softer touch nearby
chert and rhyolite whisper
others once were here
Our archaeologist’s site is a hopping place. Hmm. It’s cumbersome to keep calling her that. Let’s call her Meghan. No, she’s not a character in one of my books. I played with the idea of Madeleine from Death Out of Time. But poetry’s not her thing.
Meghan’s crew has found a number of historic features (let’s say eight) dating to the 1700s. And two crew members have just called her over to another part of the site. If you recall the sketch map in Poetic Archaeology 4, the surface collection showed a concentration of Native American lithics (stone tools and debris) near the north end of the site.
Many Native American sites don’t have features such as house foundations. Their homes often were more temporary and didn’t always leave recognizable soil stains behind. Also, time has a way of erasing human endeavors, and a 6,000-year-old site may not leave any evidence except stone tools and the debris from making and resharpening them.
So instead of using the backhoe, Meghan had a team excavate test units with shovels. These test units were square, 1 meter (about 3 feet) to a side. It’s easier to see (and feel) subtle soil differences with a shovel than with heavy machinery. Even when soil color changes are faint, a good archaeologist can feel the difference between “sterile” soil and “cultural fill.”
The crew found Native American artifacts in one of the test units. Nothing as interesting as a feature, though. Instead, they’ve found a midden, which is a scatter of discarded material. There was no scheduled garbage collection before the 20th century.
Midden locations vary on a site. Sometimes you find them close to houses, other times farther away. If you’re concerned about big scavengers like bears, you might not keep food scraps near your tent or less-than-bear-proof sapling and thatch house.
But sometimes, debris was just swept behind the houses. Depending on how well the soil conditions preserve organic material, we can find items such as stone tools and debris, ceramics, animal bones, and oyster shell. Meghan’s crew found some tools like you see below.
These tools weren’t made from good material like chert or rhyolite. The first two are quartz, which isn’t easy to “knap.” The spear point and cutting tool may not look impressive, but it took skill to make useful tools from quartz. The Lamoka Cluster point dates to what archaeologists call the Late Archaic period, which was about 3500-1000 BC.
The cutting tool and scraper aren’t what we call “diagnostic” artifacts. Similar tools were made for thousands of years without distinctive changes. Projectile points (like spear and arrow heads) did change in size and style. Excavations at many sites over the years in conjunction with dating methods such as carbon-14 and dendrochronology (counting tree rings) have helped us determine when various point types were made.
People are often drawn to the same areas to live over thousands of years. High ground with a reliable water source is always desirable. Closeness to important resources like stone and wood for buildings and tools is also important. Abundant game animals or good soils for farming make an area attractive. And when there isn’t enough prime real estate for everyone, conflicts usually break out.
In the US, it’s common to have artifacts spanning several thousand years on a site. That doesn’t mean someone lived there every year. But over time, various groups came to that location, either for a few days or weeks before moving on or for decades or hundreds of years.
I love history. I always ask questions about it. Did some of those newcomers on a site find traces of those earlier people? Or did they believe they were “the first” to occupy the area? If a Native American in AD 1100 found a projectile point from 2000 BC, did he wonder if an ancestor fashioned it or just anyone from the past?
It’s this questioning nature and wanting to know what happened that led me to archaeology—and probably to start writing novels. But Meghan’s got more pressing issues on her mind….