Week 1 – 3/28/17 and 3/30/17
At the first class meeting for Archaeological Methods (ARCN 246), Professor Alex Knodell gave us a crash course in the history of archaeology, from prehistory and the ancient world to the present. Alex’s lecture reminded me of one of my main motivations for enrolling in this class: archaeology is an interdisciplinary enterprise. Though the rise of radiocarbon dating piqued my interest, I found myself particularly drawn to the interpretive stage of archaeological science, or, using archaeological theory to place artifacts in their broader historical and anthropological contexts.
After discussing the two main types of archaeological fieldwork––survey and excavation•––we went for a hike in the Cowling Arboretum and applied survey methods along the way. Two sites of particular interest in the Arb were the site of the Waterford Mill and the site of the Women’s League Cabin. Through several of this week’s readings and through the Arb hike, I learned that mills have a significant role in Minnesotan history and are consequently of interest to archaeologists.
At our second class meeting, Professor Mary Savina gave a lecture on her work in the field of geoarchaeology and later took us to several sites on the edge of the Arb to survey for relevant geological features. I noticed changes in elevation, grass, soil, and the built environment, but later learned from my TA, Alex Claman, that archaeologists are more interested in the bigger picture than in seemingly disparate superficial details. More specifically, archaeologists try to figure out how a site may have supported human life in the past. For instance, whether a site seems to have the supports necessary for agriculture, and whether erosion and downhill slope suggest that a site could have had flood channels, can be considered evidence of human interaction.
•Surveying is not destructive, whereas excavation is destructive. In addition, surveying tends to cover more area within a site, while excavation always focuses on a particular piece of a site.
Week 2 – 4/4/17
During our Tuesday lab period, Archaeological Methods followed a multimodal itinerary through the area surrounding Carleton. Our first stop was the Carleton College Archives, where we met with one of the College’s archivists and examined archived documents from different points in Carleton’s 150-year history. I am really enjoying how the use of archaeological methods helps us paint a comprehensive history of a given place, which Tuesday’s lab further exemplified. Take, for instance, the site of the Women’s League Cabin in the Cowling Arboretum: when we visited the site last week, we learned that the cabin had suffered a fire, which, based on our readings on geoarchaeology, might prompt an archaeologist to survey the site for ash.• Then, at the Carleton College Archives, we examined decades-old insurance claims and Women’s League memos that referenced the fire. We also saw photos of the cabin in its heyday, helping us imagine what once stood atop the ruins, how it was used, and who used it. But I digress.
Next, we drove to the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault, MN, where our readings on Minnesotan archaeology and state history came to life: a seasoned archaeologist at the Historical Society showed us local artifacts that date back thousands of years, across myriad generations of regional Native American tribes. In particular, we pored over several bins filled with recovered ceramics and projectile points. It is hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that today, archaeologists can––with great certainty, at least––differentiate among the tiniest of aesthetic differences between artifacts, and then attribute those characteristics to a particular time period and Native American tribe. According to the guide, the most elaborate artifacts in the Rice County Historical Society’s collection can be attributed to the Mississippians.
On our way back to campus, we fast-forwarded to the colonial era and stopped at the ruins of the Archibald Mill, located on the Cannon River in Dundas, MN. According to signage at the ruins, Minnesota was primarily colonized by French fur trappers until the French and Indian War, after which the British took control. Though I had initially identified Minnesota with its countless lakes, I now see that it is far too simplistic to characterize a place by how it looks from 35,000 feet in the sky, or from satellite images for that matter. Instead, this week’s readings, discussions, and site visits reminded me to consider on-the-ground observations when characterizing a particular place. Thus, my new characterization of Minnesota now includes such features as prairie, grain, rivers, and mills––all in addition to lakes, of course.
•This reasoning, I must add, is backwards; a more honest approach would be to survey the site and interpret the presence of ash as evidence of human interaction––and fire, of course.
Week 3 – 4/11/17
Surveying allows archaeologists to search for artifacts on the surface of a particular site, precluding the possibility of land destruction. For our third lab period, we applied our homework––several readings about the principles of archaeological survey––to fieldwork in the Arb. We surveyed a corn field by “field-walking,” a process that plays out just as it sounds: walking along the field in an orderly fashion while looking for artifacts on the ground. Because we didn’t have the technology to thoroughly scan every inch of the field, field-walking allowed us to spot-check the greatest possible area for artifacts. In order to do this, we split into smaller groups, lined the edge of the field, used a tape measure to space ourselves 10 meters apart from each other. From each of our starting points, we proceeded in a straight line and scanned the ground.
Initially, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary along my path on the field. Had I lost focus, though, I would’ve missed something really important. Alongside several twigs and dead corn cobs, I noticed what looked like a bone from a small animal. I paused, brushed the twigs to the side, and ultimately uncovered a lot more bones, a jaw with teeth, and a patch of fur (see attached image). My group-mates and I bagged and labeled the findings, and I felt like a real archaeologist.
Week 4 – 4/18/17
This week, we surveyed again, but this time at a site of common interest to students in the class. The site of Pine Hill Village, located behind Goodhue Hall and near the Recreation Center, played a unique role in Carleton history. Pine Hill Village was a residential development that accommodated the post-war influx of GIs and their young families, allowing them to live as families in apartments while making a Carleton education possible. After the GI boom subsided, the college demolished Pine Hill Village.
In order to do some field-walking, we measured the boundaries of our grid with a tape measure, lined the boundaries with string, and split into groups to survey each quadrant therein. I didn’t expect to find any artifacts dating back to the Pine Hill Village era just from surveying, and ultimately found this to be true: though we found a beer bottle and a plastic food wrapper, for instance, we didn’t find any concrete from the Pine Hill Village building foundation, or even any ceramics from GI families’ kitchens. Personally, I think we might be able to find these things by excavating this site, as concrete and ceramic artifacts are probably deep into the soil at the site, if anywhere at all. I do think that surveying helped me reach this conclusion, though; oftentimes it is just as important to think about what is not in view in order to determine next steps.
Week 5 – 4/25/17
We began excavating this week! For our fifth lab period, we returned to the site of Pine Hill Village, but this time with shovels in hand. Before we left for the field, Alex used the computer program ArcGIS to show us an overlay, or layered map, of Pine Hill Village, which essentially lined up a satellite image of the site with an original floor plan of the Pine Hill Village residential community, and an outline of the grid that we created during our last lab period. The overlay allowed us to determine where in our grid the buildings once stood, which seemed to line up with two sites of interest that some of my classmates identified last week.
In the field, we gridded the two sites and split into smaller teams to carry out survey, excavation, and mapping projects. I was in one of the two excavation groups, and yes, my jeans got pretty muddy. One of the big takeaways that I got out of the (beginning of the) excavation process was the concept of contexts, which are distinct types of soil that archaeologists identify from each newly dug layer. In other words, suppose you’re looking at a patch of grass; that would be context #1. Then, after you strip the grass away, you reveal context #2. Next, you use a shovel to scrape away the top layer of soil, revealing darker, damper soil deeper in the trench; this is context #3. And so on. Contexts convey geological changes over time, and archaeologists determine the time period to which an artifact belongs based on its context, or the nature of its surrounding soil.
Also, I need to follow up from my fourth week blog post and correct myself; while surveying, several of my classmates found bits of concrete and other artifacts that likely date back to the days of Pine Hill Village. It surprises me to think that manmade artifacts, like the foundation of a residential building, can remain aboveground ~70 years after their initial presence. But this realization has made me reconsider my understanding of the geological side of archaeology ––maybe we won’t have to dig so deep after all.
(By the way, you can see captions by clicking on the photos.)