So, as I said in the previous post, we are finishing the site records and writing the report for the project that had me out in Taft for most of last year. As I am working on this report and these site records, I keep thinking of an issue that came up every day during our time in the field: how do we define what is and what is not an archaeological site?
When I talk to non-archaeologists, this tends to get treated as a straightforward problem - if it has archaeological materials, then it's a site. right?
Well, sort of. The answer to the question is more complicated, and what that answer is depends in no small part on the reason why you are asking the question.
If you are a researcher, then you are faced with a basic problem - the locations where you find archaeological materials were not the only parts of the landscape that were occupied by or important to the people who you are studying. A sacred hilltop is a culturally relevant location, even though it may not contain archaeological materials. A location where leaders met to discuss matters is important to understanding prehistory, but might not contain artifacts. Places that were avoided are certainly important, as the reason why they were avoided will tell us something about how the people who lived in an area occupied the land. An area where young couples go to consummate their unions, so to speak, might also contain no artifacts, yet still be an important cultural location. And what about the locations between sites? Is the spacing between sites important? Is the empty space between villages or between a village and a satellite site relevant?
The point is that there are places on the landscape with limited or no archaeological materials present that are nonetheless important to an understanding of the people being studied. Should these be considered archaeological sites despite the lack of materials? If not, is there another designation that we should give them? Should we simply treat everywhere as a cultural landscape and not rely so heavily on sites? Should we pay attention to sites, but always try to account for why there is not a site in an empty location? It's a complicated question, and much ink has been spilled and many a tree killed in publishing arguments and pontifications regarding issues such as landscape archaeology, "site-less" archaeology, intra-site analysis, etc. Although every now and again someone will claim that a consensus has been reached on how to re-shape archaeology to account for these more difficult types of locations, it nonetheless remains the fact that archaeologists are still reliant on sites that clearly contain archaeological materials, pretty much as we have always been. Hardly surprising, as it is difficult to assess the cultural importance of a site that has no signs of cultural importance, despite some people's dubious attempts to do so*.
Okay, so that's research. What about where I currently occupy my niche - archaeological resource management?
Well, here the issue is somewhat different. We are informed by the academic discussions and debates, and they have helped us to better understand the landscape with which we deal. However, ultimately, we have to develop concrete definitions of the term "archaeological site" so that we can extend what protection the regulations allow to these sites. This means that when we ask the question "what is an archaeological site?" we have to take into account not only the cultural importance or use of a location, but also how that site articulates with standing regulations, case law, regional values and activities, the local landscape, and common practice. In other words, it's something of a Frankenstein's monster of a term.
So, we have to start with a question of age. Even though it can be fairly argued that, from a purely technical standpoint, any physical remains of human activity that is not a standing/functioning constructed feature is an archaeological site (including the remains of a legendary party), the regulations don't generally apply to anything that is less than 50 years old** (45 years old by some agencies' policies).
And then there is the question of artifact quantity. If only one artifact is found, then the location is not considered a site, but an isolate. Although there are exceptions, isolates rarely qualify for protection by themselves (although they are sometimes re-examined to see if there is a buried site). If you have two artifacts, then that may qualify as a site or an isolate, depending on the agency with which you are dealing. Three artifacts, and you typically have yourself a site (although this can get muddied, as some agencies have different thresholds for a site vs. an isolate for historic and prehistoric sites).
Artifact density also comes into play here - if three artifacts are found within a 10-square meter area, then you pretty likely have a legitimate site. If three artifacts are spread across a quarter-square mile, then you probably have three isolates. However, this is also where local landscape comes into play. In one region of California, for example, you can't walk more than 20 feet without finding a historic artifact. Now, if we wanted to get really technical here, we would have to say that a 400-square mile area covering multiple counties is one big archaeological site. Such a definition might be valuable for a researcher (or it might not, depending on what they are doing), but it's pretty damn useless for resource management, not least because most of that area, while covered in materials, isn't going to qualify for listing on state or federal historic registers, and therefore is not going to be protected in any way.
The approach of the government agencies and archaeologists in the area is to treat the entire area as a "cultural landscape" in which it is known that people have been making use of pretty much every square inch of land for a couple of centuries. That being the case, rather than treat the entire area as a giant archaeological site, we locate areas of high artifact concentration and label them as sites, and the rest of the area is treated as "background noise" - valuable for understanding the context of our sites, but not particularly instructive overall.
The end result is that the definition of what is or isn't a site varies greatly across the land - even within the state of California, the term "site" is open to re-definition depending on what's going on in a given locality.
And people wonder why archaeologists are given to alcoholism***.
*You may notice that I am inconsistent with my use of the term "archaeological site" between the linked entry and this entry. This is, unfortunately, typical of much of the archaeological literature. As there is little clear consensus as to what is a site and what is not a site, you'll find that even an individual archaeologist will use the term a bit loosely.
**There are, of course, exceptions. If a resource is of exceptional historic importance, say Cape Canaveral for example, then it may qualify for protections even before 50 years have elapsed.
***Truth - archaeologists are actually notorious for alcoholism. I am something of a weird anomaly in that I rarely drink, and never to the point of inebriation, which leads many of my colleagues to falsely conclude that I am a Mormon (no joke).