A Beginner’s Misconceptions of Archaeology

by Tom Brown
The first couple weeks of this archaeological dig have been incredibly eye opening. The differences between how I thought a dig was run and the reality of it are quite different. I’m also finding that what my parents thought I would be doing and what I am actually doing are also vastly different. To clear all this up I thought it would be helpful to post a few common misconceptions of an archaeology dig from someone who is completely new to the experience.
To start, my parents were very supportive of me going on this adventure but their idea of what I would be doing was a little skewed. From conversations with my mother, the word “hole” came up a lot when referring to the dig. I imagine that they were envisioning me belaying down a long shaft with a head lamp, uncovering Fraggle Rock in the depths of Boeotia, not seeing the sun for hours at a time. Fortunately (or unfortunately on those really hot days) we are in the sun the entire day and we have no trenches that would require a hard hat for fear of falling debris. The typical trench is a 5 ‘by 5’ square that we take off roughly 10cm (or less after we get past the top soil) at a time, exposing the layers of soil one at a time. This allows us to document the stratigraphy (varying layers) of the soil and document its history.
I had seen pictures of the EBAP project from years past so I knew that I would not be running around in underground tunnels, Indiana Jones style, but there were some surprises in store for me as well. While we are working in the 21st Century, methods of dirt removal are very similar to hundreds (or even thousands) of years ago. I have become very close friends with the pick axe and wheel barrow. Typically a trench team will remove a layer of soil by putting two pick axers in front, who loose the soil, and then shovelers will come in behind to remove the loosed soil. If your team is lucky, you also have a designated wheel barrower who will remove the the collected soil to the waste pile. The process repeats until you’ve completed a pass of the entire trench and the team will “clean” the newly exposed surface with trowels, brushes, and dust pans. The trowel, a very simple tool, is actually an archaeologists best friend and is incredibly handy for levelling surfaces, cleaning crevices, and making straight lines.
As you can see, the bulk of the labour intensive work is done without the aid of technology. We do have several important pieces of high-tech equipment, such as the total station, which we use to record the changing levels of the trenches as we dig lower and lower. Cameras are of course also used to document progress in each trench. There is always talk of inventing some new technology that would help us greatly in the process of soil removal, such as a “dirt vacuum” that would separate dirt from pottery pieces while also getting rid of unwanted loosed dirt. Any entrepreneurs reading this should take note; it’s a million dollar idea.
There are many other aspects of an archaeology dig that differ from what one would expect but to list them all would ruin the surprise for any potential diggers. It’s only been two and a half weeks but I can assure anyone who is considering on going on an archaeology dig that it will be one of the best experiences of their life. I expected coming into this that I would have a great time and I’m happy to say that the dig has completely followed through on that; no misconceptions there.


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