Sunday, November 9, 2014

"How Do You Know Where To Dig?"

Mmmm, stratigraphy (

This is one of the questions that we frequently get asked when interacting with the public. Given the wide expanses of Florida's wilds it's no wonder that the public thinks there is more than touch of luck at play concerning the discovery of an archaeological site. To be fair, luck does play a  role in the discovery of many sites. Sites discovered during construction projects, artifacts discovered on a beach after a storm, and evidence of past human occupation eroding from the sides of a river bank are all examples of serendipity at play in discovering archaeological information. But we are scientists and don't deal in the currency of luck for our day to day work; we take what luck gives us and learn from it. While sites can be discovered by happenstance, more often it is through a careful examination of the landscape coupled with research covering past populations in a given area.

Archaeologists often know where to look for an archaeological site based on their knowledge of how sites are formed. This isn't rocket science. Humans, all humans, need food, water, and shelter. Find spots on the landscape that provide the intersection of those three necessities and the chances are quite good that past peoples used that area at some point. Of course this doesn't hold for all archaeological sites: Humans are weird and have a habit of exploring and trying to live in seemingly inhospitable environments. Deserts, mountain tops, outer space, even NYC, are all places that humans have somehow found a way to survive in. For the most part, however, the model of looking for good intersections of food, water, and shelter seem to work for most humans at most times.

Example of inhospitable environments that human survive in (

Recently we took some of our Timucuan Tehnology curriculum to the Oxbow Eco Center to talk about archaeological site formation with a group of young students. By understanding how a site is formed the students learned how archaeologists work backward through time in their excavations of a site. Students got a chance to actually make a "site" using "artifacts." Students first learned about the Law of Superpostion and why intact stratigraphy is so important for archaeologists. The students were broken up into two groups. The first group had a certain set of "artifacts" to choose from that would represent a Florida site from the Paleo Period to roughly the Early Archaic. These were represented by some charcoal for firepits, animal bones, stone for tools and some shell. The next group of students came to the site and furnished it with stratigraphic layers representing the Middle Archaic to about the time of Contact. These layers incorporated the previous types of artifacts, but also included much more shell, bits of pottery, and glass beads and metal goods closer to the top. After we were done we had all students come out and investigate the site and make inferences about cultures represented in the stratigraphic layers: What was changing? What had stayed the same? What can we say about these past peoples just by looking at how this site was formed?

The group walked away with a better understanding of how archaeologists work and why site preservation is so important. Cultural resource preservation is contingent on environmental resource preservation and we couldn't have asked for a better host to get that point across than the Oxbow Eco Center.

Text by Kevin Gidusko
Pics, except where url given, by Kevin Gidusko

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