The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, May 17, 2010

Uhhh, That's Not a Site...

Some years back, when I was working for a different company than the one that currently employs me, I was in charge of a large monitoring project in an area that was simply a filled-in estuary formed by the convergence of several creeks with the shore of the Pacific Ocean. By and large, the project was kinda' fun - we worked with a construction crew that was filled with colorful and interesting characters, I had a good crew of archaeologists working under me, and I was able to require one of my monitors to wear a bright-pink hard had. And we quickly discovered that walking in the trenches that were not waterlogged but that sat directly on top of ground that was resulted in each step taking on a weird bouncing characteristic, as if we were walking on a trampoline. Good times.

However, there was one incident that was less pleasant, but one that thankfully can be learned from.

About mid-way through the project, I received a phone call from one of my monitors reporting that a large excavator had uncovered a midden*. I notified my boss, and the two of us rushed out to the work site. The machinery was standing by, as were the excavator's operator and the construction foreman. My monitor was in the bottom of the pit, using her trowel to pick through the soil at the bottom and examine what was in it. My boss went down to join her, and I was left to talk with the construction crew.

"So, you can see it now, can we start working again?" the foreman asked me.

"Not yet, we need to figure out what this is, and the County has some protocols that we have to follow whenever anything is discovered." We then repeated these same phrases to each other for about ten minutes, until my boss returned with a handful of mud.

"This is classic midden soil! This is a site!" He was enthusiastic. Looking more closely at the soil, I was not.

Middens consist of dark, greasy soils, which this mud certainly was, and usually contain other materials such as stone artifacts, animal bones, shell and the like. In this case, there were numerous shells embedded in the soil, further stoking my boss's enthusiasm. But this is where the difference in training comes in to play. My boss had been trained and primarily worked in the western mountains and plains. On the other hand, I had been trained and worked primarily on the coast. So, when I climbed down into the put myself, I was not surprised to find that the soils were not a site at all, but were a buried estuary shore, which would also contain dark, greasy soil (estuaries tend to be rich in organic materials) and would contain shell. There were two things that tipped me off - one was that the sediments had a weird plate-like pattern, consistent with sediments impacted by wave action in an estuary but not with midden soils at an archaeological site. The other is that there were shells from both edible and non-edible varieties of shellfish, and no other bone or artifacts.

This was clearly an old estuary shore, and not an archaeological site.

Returning to the surface, I pulled my boss aside and told him that I didn't believe that this was a site. He was quite convinced that it was, and being the boss (and this being early in my career as a supervisor and therefore shy about fighting for my position on this one) he had his way and the non-site was designated a site.

This led to a several day chase in which I tried to fulfill the County's archaeological resource guidelines (which required speaking with a professor who was out of the country and therefore unavailable) all the while being called frequently by the foreman (who wanted to make sure that I knew how much the delay was costing), before my boss told the construction crew to go ahead and proceed.

In the end, it turns out to have been a good thing that this wasn't a site. If it had been, then my boss giving the go-ahead for construction would have been a violation of the county, state, and federal permits that our client needed for this job. For me, the lesson was: 1) always argue for your position if you have the data to back you up, even if this means arguing with your boss (since then, I have found that my current boss, not the same guy as the boss in this story, responds well to well-reasoned arguments in favor of a position), and 2) always know your regulations thoroughly - if this had actually been a site, then my boss's actions would have caused our client and our company considerable grief, possibly including legal troubles.

*Middens are areas of darkened soil resulting from the decay of organic materials. They usually represent the remains of old trash piles. They are also easily mistaken for other naturally-occuring areas of darkened soil.

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