Poetic Archaeology 5

deafening diesel

scraping soil, features revealed

ears bless the silence

Our archaeologist is back in the field this week. She’s gone over the results of her controlled surface collection and decided where to place her initial excavations. In the US, the work I’ll describe here is usually called a Phase II investigation. Phase I is the survey that came before.

I’ll bet a lot of you envision something like this if you ever give thought to archaeology.

I'm not sure why he's so heavily dressed....

And the backdrop might look like this.

Some folks do work in such places. And sometimes we do resort to small brushes and hand-crafted chopstick tools for delicate artifacts and skeletons.

But a lot of archaeology is done today in advance of construction projects. It’s often required by various state and federal historic preservation laws. And we don’t have the luxury of spending years at a site, or even an entire summer. We have to get the work done on tight schedules. If you visit our poetically minded archaeologist in the field, you’ll probably see something like this.

This really is archaeology.

Yep, heavy equipment. We use it a lot in open areas such as agricultural fields. When an area has been plowed for years, the upper part of the soil has been repeatedly mixed and churned. Any artifacts within that “plow zone” have been moved from where they were originally dropped. We can make some basic interpretations with these artifacts, but nothing really in-depth (so to speak).

But the soils beyond the plow’s reach are intact. And we can learn a lot more about the people who occupied a site with artifacts and features from those depths. Features are the remnants of things such as hearths and houses and other buildings that have preserved in or on the ground. They can be stone foundations or the rotted remains of wood posts. With these, we can pinpoint where people were living, get an idea what their houses looked like, and see where they did their cooking or made their stone tools and pottery. Sometimes features are obvious above ground. Pyramids are features. The collapsed remains of an 1800s house and barns in a farm field are features.

When you’re on a tight schedule and have 30 centimeters (1 foot) or more of disturbed soils to go through, you will use heavy machinery if you can. It’s often the most efficient and cost-effective way to “open up” enough of the site to see if features have, indeed, preserved. Archaeologists will have the backhoe dig a series of “exploratory trenches” to search for these features. If there are no features, your work is probably done. But I think our archaeologist still has some work ahead of her.

Archaeologists are trained to recognize differences in soil colors and textures. Features that were dug into soil usually look different from the surrounding soil for various reasons. For example, organic material or the heat from cooking fires will change the soil color and texture. Usually, the features are darker than the surrounding soil, as you can see in the photo below.

In this week’s poem, the backhoe has revealed a change in soil color in one of the exploratory trenches. We wouldn’t yet see the profile that I show above. Instead, our archaeologist would see a dark circle on the ground.

Since she hates loud noises and the smell of diesel, she’s happy to tell the operator to shut down for now. If she still needs him to dig more trenches, she’ll have her crew chief monitor the work, hopefully far enough away to keep her from getting a headache. But for now, she’ll switch to some smaller tools to investigate this feature more carefully.

I wonder what she’ll find….

35 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology 5

  1. I love your posts on archaeology. I get a taste of what your world–so interesting! We were in Williamsburg, VA, last summer when they were working on an exploratory trench near one of the old buildings. The lead archaeologist explained what they were doing, etc. Those of us who don’t know much about it really appreciate when experts take the time to explain. We loved it–it was like a vacation bonus!


    • I love Williamsburg! My husband and I have been there a few times, and we always learn something new. We’ve been lucky enough to work on some 1700s plantations in Maryland, and places like Williamsburg and Mt. Vernon let us see a more complete picture of what our sites were like. So different from Illinois where we were before.

      Of course, you’re not likely to see them using heavy machinery at Williamsburg! Fortunately, they do have more time and research funds available for their work. 🙂

      We’ll see if I can keep this occasional series of posts entertaining (and educational. Shhhh!)


    • Alas, many of them do. Stone artifacts, such as Native American tools, hold up well. But even then, if they get caught wrong in the plow or disks, they can snap. Small metal items are usually okay, too. But anything fragile like glass or pottery usually gets chewed up.

      Of course, many of them were already broken before they hit the ground in the first place. A lot of what we find was garbage. But sometimes the artifacts were intact, and you wonder how they got where they were.

      At one plantation, my husband found a silver teaspoon with a 1782 date mark in what we believe was the detached kitchen. Silver was your personal bank in that time. Cash was rare. Normally, you wouldn’t expect such a valuable item to be anywhere but the main house. Did the kids get hold of it and lose it while playing? Was it a slave’s act of silent defiance? We don’t know. But I enjoy speculating!


        • Oh, no. There are various federal, state, and local laws that govern our work. General caution, everyone—if you see an artifact on federal land, it must stay there. It’s against the law to collect artifacts from federal land. Many states have similar laws for state land. Private property is another matter. But the landowner has to give you permission to be there or to take anything.

          Projects we do on state or federal lands usually go to a designated museum or “curation facility.” (Don’t you love bureaucratic speak?) For those done on private land (usually when someone needs state or federal permits for a project or gets funding for it), the material does belong to the landowner. But they are usually willing to donate the artifacts to a museum (especially when they see nothing but broken glass and pottery).

          So the spoon is with a museum in Maryland, along with the rest of the artifacts from that site. 🙂


  2. Great post, JM! I love how you give it a storytelling spin. You would make a great teacher, I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything like that but you have a way of making something mundane sound exciting! Kids would love this.

    Anyway, I think it’s so cool how the land actually gives clues before you find anything (change in soil, dark circle, etc.). A testament to how much human behavior and activity truly affect the earth.


    • Thanks, Kate! I did some undergraduate teaching when I was a graduate student for my assistantships. For some reason, a number of the undergrads thought this shy introvert did a good job…. 🙂

      Kids and archaeology make a great combination. There’s something about playing in the dirt that some of us never outgrow…. Some local governments, historic sites, and archaeological societies sponsor public involvement in on-going projects. For people with kids that are a little older, maybe 10 and up, they can be a fun day’s activity. Adults are always welcome, too. 🙂

      These posts are actually giving me a renewed interest in my day job. It’s so easy to get bored with the routine. But there are some fun things to counterbalance the daily details!


    • The archaeologist explains beforehand what we’re doing and how it needs to be done. A good heavy equipment operator can “peel” soil back a couple of inches at a time. It’s always nice if we can get a good working relationship with a firm in an area and deal with one or two of the operators. Once they catch on to how we need things, they can make quick work on future projects.

      The initial “scrapes” at the soil surface are good practice for the operator. we’ve usually got a foot or so of soil that’s been plowed for years, so it’s okay for the first passes to be a bit uneven. Once we get below that, we need the operator to do a smooth job so we can see those features “pop” into view.

      When you hear your crew chief call out something like, “Whoa, back it off!” you can bet he or she has seen something. 🙂


  3. Kathy Reichs is the author of several books about a forensic archeaologist. It is fun to read her books and get a long look at her world when it gets exciting. You said that, often, the archeaologist’s job doesn’t appear exciting…wow…digging holes with a backhoe! 🙂
    But you have also shown that, even that, can be exciting now and then. Thanks for the heads up.


    • Glad you enjoyed it! This was a completely unplanned idea for me. How I got it into my head to write haiku about archaeology is beyond me. And then I thought I should explain things a bit so people could understand what I was saying in the poem. 🙂 Hopefully I can keep it interesting for at least a few more posts!


  4. This is really interesting, I also reckoned that archaeology must be fascinating. I’ll bet it’s very exciting when you find something of interest! 🙂


    • Would you believe you have two options here in the States? There’s the traditional archAEOlogy and also archEOlogy. Sometime in the mid 20th century (before my time!), some archaeologists decided the traditional spelling was too elitist or something. So they changed the “ae” to “e.” The “ae” had started out as an “æ,” but that’s hard to typeset.

      Most kept the “aeo” spelling. But when the government started passing more historic preservation laws, it adopted the “eo” spelling, which is how it’s supposed to appear in the Code of Federal Regulations. But somehow the ArchAEOlogical Resources Protection Act got past all their editors!

      Most agencies don’t care how you spell it when you write reports for them. But the National Park Service does require the “eo” spelling. And nearly every academic-based archaeologist uses the “aeo” spelling.

      Isn’t that more than you wanted to know?! 🙂


  5. captured by your Haiku…
    Poetic Archaeology 5 – truly interesting – and i still hear music flowing from your windows!
    David in Maine USA

    oh how familiar i am with the NPS 🙂


    • Thanks, David. Compliments coming from such a wonderful poet as you on my untraditional haiku attempts really mean a lot to me. Rewrites to one novel are underway, so hopefully that music is a good sign. 🙂

      The NPS can be set in its ways…. But that’s true of all of us to some extent, right? 😉


  6. The poem turned out beautiful and meaninful after I read through the entire post. I then understood the “deafening diesel” and “ear bless the silence”. I’m accustomed to the noise of the backhoe and the smell of diesel. As a site Engineer on road construction, we use a lot of heavy machines and I know what nuisance the noise can be. Nice post. Archaeology seems interesting!


    • Thank you! I know my subject matter is not something that most people encounter every day. So I do need to explain what’s going on in these poems. I just hope I can keep the explanations fun and interesting, too! Monitoring the heavy equipment is not one of my favorite parts of the job. 🙂


      • You really are doing a good job so far. I have the confidence that you’ll do even better. I understand how monitoring the heavy equipment can be, some people seem to be cut-out for that. Sometimes I just spend sometime admiring the operators as the maneuver those levers and make their machines act like human hands. There is always something fun to make out of the unexciting. Keep doing the things that you are good at and working towards your dreams. They are attainable!


  7. I dreamed of digs as a kid and was so motivated in that direction, but my life most certainly had a mind of its own and went the way that it did. Sigh. Very cool with the poetic edge.


    • Thanks! I think there’s something about playing in the dirt that stays with some of us. Some become gardeners, others archaeologists. If it’s something you’d like to try someday, there are some excavations at historic sites that include public involvement. And groups like Earthwatch team up with archaeologists running projects in some pretty cool areas to volunteer for a couple of weeks. Just a thought!


  8. So impressed with the verse. Concise and realistic
    Got a chuckle with the pictures – this costal plain area has a lot of relics from early early inhabitants to early TX settlements to WW II bunkers ( watching for those subs!)- every so often you’ll see chances to assist with digs….in fields like you describe…have to work between the rain and mosquitoes. (maybe it would be more romantic with pyramids or Greek temples in background…more like the movies?)
    Always enjoy this type of posts


    • Thanks, mouse! I’ve got to confess, those pyramids do make a romantic backdrop. I worked at Copán in Honduras for my Master’s degree—one of the most incredible Maya sites out there. That was an experience to remember. The Mid-Atlantic isn’t quite the same. 😉 Alas, when I knew I wouldn’t be going into an academic position, I gave all my slides to a friend who was. So I don’t have any great shots from that time to share! Of course, maybe my US shots look exotic to readers from overseas….

      Glad you enjoy the posts. I think I need at least a few more to tell this particular story…. Did you know you were the first person to comment on my blog besides my family and friends? Thanks for sticking with me!


  9. Wow, you shattered my image of archeologists with their tiny tools taking years to go over a site. 🙂 This is so cool. Thanks for giving us a window into your world. 🙂 Fascinating stuff.


    • Well, some folks do get to do it that way. 🙂 And if I had a site in a field that had never been plowed, I’d probably have to go with hand excavations—but starting with shovels rather than trowels. And heavy equipment doesn’t work in the woods, either. So we’re not always calling for a backhoe. 😉

      I’m glad I’ve got something a little different I can talk about on the blog and share with you all. 🙂


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