The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, April 12, 2010


I am working on a report. Most of the sites that we found during a large survey last year were historic sites - that is, these are sites created by people since the introduction of writing into North America. Although I am a prehistoric archaeologist by training, I have always found oen thing particularly fascinating about historic sites, and that is how they contain a mix of the familiar (many of the artifacts are similar or even identical to items found in most households today) and the alien (as technology has changed, many of the items that were once common have been phased out). Items that are still common were often once made of different materials, or shaped differently, or of a different size, adding to the weird temporal disorientation that comes with dealing with these sites.

Even the creation of the sites often demonstrates changes in how we have lived over time. It is typical for historic trash deposits to be found near historic homes, sometimes in the pits that were once the outhouses. Prior to the modern sanitation system, the use of outhouses and the necessity to dispose of trash within a short walk of where it was generated often resulted in both types of dumps merging. As a result, archaeologists love finding old outhouse pits (don't worry, the gross stuff has long since decomposed away), as they are the repositories of more than simply old meals.

Other methods of disposing of garbage included burning it - and as a result it is common to find historic trash that has been scorched or melted - dumping it into a nearby ravine, or even just finding an out-of-view spot and tossing it there. Historic sites are full of old dumps, like this one:

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Common historic artifacts include fragments of bottles, cans, pieces of ceramic, bits of toys, artwork, etc. The following photos give a pretty good idea of what we often find at these sites:

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See what I mean about a mix of the familiar and the alien?

Often the sites containing these materials are covered with looter's pits. People love to collect old items, and this is a common way for them to grab them. Of course, the problems with this are two-fold. First off, when artifacts are taken from a site, they are removed from their context, and archaeologists find it difficult, if not impossible, to figure out what their relevance was to the people of the past. Secondly, if you take things from land that doesn't belong to you, you ahve comitted theft. And both private landowners and landholding government agencies have been known to press charges. There are people who have dealt with penalties ranging from hefty fines to jail time for advancing their antique collections.

There is beauty in the objects of the past, but it's best to take photos, and to let them rest. At least until some goober such as myself gets a chance to document them.

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1 comment:

The Lonely Traveler said...

"who's a goofy goober yay!"
-Sponge Bob Squarepants