Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Job: Part 1

I have been wanting to explain what I do to my friends and family for a long time.  I know people know I am an Archaeologist, but I doubt anyone really knows what all that entails, well, at least for me.  So basically this is a day in the life of me at work.  First of all there are multiple jobs I can do as an archaeologist such like research, lab work, survey, excavation... The diversity increases with education.  The two I do most are the latter.  Survey means different things depending on where you are.  The way it all starts is an organization, company, or government has a piece of land that is going to be developed or maybe it was burned in a fire, or possibly a timber sale.  Whatever the reason at this point you can survey, which means look for sites, artifacts, etc., one of 2 ways.  For example, at home in Tennessee I would do shovel testing which  means that a grid would be set up on the land being surveyed and a hole would be dug every so often (in a systematic way) and all the dirt would be pushed through a screen to see if there are any artifacts.  If you find anything then you set up units in four directions around that unit to see you find more.  And this is how you locate sites in areas where the ground isn't always visible because of vegetation. 

 I much prefer the way we do it out here in the Southwest.  We do pedestrian survey which means you get up super early to go hike in the woods or desert.  This is how it works.  You have a parcel of land you need to cover entirely by walking and trying to find all the archaeological sites present.   A crew of people line up anywhere from 15 to 25m apart and walk in straight lines whcih we call transects.  Someone leads the group with a compass, GPS, and map and we go up and back over and over again moving over each time to cover new ground.  We have to keep a vigilant eye on the ground looking for signs of historic or prehistoric occupation.  It could be anything from a can from the 30's or maybe a projectile point to flaked stone.  When you spot something the group stops and walks around the area to see if more artifacts can be found or if it's just an isolated find.  If lots of artifacts or a structure or other kinds of features (like rock piles) are found then we stop to record the site.  This involves everyone taking a different task to quickly get what information we need before walking again.  Someone maps the site, someone photographs it, others analyze the artifacts (types them so dates can be given) and a quick overall write-up is done about what we found.  Then we are off to walking again.  Looking for archaeology on survey not always means watching the ground.  Sometimes you have to look on the trees, aspen mostly, for dendroglyphs, historic tree carvings.  This may sound odd, but it can be really interesting.  Last year I did a survey north of the Grand Canyon in the Kaibab National Forest and most of what we recorded was dendroglyphs from sheep herders from the early 1900's.  Some carved very intricate pictures and others just their names and dates.  One particular guy, who the company eventually found in the Kanab, UT cemetery, carved HUNDREDS of trees leaving behind addition problems, money amounts, initials, and dates. 

Other things you have to look for are rock shelters or caves once inhabited, petroglyphs or pictographs (the difference is the former is carved into the rock and the latter is painted), and also any kind of feature.  A feature in this sense usually means any kind of structure or something earth altering like a sleep circle where a shallow depression is dug out for the purpose of sleeping (I found these near Yuma, AZ).  A feature could be a million different things from a rock alignment, to an old road, to a house.  

It's not always about the archaeology.  You have to be careful of animals like bears and mountain lions.  I did see a mountain lion once on survey.  It ran across my path just a few feet in front of me.  Sometimes you're walking over flat desert terrain and sometimes you are hiking up and down mountains.  There are so many different things you have to keep in mind while surveying from your purpose to just trying to stay upright and not trip on the lava strewn ground.  Sometimes its so exhausting and mentally draining, but it is my favorite work.  I love being able to hike and see new terrain in new places, while doing archaeology.