Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Feb. 5: How Archaeology Works

Feb. 5
Reading for today:
Ashmore and Sharer: Chapter 4, "How Archaeology Works," pp. 61-86.
Archaeological data, deposition and site transformation processes, research design; archaeological research projects.

Above: An Episode From Trent de Boer's "Shovel Bum" 'Zine

How Archaeology Works

Lot of basic archaeological terms and concepts to cover today

ARCHAEOLOGICAL DATA Relating to human (cultural) activities.

Artifacts: "…Portable objects whose form is modified or wholly created by human activity" (ibid. 61) (ex: pottery, hammerstone, projectile point, glass bottle)

Ecofacts: "…Nonartifactual natural remains …that provides information about past human behavior" (ibid. 63). (ex: bones, seed, pollen, soils)

Features: "…Nonportable human-made remains that cannot be moved from the place of discovery without altering or destroying their original form…" (ibid. 62) (ex: hearths, burials, storage pits, postholes, postmolds, roads)

Sites (Note: not "sight"…"site" comes from Latin "situ") "…Spatial clusters of artifacts, features, and ecofacts…" (ibid. 63) Usually the boundaries are defined by an arbitrarily-chosen decline in density of artifacts, ecofacts, or features; occasionally can be defined by moats, ditches, etc. The site is the basic working unit of definition in archaeology. In the U.S., sites are given numbers based on the Smithsonian trinomial system: 24LC100 stands for: 24 = the 24th state in alphabetical order = Montana; LC = Lewis and Clark County; 100 = the number given to the site within Lewis and Clark County. (ex: a historic gold mine, a prehistoric camp, a kill site, a lithic scatter; a Mayan temple)

Landscapes (not in text, but becoming more frequent): Sites functioning as systems, interacting as part of and with the natural setting/systems, a setting which may also be modified by human activity (ex: a buffalo jump with drive lanes, cliffs, processing area, and camp some distance away; a mining area with camp, cabins, mill, roads, tailings, ore dump, garbage dumps, and shafts, adits, etc.)

Settlement Patterns (not in text): Systems of sites (and landscapes) connected to and interacting with each other across the larger landscape and region. (ex: tipi ring sites, buffalo jumps, and associated landscape settings from the Late Prehistoric across north central Montana; gold camps and mining districts across western Montana, including such places as Bannack, Nevada City, Virginia City, the site of Diamond City, and the historic core of Helena).

Regions: A geographic concept, definable by topographic features such as mountain ranges and bodies of water, but also by the cultures themselves (ex: Intermontane or Northern Plains regions of Montana; the Prairie-Plains of the Midwest; the Highland Mayan region of Guatamala and surrounding countries).


Behavioral Processes
1. Acquisition
2. Manufacture
3. Use
4. Deposition

Transformational Processes - draws on "Taphonomy" (what happens to plants and animals after they die)
1. Changes caused by nature
2. Changes caused by humans

Matrix: "…The physical medium that surrounds, holds, and supports archaeological data…" (ibid. 71) (ex: soil, gravel, rock, sand)

Provenience (sometimes spelled provenance): Three-dimensional location of the data within the matrix, or on the surface. (ibid. 71)

Association: "Two or more artifacts [ecofacts, features]…occurring together in the same matrix"…"crucial to the interpretations of past events…" (ibid. 72)

Context: "…Evaluation of…data based on both behavioral and transformational processes" (ibid. 72)
=1. Primary context: undisturbed since initial deposition
=== a. Use-related: undisturbed data deposited where aquired/made/used
=== b. Transposed: deposited by activity outside of where acquired/made/used (ex: discard sites, middens)
= 2. Secondary context: "…Situations in which provenience, association, and matrix have been altered by transformational processes caused either by human or natural activity" (ibid. 74)

Research Design: The plan for gathering and evaluating the archaeological data.

Data Sampling
= 1. Data universe: "A bounded research area" (ibid. 76) (ex. Single site, portion of site, geographic area containing many sites; also can be temporal (time) boundaries rather than spatial (geographical))
= 2. Divide data universe into sample units ("the unit of investigation;" there are different types)
=== a. Nonarbitrary sample units: existing boundaries (ex: room, house)
=== b. Arbitrary sample units: no inherent natural/cultural relevance (ex: grid units).
NOTE: Sample units should not be confused with data; data = the artifacts/ecofacts/features within each sample unit.
Population: Aggregate/grouping of all sample units; not the same as the data universe.

Data Gathering:
1. Total Data Gathering: "…Investigation of all the units in the population" (ibid. 78); rarely if ever occurs, not practical, especially for large sites (bit note it is related to the unit of investigation!); sometimes this is attempted if a site will be totally destroyed, but really never accomplished.
2. Sample Data Gathering: Only a portion is recovered, due to time, money, etc. constraints; but sometimes also to leave some undisturbed for future investigation/study.

Data Sampling:
= 1. Probabilistic (Statistical) Sampling: Used to specify statistically how the data sample relates to the larger data population.
=== a. Simple Random Sampling: Ensures each unit has equal chance for selection using random number generation.
=== b. Systematic Sampling: Selects first sample unit randomly, while remainder selected by predetermined, equal interval from first.
=== c. Stratified Sampling: Used to ensure sampling will be done of significant variations in the population (ex: slope, ecotype, distance from water, etc.). The divisions of categories are made, and then random/systematic sampling from within each division.
= 2. Nonprobabilistic Sampling: Use personal experience and judgment, such as most at risk or accessible areas; problem is, without statistical sampling, cannot really say it is representative of the population.

Research Stages
1. Formulation- Problem/hypothesis definition; Background research; Feasibility studies
2. Implementation- Permits; Funding; Logistics
3. Data Gathering- Survey (Phase I and II data recovery); Excavation (aka Phase III)
4. Data Processing- Cleaning and conservation; Cataloging; Initial Classifications
5. Analysis- Analytic classifications; Temporal frameworks; Spatial frameworks
6. Interpretation- Application of Culture History/Processualism/Postprocessualism
7. Publication- Research Results used as foundation for new research
…Start again with …1. Formulation!


Archaeological research requires a broad range of expertise. While investigators try to be versed in multiple areas, no one can do it all; you need teams, and you generally need to outsource some types of laboratory analysis, such as dating materials.

Most archaeological research in the U.S. is done either as CRM work relating to environmental law compliance (the most common is Section 106 of National Historic Preservation Act, and NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act). Some of this compliance work is done in-house by federal agencies like the Forest Service, but most of it is outsourced to private CRM contractor firms and occasionally universities have contracting efforts as well. Ultimately, contract archaeology is a business. Students who have graduated often end up working as field technicians doing contract archaeology; these folks are often known as "shovel bums."

I was a "migrant archaeo-tech" myself for a few years on projects across the U.S., from 1985 (after graduation with my B.A. in Anthropology from U of MT) to 1990 (when I finally landed a more settled job as a seasonal field-tech for the Forest Service). The job of "shovel bum" is hard, but much more romantic and interesting than many of the other "wage-slave" jobs most students get after graduation in restaurants, as office temps, cubicle slaves, etc. You do break your back and sweat as a shovel bum, but you breathe fresh air and see some interesting things. Interested? Check out the YouTube offering above, and the Shovel Bum cartoon on the archaeology channel. There is a site that helps hook people up with Shovel Bum jobs at http://www.shovelbums.org/; no recommendation or warranty is intended here, caveat emptor (buyer beware) and all that...I haven't worked doing this kind of thing since 1990 (wow, almost 18 years ago!)...if you do this, you are on your own there! But I enjoyed life as a archaeovagrant as a rootless soul in my twenties.

More rare is what people think of as traditional, research-oriented archaeology. These are most often associated with university field schools, which students pay for as part of a degree program. The University of Montana at Missoula holds a field school every summer (the one for 2008 isn't listed yet--this is the one for last year); other universities from across the U.S. do the same, with some projects within Montana or neighboring states. There are even some private organizations that run or participate in digs, like Earthwatch, but the participant usually pays a good chunk of money to do so. The other possibility is that the Forest Service and other federal agencies sometimes over opportunities as volunteers to help with short projects during the summer, sometimes archaeological projects, or more often historic preservation projects stabilizing historic buildings. You can find out more about that on the Passport-In-Time (PIT) website.

Next Time: Fieldwork
Readings for Next Class on Thursday:
Ashmore and Sharer, Chapter 5, "Fieldwork," pp. 87-124.
Feder, Chapter 10, "Good Vibrations: Psychics and Dowsers," pp. 261-277.

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