember?) contacted someone on the radio and a couple of days later this guy drove in with a replacement. Now these things were kind of heavy, and hard to move around, so he brought a little bobcat earth-mover along on the trailer to do forklift duty. (a bobcat is a little bulldozer on a 6-wheeled heavy-duty ATV chassis)

Dr. Metcalfe saw this little beauty and went right over to chat with the fellow who came with it. The upshot of it was that he agreed to come back on the Friday we were to pack up and fill in all the trenches for us. Remember, some of these trenches were three meters deep and there were over a hundred meters of trench. Hallelujah! That gave us two more days to do archaeology rather than dump dirt, and we found some of our best stuff (the obsidian drill, for instance) on the last day.

And the last day came. We had everything, including the mess tent, cook's tent, propane appliances, and all kinds of other junk, loaded by about eleven. After that we were free to go. Nancy and Dr. Metcalfe told us that it was a pretty hard dig -- usually they're not in such physically difficult areas, and they were delighted with how well we'd done. All in all we had a blast and would gladly do it again.

On our way home we drove through Marjum Pass and stopped for an hour to pick up trilobites in the washes. These are weathered right out of the rock and look sort of like scarabs. Other places in the area, you can find them in the rock -- you find them by splitting shale -- but here you can just pick them up. We got over thirty in that hour, so we felt it was worth it.

The way back was anticlimactic. We took the right roads this time and got right into Delta, where we gassed up again and then headed on home. First order of business? Real showers, with water pressure and lots of hot water for a good long soak. And we finally got all the grit out of our hair. -- Brook

digging line

|Intro||Getting there||Setting the scene||The crew||Surveying the site||tent city|

* please email me at brookw@attglobal.net

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