When I was a kid, summer weekends meant time at the family country house in Western Massachusetts without any cell phone service, Internet connection, or television. Built on an old 18th century farm, there simply isn’t the infrastructure to support those 21st century luxuries. As it turned out, my inability to watch Saturday morning cartoons was a blessing in disguise.
Every morning at the crack of dawn I left the house and walked around looking for things. I wandered the lawns and fields and brook looking for things that stuck out from the landscape. I found rusty nails, old bits of tractors and cars, animal bones, bricks, and remains of toppled buildings. I imagined the stories of the items I had found, and like many people who have dug up rusted bits of metal and bone on their property, I thought I had made some pretty important discoveries. “Look!” I thought as I held a rusty piece of farm equipment that I had taken out of the brook that morning in my hand, “this shows so much about those people’s lives!” But what had I really learned? That there had been a farm here? That metal rusted over time? I knew all of those things; I hadn’t learned anything from my precious artifacts.
Like so many “backyard archaeologists” I had failed to see my finds in their archaeological context, forgoing any real knowledge of history I could have acquired from them. It simply didn’t occur to me that to learn anything, I couldn’t just go around picking up pieces of metal and gleaning facts about them Sherlock Holmes style. I should have mapped out the section of the brook, record the artifacts precise location, asked myself more questions that had never occurred to me. Was this artifact in its primary context? Or had it been uncovered and washed down the brook to where I picked it up? Would further excavation have turned up more artifacts and features? Was the user of this tool the same person who built the stonewall that stands 25 feet up the bank? I didn’t ask any of these questions, I simply pictured some farmer from blurred decades and centuries tossing junk into the water.
As I’ve become more aware of the complexity of the archaeological process, from surface survey to excavation to data analysis, I think of those artifact I found as a child not as individual pieces of rusted junk, but as a trail of bread crumbs; which upon proper analysis could lead to insights about the history of the property and its transformation from working farm to family house. Maybe next summer I’ll excavate the area of the field where a barn burned down in the 1960s. And this time I’ll actually take the steps necessary to learn something valuable from those little pieces of metal I find.
You touch on a very important issue in your blog; post-depositional processes are not always environmental phenomena or animal disturbances. Humans play a critical role in the preservation (or destruction) of the archaeological record. People repurpose land for new purposes, and let structures they don’t use fall in disrepair; the remnants of the old farm that once stood on your family’s land speak to this fact. As a child, you even played a role in changing the context of these artifacts – the things you picked up, even if you tried your best to put them back exactly right, will have moved slightly from where they were originally. One of the greatest challenges of archaeologists is preventing human intervention at archaeological sites. Even the most innocent visitor is often unaware that picking up artifacts is damaging to the archaeological record, and intentional looting is all too common. For instance, the site of the Donner party cabins, where most of the unfortunate travelers spent their starving winter, was heavily looted. The Donner cabins, next to the lake of the same name in northern California, were combed over by waves of pioneers, each looking to take a souvenir of the infamous, ill-fated group with them as they made their way into California. University of Nevada researchers at this site acknowledged that their findings were fractions of what they would have been, had the site been untouched by amateur archaeologists and looters. Read more about their work here: http://scahome.org/publications/proceedings/Proceedings.05Hardesty.pdf