Friday, May 21, 2010

How much to show?

Such a pretty part of the country:

Stream leading to the WallKill River

We're very near to the Black Dirt Region, which has unbelievably dark, rich soil that apparently can grow anything. It's the remnants of an ancient lake and was swampland before farmers drained it in the mid-1800s. Essentially peat, in fact. I'll try to get some pictures of it but I'm not sure my little digital can really do it justice. It looks like ground up oreos.

Our day today was very hot (high of 90, humid) and Leland and I dug a nasty unit. Full of rocks, clay bottom. Hard to dig, hard to screen.

Our gorgeous backdirt

See? Big!

Now, you may have noticed me being a little vague about exactly where we are and what we're doing. That's for a good reason. Of course, I want to be vague about company information, and so I won't reveal the company we're working for or post anyone's real names.

But besides that, archaeological sites can attract the wrong type of attention from people who don't understand the difference between archaeology and looting. We are careful about the way we dig - proceeding in levels, screening dirt, collecting all artifacts, mapping significant aspects of the site and each unit, lots of paperwork.

We're scientists, and each part of that work that we do in the field is a piece of the puzzle. When correctly assembled, we can figure out what happened at the site. Where we find things - horizontally and vertically - is just as important as what we find. In fact, it's more important. If we don't know where an artifact comes from within the site, it's useless to us. It's lost context, and therefore we don't know where in the puzzle to place it.

A lot of people have picked up arrowheads before, and many enjoy fieldwalking where they collect artifacts on the surface of a plowed field. I'm not crazy about this practice, but any artifact on the surface has been disturbed, meaning that it has been moved from the location where it was dropped hundreds or thousands of years ago. Usually in a plowed field this has happened because of the plow itself.

Some people take this habit a step farther and actually dig for artifacts. This is called looting. It destroys the context of the artifact and the site and takes away part of the puzzle from us, making it that much harder to figure out what happened. Instead of scientific information, the artifact becomes only a pretty curio. People who do this often don't realize that they're doing anything wrong, because they don't understand the other aspects of being an archaeologist - they think we just find stuff.

The worst offenders then sell the artifacts they find. Some rare artifacts (like certain projectile points / arrowheads or ceramic pots) can be worth a lot of money. This is part of the black market antiquities trade and it makes me furious. And don't get Leland started on people diving for underwater "treasures". Just like on land, underwater sites like shipwrecks lose most of their scientific value if they're ripped apart by looters.

So you'll understand that I don't want to identify specific sites or locations. The areas I have identified contained sites that are pretty well known.

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