Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 3 in Review

One of the toughest parts of archaeology is that no matter how much time, effort, planning, people, and/or money you put into a field season, the weather can and will throw a wrench into the works. Edmonton is particularly problematic; it has a reputation for having terrible weather…well… year around. The winters are cold (but it’s a dry cold! even if there is too much snow) and the summers are hot or wet or plagued by extreme weather (thunderstorms and/or tornadoes). By undertaking an early field season (say May) you may be able to avoid the worst of what the summer can throw at you but you may also find yourself dealing with late snow or too much rain anyways. A July-August field season was what worked for the head of the research project so we knew we’d need to be flexible and deal with what is thrown at us. So to briefly recap: week 1 was hot and week 2 was wet. Week 3 was too smokey. Where there’s smoke, there’s no fieldwork.  At least for us there isn’t. The week started off with air quality alert warnings, which would only get worse as the week went on.

I notified the students, after a Sunday with an air quality index of 7, that we’d still meet at the site Monday as usual. Monday started off chilly and overcast but warmed as the day went on. While we got the occasional whiff of smoke, it really wasn’t too bad out. I took advantage of having several volunteers on site that day to spend some time with each and every student individually to talk about their research papers. Typically I’d have students write up a technical report about their 1 m x 1m unit to submit at the end of the season but because the students were working collaboratively on 1 m x 2 m or  2 m x 2 m units and because they were contributing to the research of a PhD student, I thought it could be more informative for them to be flexible with what they wrote up. Some are addressing the types of materials recovered from the site (bricks, glass, or clinker), others are examining the change in land use/place over time (one via plants, others via peoples), another is applying the knowledge obtained from an internship at an art gallery to propose a curated exhibit about the site, and finally one is interested in critically reviewing how our introduction to anthropology course (Anth206) lab assignments and exercises do or do not prepare for our students for the technical skills required in the field. As an instructor I appreciated the thought the students had clearly already put into the topics so tried to take the time to make sure that they were taking on manageable projects. With less than four weeks to research and write the papers up I really wanted to make sure the scale of their projects was appropriate. Otherwise work proceeded as normal at the site. Unit 1 had finally dealt with most of the really tough sediment and were starting to proceed faster through level 2. Unit 2 was working on level 4 and taking out the wooden plant feature they’d uncovered the previous Thursday. Unit 3 was finding a lot of metal objects and glass, and started to find animal bone – this was in line with what the associated test pit had found so the shift quickly became getting the level down to the bone bed originally identified in that test pit.

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Tuesday began as another overcast day with light drizzle in the morning. We met again in the field; we’d discussed on Monday that for the week the plan was we’d always start in the field if the air quality in the morning was low so we’d get at least a half day in and retreat to the lab if necessary. The day got off to a slow start; people trickled in late and it took some time before the units were uncovered and work was actually started for the day. I knew that this would be the case as we reached the half way point of the course as it is always a challenge to keep students motivated and engaged once the initial excitement of a new term, a new course starts to wane and as the workload starts to increase. I was also aware my own dwindling energy reserves were not allowing me to be as enthusiastic as I needed each day. Such is the reality of courses and especially of field work. But we still had a productive day. Unit 1 was finishing levels and doing an excellent job of uncovering and mapping their feature 1 (the cement feature); compared to their slow initial progress, they were really “flying” through their levels now (soft, unconsolidated sediment really is a blessing). Unit 2 was closing out the unit – the last level was pretty much sterile so they focused on”cleaning” the walls of the unit; we ensuring the walls are as flat as possible so the stratigraphy can be clearly seen then captured in a profile drawing.  Unit 3 was focused on mapping the bone bed, which they had reached and carefully revealed by the end of the previous day. Both stratigraphic or wall profile drawings/maps and floor plan maps are valuable pieces of the record of the site. They are used to illustrate the context of the finds and as such are important interpretive tools.

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I made the call Wednesday morning to again start in the field. The morning was a little smokey but not too bad. Units 2 and 3 continued with their mapping; I checked in regularly with the students, who were doing an excellent job with their maps but really focused on helping Unit 1 screen. Unit 1 had encountered another tough sediment – clay. For those of you archaeologists when I say their AHN was a G you’ll know what they were facing. For those of you non-archaeologists, AHN is a type of “tests” we do to figure out what the overall composition of the sediment is (sand, silt, and/or clay) based on its texture. An AHN of G means that when a handful of sediment was collected and a little bit of water was added (or in our case no water was added) it could be kneaded into a ball then rolled out into a cylinder which could then be thinned out into a longer tube that could then be joined into a loop (i.e., we could make a donut with the clay). The clay was first hard but pliable quickly turning into wet, sticky, and sterile. It was hard work to dig out and even harder work to screen. We had to hand sort through all the lumps of clay feeling for the smallest inclusions that might represent artifacts. By the end of the day everyone was helping squish their way through the buckets of clay coming out of unit 1 as the air quality had gradually gotten worse over the day to the point that we needed to not be outside any longer. My eyes were sore and it felt like I had a brick on my chest.

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We woke up Thursday to an air quality that was close to what it was at the end of Wednesday – far too bad to head to the field so I emailed everyone to tell them to head to the lab. The conditions can be best described like the filter you see in a horror movie – an orange sun surrounded by dulling fog. It was gross. The air conditioning in the lab was much appreciated and we had a really productive day cleaning and cataloging. Haeden and his partner JP still had to venture out to the site to meet with people from the Archaeology Survey (the branch of the Provincial government that provides permits for and oversees archaeology in Alberta) but were happy to report upon their return to that the Arch Survey was very pleased with the work done on the site and that we’d passed inspection. Haeden, JP, and I chatted and decided that it was best to stick to our usually schedule and spend Friday in the lab as well.

Our Friday lab was a little different. We spent a little time first thing talking about our plans for the Public Archaeology Day, which is quickly approaching (see poster below). One of the students and I went down to CAFE to see their space as they’d shown interest in hosting an exhibit relating to our work. We also were visited by children from the MacEwan University Early Learning and Child Care Lab School; my daughter was so proud to show off her mama’s lab and the children loved running around with the magnifying glasses I loaned them looking at what we’d found so far and interacting with my students. It was a great burst of energy and activity and a nice way to end our week.

The air quality has improved since then so we’ll be back on site this week. So far it looks like we’ll get wet then be very hot…so typical Edmonton weather.

Week 4 update to follow…

 

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One thought on “Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 3 in Review

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 23, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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