Poetic Archaeology 8

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.”

This is a generic test unit from nearly anywhere in the continental US. No features were found in this one.
But we can pretend.

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.

Native American Lamoka Cluster point, bifacial cutting tool, and scraper

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….

48 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology 8

    • Thanks! Although I cannot take credit for excavating this particular unit. :) And it helps when the soil cooperates—not too many cobbles or massive tree roots!

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      • OH GOD. You said tree roots. I had forgotten about them. And silt shovel test pits where you never hit sterile yellow earth – we used to run out of shovel handle trying to get to the bottom of those. One time I ran out of handle and hit a massive stone in the bottom. Still had not run out of silt. I don’t think anyone followed up on that. I often wonder if it was a foundation stone or just bedrock. Oh well.

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  1. Growing up in North Dakota, my brother and I used to go exploring, and in the process, found a few different arrow heads. We didn’t think much about it at the time, but I wish now that I’d saved them. Who knows? Maybe they were pretty old. Or maybe not. But we sure had fun making up stories.

    I loved your haiku. The line “chert and rhyolite whisper” is really gorgeous.

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    • Oh, they could have been anywhere from a few hundred years old to maybe ten thousand, depending on the type. :) Smaller ones that would fit on an arrow would be the youngest varieties. And out west you can get some really nice examples made from high-quality stone like obsidian or Knife River flint. Those materials are so good that some made their way across the country. Imagine doing that with no other transportation than canoes or your own two feet!

      I’m not totally happy with my first line on the haiku, but I did like the juxtaposition of a hard material like stone with the softness of a whisper. :)

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      • I always marvel at what earlier civilizations were able to accomplish. I sure wish I would have saved those arrow heads. We had some good ones. Of course, maybe they came from a souvenir shop and just fell out of someone’s pocket. ;)

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        • If they looked better than the one in my photo, they were probably real. :) That’s not to disparage the real one in my photo. But better material makes better tools.

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  2. I’ve always wondered the same things. We are only a blip on the screen in the whole timeline… I liked to picture some Native American girl back in the 1600s finding something from people before her and wondering about them. It makes you feel like a part of something much bigger. Thanks for the post–I’m glad Meghan has a name now, too!

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    • I think that’s one reason James Michener’s novels were so popular. He wove interesting stories about the people who lived at a single place over the course of history. If we could all remember that we’re part of a larger and longer “story,” that began before us and will continue long after we’re gone, the world might be a saner place. Might be. ;)

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  3. It can. Especially if you’re working in a beautiful part of the world. For me, it never hurts to stop and remember that we’re part of something bigger, even if we can’t quite make out what that something is.

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  4. There’s always something fascinating about tools made from a natural substance – one can’t help wondering about the people who used them.

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    • I never found any when playing as a child—of course, I didn’t live in the country where it would be easier. But I’ve always loved visiting historic places and imagining what it must have been like to live there. It’s probably not surprising I became an archaeologist. :)

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  5. Beautiful haiku across the board. I have no idea what ‘chert’ or ‘rhyolite’ are, but it doesn’t matter because they carry the message of earth so well. Then the last line tells me enough to know what’s going on, that we’re watching time at work.

    The tools are interesting, and I thought the test pit site was neat and tidy and wondered if that is typical (but after reading Wally’s comment, I realized it isn’t).

    Great stuff, JM!

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  6. Chert and rhyolite are types of stone. They’re fine-grained, not “chunky” like quartz, so a skilled “knapper” can make very fine cutting edges. Chert is better than rhyolite, but in the Mid-Atlantic, you take what you can get. ;)

    We’re taught to be “neat” excavators and precise in our work. Sometimes it’s easier than others. Rocky soil is hell on the back, and tree roots are, too. Sandy soils collapse easily and ruin nice square corners. I should post a variety of test units some time…. :) And other times, there’s the reality of a tight budget and time constraints—we don’t always have time to be quite as neat and tidy. Many an academic archaeologist will shudder at that last statement!

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    • Haven’t seen it yet—waiting to see what some other folks think of it first. :) I try to forget about real archaeology when I see it portrayed in movies so I can enjoy the fun. :)

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  7. Lots of neat stuff here, as usual, and cool haiku. I had no idea it was possible to work quartz. I can well believe it’s a challenge. I also didn’t know things stayed the same for so long (in terms of stone tool technology.) I know these people’s lives were difficult and short compared to ours, but I still can’t help envying them a little that they weren’t subjected to the blinding rates of technological change that we experience. The knowledge gained in a lifetime – even a short one – really meant something then.

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    • Quite honestly, I don’t believe we can sustain our current pace of technological advances. Our cultures can’t adapt as quickly. I think many of our problems stem from this fact. In the past, generations had time to adapt to a new technology and incorporate it into a well-functioning society. Today? I remember when there were no personal computers, no cell phones, no CDs or DVDs, no GPS, and of course—no social networking and internet. Even today’s techno-whiz kids will be stumbling over new gadgets in 20 or 30 years!

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      • Oh so true. One thing that really worries me is that, while the youngsters know how to use all these gadgets, most have not a clue how they actually work – couldn’t repair one, couldn’t make one. Those neolithic hunters probably all knew how to make a bow and chip a flint arrowhead.

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  8. I love history too – especially when there are mysteries involved – it’s fun to keep asking those questions and to imagine all the possibilities.

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  9. Cool test unit. I’d forgotten about the dirt colors and slight differences – now that takes a skilled eye. Was there much bartering / trading between Native American tribes which could confuse things?
    Fascinating as always

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    • There was always some trade between Native American groups. At some points in time there was more than others. Usually we’ll see a “core area” where certain styles of tools and pottery are found, and then find fewer of those as you move away from the core. So while we might find some pottery from the Ohio Valley in the Northeast, for example, there’s never much.

      We don’t know all the details, though. Did material get traded from A to B and then from B to C and so on down the line? Or did some people from A travel to C’s territory? Or was it a mix of the two?

      But if we knew all the answers, archaeologists would be out of work. :)

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  10. Okay, I had to google “chert and rhyolite” – but that’s good, I learned something new. :) But then, I always learn lots of new things from your posts. Loved the part about the Native Americans not having house foundations. I’m really fascinated by Native American culture, so it put a real smile on my face. Great accompanying photographs too! :)

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    • They weren’t foundations in the sense we’d think of them—such as a stone- or brick-lined basement or cellar. Sometime a trench was dug and posts were set into it. Then the trench was refilled to support the posts. Other times, separate holes were dug for each post.

      When those houses were abandoned and the posts decayed over time, they left a different colored soil behind than what was originally there. Sometimes we can see that very clearly. Other times, it’s a lot harder. Stone and brick foundations are a heck of a lot easier to recognize. :)

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      • I can tell that if I was on a dig, I’d be useless! I’d think all of the important things were great finds and I’d think the proper, impressive things were nothing. I’d probably get into trouble a lot! ;)

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        • You would soon learn what the “experts” expected of you. :) Even if you liked best things they weren’t interested in, you would learn what to look for and not miss it. ;)

          I’m sure British archaeologists roll their eyes at “Time Team,” but it was an interesting series, even for archaeologists in the US. One of our PBS stations did a typical not-as-good-American-version-of-a-British-show with it.

          Your team came to America for one segment, working at St. Marys City here in Maryland. It’s Maryland’s version of Jamestown or Plymouth Rock. (important early English settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts). I had ancestors there back at the time, so it was interesting to see the British archaeologists’ reactions to the field methods (very anal to their mind!)

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          • That is really cool. I’ve never really watched Time Team. Seen bits of it here and there. It was strange for me to try and take Tony Robinson seriously because he’s always played ridiculous roles in comedy shows! :)

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            • I think I’ve only seen him in one thing, and I’m drawing a complete blank on what it was! What series has he been in? We end up seeing a lot of them here. :)

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              • Black Adder – he played Baldrick.
                I remember him from ‘Maid Marion and Her Merry Men’ but that was a children’s show and he played a really cheesy Sheriff of Nottingham. He he! :)

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  11. As always I’m fascinated with your glimpse into the world of archaeology. How exciting. I would probably be overly eager and be looking at everything from old bottle caps to whatever.

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    • I’d rather have an overly eager crew asking about what they’re finding over an uninterested one that missed too much. :) On one of my husband’s projects, a dirty little pie-shaped piece of metal turned out to be part of a Spanish silver coin. Some people might have thought it was just a “metal fragment.” Better to be overly eager!

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  12. Not only are you teaching me about different excavation techniques, but you’re expanding my vocabulary (midden) and my historical knowledge! :) Fascinating stuff JM!

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  13. Hmmm…. I thought I commented on this post earlier, but guess not (oops!) Seeing those stone tools brought back some memories. My little brother once found a stone ax head in our backyard when we were kids growing up on Oahu, Hawaii. The Bishop Museum bought it for their collection, but I have no idea if it ever went on display or not. Wish we had a photo of it.

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    • Wow, growing up in Hawaii must have been something! Much more interesting than Illinois. :) I never found anything archaeological as a kid, but somehow I still became one.

      Ah, the things we remember from our youth and wonder what became of them. Today, you could pull out your phone and take a picture right when your brother found that axe. When I was growing up, if you didn’t have film in the camera and the camera with you, the moment was gone….

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      • To me, growing up in Hawaii was nothing special. That might sound odd, but I never realized how much I took it for granted until I had to move away. Especially the ocean. :-(

        I’m pretty sure I had my first camera at the time of my brother’s find, but since I was only 8 or 9, I didn’t realize the importance of the moment. I had one of those short-lived Kodak “disc” cameras, with only 15 shots available on each full film disc,

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