The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Archaeologists Don't Dig Up Dinosaurs...Except When We Do

Normally, when somebody asks me if I dig up dinosaurs, I become annoyed. I have to explain that archaeologists study the remains of past human activity, and that prehistoric animals (unless hunted and butchered by humans) aren't really my bailywick.

Then this week happened.

One of my company's owners realized that if he has us out there looking at the ground anyway, and we're already trained to identify bone and teeth, we might as well also be looking for fossils as well. This provides better protection for paleontological resources (archaeologists get around far more than paleontologists, as the laws requiring our presence tend to be a mite bit more strict and expansive). However, while there is a bit of overlap in the sorts of things that we look for (some of the early human sites in the Americas contain Pleistocene animal bones that paleontologists are interested in), there is also quite a bit of difference. So, having archaeologists qualified to identify and handle paleontological resources requires that the archaeologists actually, you know, get qualified to do so. To that end, my coworkers and I spent the last few days at a small paleontological museum being trained to identify and recover fossils.

Now, we were not being trained to be actual paleontologists. We are archaeologists who now have enough knowledge of paleontology to know how to protect fossils that we find and when we need to contact the real paleontologists to deal with things. Oh, and we will only do this work under the supervision of a real paleontologist, so it'll be difficult for us to fuck shit up too badly.

I don't know if it's just a reaction to HAZWOPER training, or if it was the content of these classes in and of itself, but the paleontology class has been a hell of alot of fun. We went from covering the laws and implementing regulations that provide what protection there is for fossils, to covering the basic geology that we need in order to make an assessment of the paleontological sensitivity of an area, to discussions of the types of fossils that we are likely to encounter in different parts of California. The next day we gained some hands-on experience preparing a fossil for collection*, and then preparing them for identification in the lab**.

So, basically, I got paid to hang out with coworkers, learn some stuff, and handle fossils. It was fun.

But I guess this means I can't be as pissy next time someone asks me if I dig up dinosaur bones. Harumph.

* When identified, if the fossil is both small and in good shape, it can simply be picked up. If it is large and/or in poor shape, then you engage in a process called "jacketing." In this process, you dig around the fossil in a process known as pedasteling (we use the same approach with certain types of artifacts in archaeology). Once the fossil is appropriately pedestaled, you place wet tissue (what you and I know as toilet paper) over the fossil, and then cover this with plaster-soaked burlap in order to provide a protective plaster-and-tissue cover. You then use your trowel to cut the pedestal off, taking as much dirt as is practical with you to further protect the fossil, and cover the underside in tissue and plaster. This produces a large plaster package that you can then take to the lab and be secure in your knowledge that the fossil is in good shape. Of course, before you even begin this process, you will take GPS coordinates and take notes on the nature of the fossil, location, orientation (on it's side, standing up, pointing north, etc.), and also note the local geology.

** This is where you use a dental pick and paintbrush to carefully remove the dirt surrounding the fossil without damaging it. It was fun to do, but I imagine would get tedious if it was what I normally did for a living.


RBH said...

I have to explain that archaeologists study the remains of past human activity, and that prehistoric animals (unless hunted and butchered by humans) aren't really my bailywick.

Hey, if Ken Ham is right, the two disciplines should be combined! :)

Anthroslug said...

One of the other archaeologists at the training was telling us about a site where she found fossils mixed in with the archaeological remains. The geologic context made it clear that the people living in the site had picked up the fossils and brought them in, but I kept insisting that this was proof that the Middle Period peoples of California rode dinosaurs.

Lynn said...

Was at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Alberta) a few weeks ago, and saw lots of dinosaurs but no one riding them... so disappointing!

The Royal Alberta Museum has a nice section on the indigenous populations, btw, including the Metis, a group I hadn't known much about.