|At an excavation in Oklahoma,|
Warner uncovers the remains of a
building foundation once owned by a
Miami family in the late 1800s and
Historical archaeologists such as Mark Warner investigate through excavations and written records how people lived in the recent past. History is considered “recent” rather than “prehistoric” when written sources from that period are available. If we already have documentary evidence, then why do we need to dig? In recent history, only a relatively small percentage of the population made efforts to record the events of the day and therefore the lives of many were never documented. For example, we know a great deal about how someone like Thomas Jefferson lived through his writings, but what about his slaves? Excavation of artifacts, in combination with written documents, has been able to tell archeologists stories about how everyday individuals—just like you and me—lived in the past.
Describe this field
Historical archaeology is quintessentially a social science—we study the relationships between historical objects and texts to discover information about human society. When we conduct an excavation, it is a team endeavor: Some members examine documents in local archives, some use transits to map out the excavation site, and still others excavate and process artifacts. After the digging is over, we head to the laboratory where the real work begins. In the lab, the identification, cataloging, analysis, conservation, and curation of artifacts occurs. This technical work gives us a full record of the dig and all of the objects we recovered. The ultimate goal is to tell a story about how people lived in the past through the artifacts recovered in our excavations.
The basic objective in the lab is to make sure that artifacts do not suffer further damage or decay. In many cases, this is largely a matter of cleaning and storing the objects in chemically stable bags or boxes. Ceramics and glass generally require relatively little in the way of conservation. In contrast, bone and metal preservation can be more labor intensive. A consolidant is applied to arrest deterioration in particularly fragile bones; metal corrosion must be removed through sand blasting or electrolysis and further corrosion is prevented by a sealant application. In addition to conservation, we determine fragment counts for ceramics and glass, reconstruct broken sherds to identify an object’s function, and calculate weight estimates based on recovered bones.
A typical day?
For the last eight years, one of my projects has involved working with the Miami tribe of Oklahoma. The Miami Indians were forcibly moved by the U.S. Government twice during the 19th century from their ancestral territories in Indiana and Ohio to Kansas and again to Oklahoma. For 15 years, the tribe has been actively trying to rediscover the history they lost through those relocations. My excavations in Oklahoma, as well as other archaeologists’ work in Indiana, has contributed to an understanding of how the lives of tribal members have changed over the past 150 years.
During the summer, when I am running an excavation, I am sort of a “jack-of-all-trades.” I keep track of the actions of 5 to 25 excavators, take notes on the excavation’s progress, record where all of the artifacts were found, check that supplies are sufficient, or give visitors a tour of the site. After an excavation is done for the day, I spend time sorting out the status of digs and how to proceed over the next few days.
Once an excavation is over, all of the artifacts are brought back to the lab. As a university professor, a majority of my time during the school year is spent teaching classes. I also spend a lot of time in the lab working with students who are continuing to analyze the artifacts that we excavated during the summer. I may help students catalog artifacts or offer suggestions on what to look for when identifying objects. For instance, I suggest where a particular ceramic fragment may have been manufactured, point out landmarks on a bone that aid in species identification, or indicate where cut marks modified a bone. After everything is analyzed, the excavation results are written up to tell the story we uncovered.
- B.A. Anthropology and
Government, Beloit College;
M.A.A. (Masters of Applied
Anthropology), University of
Maryland; Ph.D. Anthropology,
University of Virginia
On the web:
- Prehistoric archaeologist,
archivist, historian, historical
research assistant, cultural
artifact specialist, museum
Advice for students?
The best way to learn about archaeology is to actually participate in an excavation. Almost without fail, students will discover whether archaeology is a passion by working on a dig and spending time getting their hands dirty (and most likely blistered!). Students should also read about the field—good starting points might be Charles Orser’s textbook Historical Archaeology or James Deetz’s book In Small Things Forgotten—and simply talk to a historical archaeologist.
A field archaeologist generally needs a bachelor’s degree, so students should strongly consider going on to college. To be the person in charge, the principal investigator, the minimum education requirement is a master’s degree. A doctorate is necessary to teach at a college or university.
Why do you like this job?
The summer I became hooked on archaeology was the best of my life. Right after college I participated in a 10-week field school in northeastern New Mexico where I began to learn about archaeology. Since that first summer, every field project that I have been involved with has generated memorable experiences and recovered exciting artifacts. The key thing to keep in mind with archaeology is that finding bones, bottles, buttons, and ceramics are just a means to an end. The objects we find are interesting because of the story that they can tell about how people lived their lives.
I take great joy in two things—showing students another way of learning about the past aside from what is written in texts and contributing in a modest way to our understanding of the histories of people who tend to be overlooked in our books.
—By Megan Sullivan