Saturday, June 15, 2013

Last week I spent FOUR days at Titusville's Enchanted Forest Nature Sanctuary. Sounds magical, right? Amid pines and oaks, butterflies, birds, and bugs, a group of people passionate about a variety of topics gathered together to become Certified Interpretive Guides (CIG) through the National Association for Interpretation (NAI). Everyone had different interests and experiences, but we all banded together to better understand how to interpret. Many naturalists attended the training, but I wasn't the only archaeologist! 

During the four day course, the class explored what interpretation is, who interpreters are, and how to interpret effectively. Overall, the instructors encouraged us to view interpretation as an encompassing, expansive action in which anybody (with passion!) can participate. Artists, teachers, writers, shamans, philosophers, philanthropists (anyone!) can qualify as interpreters. Throughout the week, each of us worked toward developing an individual 10 minute capstone program to demonstrate our improved interpretive abilities. I focused on soil in archaeology. Why? Perhaps soils seem boring or simple; however, soil stories, as read by an archaeologist, can prove to be quite profound.

There's me-- toward the center-- along with the rest of the CIG
class and our delightful facilitators (front row).
If I said (or wrote) "soil," what would come to your mind? Dirt? Worms? Bugs? Farming and agriculture? Gardening? Plants? What can soil possibly tell archaeologists? How does soil help archaeologists understand the past? Can soil answer either of these questions? Well, of course! That's what makes soil stories  profound!

When digging, archaeologists pay attention to many details. People often link artifacts to archaeological excavation, but soil is important too. We dig and screen a lot of dirt, but our soil observations don't stop there. When excavating, we constantly pay attention to two big soil factors: color and texture. Changes in color and/or texture can help archaeologists understand the past landscape or environment (such as flooding or water level changes) or to see how people manipulated or impacted the ground (for example, bringing in clay to stabilize a house floor or building and using a hearth).

Studying soil is a science. We use Munsell soil color books to standardize color descriptions across the field and try to use words such as sandy, silty, loamy, or a combination of these words when referring to the texture. (Sometimes textures go crazy. Ever talked about a semi-silty loamy sand? It happens!). Looking at soil as we excavate levels or in a unit's profile (seen below) helps archaeologists to become familiar with the site and in which level(s) cultural materials will likely appear.

Archaeologists use two important terms regarding soil: stratigraphy and the law of superposition. Stratigraphy  relates to the different soil colors/textures in a unit. We also call these levels. The law of superposition relates to soil and artifacts. The idea is that younger artifacts appear in levels closer to the top of a unit and older artifacts show up in lower levels. Knowing the stratum of an artifact and the soil helps archaeologists to know a unit or a site and to understand the relationships between soils, artifacts, and the stories they hold about past peoples.

Stratigraphy galore!
Soil-- it's everywhere! Perhaps we overlook its potential to tell us much about the past. Every archaeological interpretation relies on soil studies in the beginning. Excavation is fun, analysis is imperative, and artifacts do help archaeologists understand the past and soil stories are profound too!

Text: Sarah Bennett
Photo: Enchanted Forest Nature Sanctuary and Sarah Bennett

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