The Trouble with Archaeology is . . October 29, 2009

By Toni Carrell, Ships of Discovery

I discovered early in my career that archaeologists have this love-hate relationship with artifacts. Or at least I have a love-hate relationship with them. It would be so much fun to just go out and dig up “stuff” and then go back to camp and take a shower and enjoy the evening with a cool drink.  But nooooo.

Hold that thought.

If you’ve been reading the blogs you will know by now that we are dividing the work up into several different tasks. The first task, and one that is ongoing, was to clear away the bush around the known structures on Ft St George Cay.  For the most part all of them were found (and even measured) by the true pioneer explorers of the island:  Brooke Foxe, Jack McWilliams, Walt Brewer, Terry Smith and Lee Smith. In the process we are cutting branches, raking leaf cover, snipping roots, and generally getting hot, sweaty, mosquito bitten and really dirty.

The second task is to connect the various structures – so far we have three distinct locales and a fourth possible.  To do that we have cut what Robert calls “elephant trails” between them.  Our elephants are of the miniature variety and the trail is more a track, but that is another story.  Randy, Will, and Robert have been doing a stellar job on that score.

The third task is to go out and locate previously unknown structures.  That is how Neal managed to get into the Poison Wood.  We are starting a bigger push on that task tomorrow.

The fourth task is to clean up the exposed structures and to begin their documentation. That is where I come in. My job is to draw and measure. But in the process of cleaning up the leaf litter during the initial clearing and then exposing the foundations, invariably artifacts show up.  Randy already mentioned the musket furniture we found.  When we find anything, we immediately put in a pin flag – a thin plastic stick with an orange flag. We’ve been very surprised at how many small finds have surfaced in this process.

And here is where my love-hate relationship with artifacts comes in.  Each of these artifacts, the ones that are diagnostic (that is, will tell us something important) and even those that are not (but will give us an idea of general activity areas) must be recorded.  Not just photographed, but their exact location noted. This entails taking measurements from each find to a baseline or other known point. You can think about it almost like a spider web – with all of the lines radiating out from the center to the artifacts at the ends and then connecting to the centers of other spider webs. Each artifact that is collected also gets a number and a little plastic tag so that it can be cross-referenced to the list of measurements.

Other team members are finding artifacts, not just me. So at the end of the day, or whenever I can pry them away from bushwhacking and exploring, I am tracking them down and making sure I can find all of their pin flags. Then Elizabeth and I crawl around on our hands and knees through the bush to get the measurements before the mosquitoes eat us alive or we inhale one that gets too close.  When that happens I am reminded that, “the trouble with archaeology is . . . the artifacts!”