Magazine article Sunset

Going Digging; How You Can Join Up with Archeologists All over the West

Magazine article Sunset

Going Digging; How You Can Join Up with Archeologists All over the West

Article excerpt

Trowel, pen knife, and measuring tape as their tools, archeologists perform surgery on buried landscapes. Their efforts enrich the present by telling us about the experiences and achievements of the past. You'll find them on chilly Washington shores and in the heat of the Arizona desert. The work is hard on the knees and back and often dismally unrewarding. But archeologists do meet interesting people, some of whom have been dead for centuries.

Archeology often mixes history, anthropology, religion, and art. But even without formal training, you can join professionals in the field at no cost or for a fee of up to $100 a day.

The pros are understandably leery of amateurs; pot hunters have disturbed or destroyed more than 90 percent of all known major prehistoric sites. But volunteers with a serious interest and good stamina should have no trouble finding a dig or survey to join (see page 77). Most project directors share the opinion of Paul Baxter of the University of Oregon Field School:

"We can always use another pair of hands. There are tasks anyone can do that don't require formal training."

In recent years, thousands of volunteers from 8 to 80 bave gotten involved: housewives, students, doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, retirees. All develop a neartotal disregard for manicures and stylish apparel. "You get used to the taste of dirt," one told us.

On the dig site

Over a two-year period, six Sunset representatives joined digs in Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. Field work, we soon found, is not the romantic treasure hunt of the movies, but we did discover the thrill of turning up some tiny pieces of history.

What motivates people to get involved? For most, it's curiosity about the past combined with a desire for outdoor activity and a bit of the pack rat's passion for collecting things. All the volunteers we met shared a sense of commitment.

All digs begin with instruction on field methods. What you'll do depends on what the pros are looking for and how they hope to find it.

At "prehistoric sites," you may search for traces of villages and cultures that disappeared thousands of years ago, as we did in Northwest forests and grasslands. At "historic sites," you may seek evidence to support written history, as we did at a fort in Washington and a trading post in California.

In the Northwest, you'll most often be working in forest settings where low light, overhanging rocks, and lush vegetation can obscure sites and where wooden structures and artifacts deteriorate quickly in damp ground.

Artifact preservation is often very good at coastal sites, where you may find shell fishing hooks and jewelry, stone knives and spear points. The West's best preserved archeological sites are in the arid Southwest. Atop soaring mesas or nestled into cliffs, imposing masonry ruins contain pottery and baskets, and stone tools. As the dig gets underway, you'll map site contours and the location of all surface artifacts: broken pottery, blades, shell jewelry. Erosion, flooding, tree roots, or animal burrowing probably moved them from their original positions.

The commonest method is to mark off the site with a string grid and excavate only certain squares usually chosen randomly to assure fair representation of what lies beneath the whole site.

Using such small tools as palette knives, dental spatulas, masonry trowels, and brushes, you carefully strip away each layer of dirt from your "square." As you discover artifacts, you photograph and sketch them where they lie before removing them for cleaning and cataloging.

This work goes slowly Much of the time you'll be hunched over, digging in the dirt. Sometimes you won't find anything for days; then you may be rewarded with a stone hearth, an unbroken bowl or pot, or a finely finished spear point.

We found that doing a little background reading before the dig made it a lot more rewarding. …

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