Friday, July 19, 2013

You might be an archaeologist if.....

Treasure trove of fun!

I think all archaeologists are slightly odd.  I mean, we study people's trash, what isn't odd about that?  Take the people at the University of Arizona and the Garbology project, who study legit modern day trash in landfills and other places.*  I mean, they are anthropologists using archaeological methods to study modern cultural practices.  Using trash.  Which I find gross.  At least the stuff I find has had time to dispose of germs in the soil...well, that is what I am telling myself, please don't burst my happy bubble!  So, trash.

Anywho, this "oddness" is a recent revelation of mine.  You see, there I was at the Zortman Ranger Station sledgehammering out walls and (eventually) crawling around underneath the building, finding all sorts of fun stuff!  

I let them clear it out and build the supports...then I was brave and crawled in there to search for fun stuff!
Ah....the delicacy of archaeology...
Get some!!
Only a fraction of all the fabulously sexy trash I found! (The gloves, camera, and water bottle are not artifacts...well, not yet at least!)

After an hour (or two or three) of my random squeals of delight at finding something else, and to my utter dismay, disbelief, astonishment, and bafflement, one of my fabulous and brilliant coworkers basically called my little piece of fun, "trash" and "unimportant."  Not her exact words, and in her defense she studies Hydrology and plants and rocks and I may  have been redundant.  So yeah, this made me realize that there are people out there who maybe don't understand what the hell archaeologists do with a bunch of pieces of broken plates, windows, bottles, broken bones, tin pull-tabs, and whatnot.  But there are a lot of things we can learn from this trash.  To name just a few, artifacts can tell us about:  the socioeconomic status of a household; trade networks; sex and/or gender of the people in the household/community; what they ate and drank; where they may have lived before; how long a house or general area of land was inhabited and how it was used; hunting and/or agricultural practices; how the people of a community interact with each other and other communities....and so very much more. 

Whiteware rim sherd with a polychrome
floral design.
Stoneware Whiskey jug!  Love him!

So!  You might be an archaeologist if:
  • You dig small or medium or large holes that can be upwards of 4 feet deep only to then refill them after you are done looking for stuff.
  • You see a cut bank and stare lovingly at the wonderful stratigraphy.
  • You stumble upon a fresh pile of dirt and proceed to sift through it on your hands and knees scraping your nails through it just to find a single piece of something.  You may even yell out "wait!" to someone, who is in the midst of moving a heavy shovel, because you spotted something shiny in the dirt and you're afraid you'll lose it if you don't grab it right then and there.
  • You get all sorts of excited about finding broken plates/cups/bowls.  Most people get all sorts of angry when they drop a plate and it shatters...but an archaeologist treasures these!
  • You may get excited about excavating privies.  Yes.  Privies.  Old toilets.  I'm not sure what I think of it, and it isn't something I have had the pleasure of doing, but back in the day when privies became...full(?)...people would begin to use them as middens (a.k.a. trash cans).  So, privies are treasure boxes for archaeologists.
  • You have a shovel and trowel in your vehicle at all times.
  • You refer to pieces of broken glass as "glass shards," and broken pottery as "ceramic sherds."
  • You use the terms "ceramics" and "pottery," even when you're talking about your coffee cup you got during your last vacation.
  • You get a kick out of realizing you have Stoneware and not Whiteware tableware...and you know the minute details that differentiate the two...and you know the differences aren't actually minute but rather huge, and so you start to tell your friends and family about it and you realize they aren't as excited about this as you are.
  • You can tell if something is legitimately hand-painted or if it was painted by a machine in just such a way as to make it appear to be hand-painted.  Then you call shenanigans on the producers who had the audacity to pull that kind of stunt. (Pier One I'm talking to you!)
  • You love finding nails because you know the difference between hand-wrought, early-machineheaded cut, machine cut, and wire nails, which in turn, tells you when the house/barn/fence/whatever was built.  
  • You know the time-frames for the use of different pottery types, and start talking in terms of hand-painted Pearlware, hand-painted polychrome Whiteware, clobbering, Annular-ware, transfer-printed (ooohhh.....let us not forget the different time periods for each transfer-print color)....need I go on?
  • You willingly read articles that have titles such as, "Thimbles and Thimble Rings from the circum-Caribbean Region, 1500-1800:  Chronology and Identification," and "Gender and Historical Archaeology:  Eastern Dakota Patterns in the 19th Century."  Willingly.  You may even be excited about it. **
  • You coo at artifacts, and may actually refer to them as "he" or "she" when you tell them how pretty they are.  You may even find yourself saying, "I like him...he has a nice spatula," with reference to a rose-headed, spatula-tipped, hand-wrought nail.
  • You have a lot of descriptors that are hyphenated (see previous point).
  • You clean artifacts with water and a toothbrush.  Sometimes just the toothbrush.
  • You spend hours trying to take the many pieces of ceramics (or bottle glass or whatever) and make them all fit together.  And when you do find cross-mends you yell out "Owned!" and throw your arms up in the air in a victory pose.
  • You know some random-ass facts.  For example, thimbles were seen as acceptable gifts from young men to the lovely ladies they were courting.  And you know that thimbles can get awfully fancy and be made of silver or gold and could have engravings.  Oh!  And you know that in the 1700s people loved themselves some fancy buttons and buckles and that at least 60% of the time, these objects were purely decoration and were not functional.  And that this had to do mostly with men's clothing.  George Washington was fabulous!
  • You lick stuff, fresh out of the ground, to try to figure out what it is. 
Tin-plated thimble with a fancy little design around the rim.

Archaeologists are also slightly neurotic.  You see, we sometimes find a whole bunch of little pieces of something that we know was once a single object.  So then we start putting it together. Here is a look at the process of finding cross-mending objects.  You start with all the pieces that you believe go together (in this case 14 pieces) and you look for patterns or breaks that look like they fit.  Just like a puzzle!  I should've taken a "before" picture, but oh's what I had after an hour or so:

I should've taken a picture of all the pieces before I got some of them together.  
Fourteen pieces of some sort of leather thing.  I was able to get it to that point before I threw my hands up in defeat and walked away.  But I didn't stay away for long......because I couldn't.  I knew they went together and by all that is holy in the universe I was going to figure it out!  And I did!  Sort of.  I got it down to two groups.  And it only took me around 2 hours.

No idea what it used to be!  But I left it, with my note, on my supervisor's desk as a Monday morning present.
Close-up of a few pieces.

And here's a look at some of the decor in our office...just because:

I like to pet him and mush his face...though he's all stuffed and whatnot, so he's not very mushy.
And here are some more friends!

I am particularly fond of the owl in the left side of the filing cabinets.  I like to think he's dancing.

*The Garbology projects have since expanded to other Universities, but if you want to read about it, the best book I know of is called Rubbish!:  The Archaeology of Garbology, by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy.

**In all honesty, these are pretty cool articles and are publicly (read:  free) available from the Society for Historical Archaeology's website. 

1995  Hill, Erica.  "Thimbles and Thimble Rings from the circum-Caribbean Region 1500-1800:  Chronology and Identification."  Historical Archaeology, 29(1):84-92.

 1991 Whelan, Mary K.  "Gender and Historical Archaeology:  Eastern Dakota Patterns in the 19th Century."  Historical Archaeology, 25(4):17-32. 


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