Friday, July 31, 2009

The Chronology of Confusion to Clarity, or, How to Dig an Archaeological Feature

Since there hasn't been much in the way of artifacts lately, I thought I'd post a brief series of photos that gives some insight into what archaeologists actually see when they dig a feature.

While working on unit 107, the second-to-last driveway test pit on the southern end of the line, we began to encounter dark brown stains in orange-yellow soil of our layer (see above left). Note the circular-looking stain towards the top of the right-hand photo and the boxy stain towards the bottom-right (both outlined in turquoise). There was also some sort of strange boxy looking stain poking out of the top wall (outlined in red). We were confused, so we cleaned the unit up a bit, took these pictures, and then began to explore a bit further. After scraping off some more dirt...

... we found that the stains were not part of separate features, but rather part of one large feature that almost encompassed the entire unit (see it outlined in blue in the above right image). Another reason that we could be sure it was a feature distinct from the orange-yellow layer is because of what it contained, namely, charcoal. The charcoal inclusions show up black in the above left photo and are highlighted in red in the above right photo.

Ok, so we've got a feature. Now what?

First, we bisect the feature and dig one half of it so that we can see a profile (above left). Think of it as studying an unknown species: after looking at it from the outside, you have to dissect it to see what's inside! Once half of the feature has been removed, we draw and photograph the feature's profile (above right -- feature profile outlined in turquoise). Once the profile has been documented, we dig out the rest of the feature and end up with...

... a clean and finished unit!

Unfortunately, even when all due attention is paid to a unit and the features therein, things get missed. In this case, while we worked hard to uncover this large brown feature, we completely missed another feature positioned in the unit. You can see it in the picture below, outlined in red.

So despite our best efforts, we still missed some information. This just goes to show that archaeology is not an exact science, or really a science at all. Archaeology is about problem solving, critical thinking, careful evaluation and observation, and occasionally, just darned good luck.

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