Digging up the Dirt on History

October 26, 2020

Science is about discovery - not always about things to come, but also about discovering the past. What were the native people like? How did we get where we are today? My name is Dalton Capps, and I am a product representative at Forestry Suppliers. I have a Masters Degree in Anthropology of which archaeology is a subfield. I was always interested in history, but I knew that I didn’t want that to be the only thing I did in college. So I took a couple anthropology classes and decided to make that my second major. The summer after my junior year, I went on my first archaeological field school where I worked at a Native American village site in Virginia. That was the moment I decided I wanted to do archaeology. I spent three weeks in the field excavating and examining artifacts from a 13th century village. I ended my undergraduate double majoring in history and anthropology from the Honors College at Ole Miss, and my masters thesis was on the same site I worked at that summer.

Archaeology is an important area of study not often discussed in K-12 departments, but it is a vital source for historical information using scientific techniques and cultural studies. In the United States, archaeology is mostly used to study the Native people that lived here before the arrival of Europeans. Environmental sciences such as geology, carbon dating, osteology, and soil studies all play a pivotal role in understanding the objects left behind by ancient people.

One of the simplest forms of archaeological methods is to study the stratigraphy in the ground. The basic principle of stratigraphy is when you look under the soil – the lower you go, the older things get. This can often be seen in the soil itself by looking at the various soil colors and types that appear as dig. These layers or levels help to further separate data into more concise categories. Of course, this is not always so simple. Things like construction projects or even natural occurrences, such as landslides or earthquakes, can cause a shift, putting the older material higher in the stratigraphy. This could be easily replicated in a classroom setting.

This concept is also used in geology. Geology is quite a bit different from archaeology, but there are several methods that do overlap. In my own studies, the ability to identify rock types has played an important role for determining different stone types that have played different roles in the world of tool making and use. Soil sciences play a closer role in the world of archaeology because soil color and composition can be used to determine where structures were built and what people used the ground for hundreds or thousands of years ago. The Munsell Book is the king of helping to differentiate soil colors, and texture flow charts help us categorize the consistency of the soil. Something with more clay than silt is going to be more difficult to grow crops in which may help us understand why artifacts are not found in soil with higher clay concentrations. To determine clay content, simply take a pinch of dirt and attempt to roll it out with your fingers. If it turns into flat ribbon-like pieces, it has a higher clay content.

The key difference between archaeology and similar disciplines, such as cultural anthropology or the study of linguistics, is the material aspect. Material culture, as we call it, refers to the physical artifacts left behind by the people who used to live in a certain place. That old coin or bullet casing you found in your backyard does not always count, but there may be a time in the future when it will. These artifacts can sometimes be split into a variety of categories. In my personal studies, that has mostly been two categories: lithics (stone tools or things made from stone) and ceramics (pottery). Since most of my studies have revolved around native people, most of the artifacts left behind can be put in one of these two categories. There are other types of items, such as animal bones, but these are not always worked on as tools. Even though these items may seem simple in nature, substantial amounts of information can be gained from them. For example, from flakes and stone tools, one can determine how and where a tool was made. Using a microscope, you could even determine how much a tool was used. Taking it a step further, if you find a large number of animal bones in the same place as several stone knives, it is entirely likely that those tools were used for butchering animals or maybe in the process of curing hides. All of this evidence eventually leads us back to what is most important: the human element. Why are people using these tools in such a way and why are they made a certain way? These questions are always the most difficult to answer with archaeology alone, which is why we often rely on the works of the descendants from the native people or from historic documents from early explorers.

My personal experience has dealt with a wide variety of subject matters from human remains to house structures. I have worked on projects in cemeteries removing remains, civil war era projects, and several projects dealing with 800-year-old native villages. These projects ranged from simply collecting artifacts off the surface to multi-layered unit excavations. I have also worked in a few places where I spent 4 hours digging and did not find a single artifact – and that’s not always a bad thing. Not finding anything simply means there wasn’t anything to find, so you know to move to a new location.

There are two basic types of excavations in archaeology: the shovel test and the test unit. A shovel test is really just digging a small hole in the ground to see if any artifacts are present and then moving on. A test unit is a slower more delicate way of going through the ground when you expect to find artifacts or evidence of human activity.

A simple test unit excavation can be replicated using just a few simple tools and some math. To make an archaeology test unit, you just need four nails, some string, a string level, some rulers, and a shovel and trowel for the actual excavation. Just setting up a test unit anywhere isn’t exactly how it works on a real dig site, but for this example we are just exploring our own backyard so any spot will do. Take one of your 4 nails and put it in the ground. Next, take a ruler and measure one meter out from the first as if you were going to make a square and place your nail. Repeat this step again. Then, use the Pythagorean theorem to properly place the fourth nail giving you a perfect 1 x 1 meter square. Once this is done, take the string and tie it around the edge of the square, but leave some extra so you can attach your string level for later. Take the shovel and carefully take off the sod. Once this is done, take your trowel and begin screening off the soil into a bucket. If you’ve got a screen handy, run the dirt through the screen to see if you’ve actually found any artifacts. Archaeologists typically dig in 10 cm levels, which may not sound like a lot of depth, but it takes longer to get through than you would think. This helps you keep track of what depth any artifacts are found in, but just doing something in the backyard probably wouldn’t guarantee any finds. If you find anything, take a Ziploc or brown paper bag and write the level in which you found the artifact. Real artifact bags would have a lot more information on them, but if you just have one test unit set up, you wouldn’t have to give a test unit number. It's not always as glamorous as Indiana Jones would make you believe.