No Shovels Required: What the Surface Can Tell Us About the Past

When you think about archaeology, what immediately comes to mind? I’ll take one guess: digging. It seems obvious, right? If you want to learn about the past, you have to look at old stuff, and if you want to look at old stuff, you have to dig it up. Excavation is the best possible way to uncover history, right?

Not necessarily. All it took was one short fieldwork expedition to show me that you can learn an incredible amount about a site’s past without ever putting a shovel in the ground. In fact, you can discover a whole lot by just walking around.

Let’s take, for example, an out-of-the-way spot in upstate New York called Acorn Hill. Located just a few minutes’ drive away from the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains, this inconspicuous site contains a wealth of archaeological information.

 The Ashokan Reservoir in upstate New York, where I did my fieldwork.

Although the entire area is now forest, a well-trained eye can tell that parts of it were once used as farmland. How, you might ask? Well, the most obvious clues are the stone walls. Even a short walk in the woods will reveal a number of stone walls snaking through the trees. Although these walls have crumbled and fallen over the years, they can still tell us a lot about the ways that the land was used. Some, for example, have been blackened by smoke and soot, suggesting that they were once part of a house that had a chimney.

Sometimes the very stones in the walls can provide information. If the stones are large and piled together somewhat haphazardly, they were probably pulled out of the ground when a nearby field was plowed. And if the ground on one side of the walls seems smooth, even, and less rocky, it was probably a crop field. A lack of large, old trees can also suggest where fields once were.

This photo illustrates this pretty well. See how the ground on the far side of the wall is lumpier, rockier, and has bigger trees, while the ground closest to the camera is flatter and has fewer rocks and smaller trees? That flatter ground was probably a field.

That brings me to another set of fascinating clues about a landscape’s past: trees! They might seem even less exciting than stone walls—after all, Acorn Hill is pretty much covered with trees, and they’re not even manmade—but they can tell us a whole lot about the ways that the land was used.

Aside from looking at the age of the trees, we can learn a lot from examining the types and shapes of trees that we pass. Non-native trees, such as apples and pears, suggest human influence, as do clean-cut stumps. Wide trees with lots of low branches indicate that the land was once used as a pasture. Farmers often left one or two trees in an otherwise clear-cut pasture so that the animals could get some shade. So because there weren’t lots of other trees blocking the sun, pasture trees could spread out and use their lower branches to soak in extra light that forest trees didn’t get.

A tree in a pasture vs. trees in a forest. Note the differences in shape and number of low-lying branches.

So the next time you go for a walk in the woods, take a look at the ground underfoot and the trees overhead. You might be amazed by what you discover.


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1 thought on “No Shovels Required: What the Surface Can Tell Us About the Past

  1. As you aptly described, archaeology can be quite useful in determining the life ways of past peoples, even without ever touching a shovel to the ground. The fieldwork you mention here confirms what historical records tell us of the Catskill communities near what is now the Ashokan reservoir; the communities in this area were mostly centered on farming, raising livestock, logging, and quarrying. Given these livelihoods, we can guess how deeply they felt the loss of their land to the reservoir. However, considering their associated economic and social status, how much power would the people living in this region have had against the eminent domain proceedings brought on by New York City? Would even the small funds they received to pick up and leave have been necessary to start anew? To learn more about the residents of these towns and the impact of the reservoir on their lives, take a look at this short clip of a documentary about the construction of the Catskill waterways:

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