FROM THE LAND TO THE LAB
By Tim Lemond & Sarah Taylor
Our last week of excavation brought us face to face with one of the challenges of fieldwork: adapting to the ecological environment. As archaeologists, we must not only be well-informed in areas of history, geoscience, anthropology, biology, and material culture studies, but we must also be quick thinkers when faced with unexpected obstacles in the field. Being at the mercy of natural forces is an understood aspect of the science of archaeology, which is so often conducted in difficult and uncooperative environmental conditions. When excavating, we painstakingly trowel our walls to keep them as vertical as possible, we relocate dirt piles to prevent avalanches from falling into our units, and at the end of the day we tarp over our work to protect it until the next morning. We can take precautions like these in the field which help preserve our excavations, but occasionally Mother Nature throws us a curveball and tests our ability to think on our feet.
We had intended to excavate all of the features we found by our last day on Friday (June 16th), and after productive days on Monday and Tuesday it seemed that we would be able to reach our goal. However, over Tuesday night heavy rain fell at Aztalan, inciting flash flood warnings throughout the area. We came back Wednesday morning hoping that the tarps would have protected the pits from water damage, as they had already done for nearly 4 weeks. Even though the tarps stopped any rain from falling into the pits, removing the coverings led to disappointment: water was standing in each of the units. Test Pit (TP) 7 and 9 were flooded in their deepest sections, and TP8 had its entire floor saturated with water. Heavy rain caused the water table to rise and flood into the units from below, something we could not have prevented. For the rest of Wednesday our progress was slow; we were able to excavate through features in the shallowest portions of TP7 and TP9, but further progress into their deeper areas was halted, along with any progress in TP8. We hoped that by Thursday, the water would have drained from the pits and we could finish excavating our last features, but the pits remained flooded.
Our excavations could not continue this week.
Luckily, there is more to archaeology than just “digging”. We redirected our energy to focus on curation: cleaning, archiving, and storing the artifacts that we collected over our 3½ weeks of uninterrupted fieldwork. Curation is a vital but under-represented area of archaeology, which is often glorified in popular thought as mostly exploration and treasure-hunting. Archaeologists do not conduct an excavation hoping to find “treasure”; every item from the smallest sherd of pottery to the most intricate stone tool is valuable not because of its individuality, but because of its place in a larger picture. Therefore, every artifact’s journey takes it from the field to the archaeology lab, where it is cleaned with small brushes and catalogued meticulously in trays along with other items found in the same feature.
Only altogether, and in the context of soil features, can the artifacts represent a more complete physical record of a by-gone time. For this reason, curating–and thus preserving–artifacts is an integral part of the archaeological process. In fact, labwork like this takes up much of an archaeologist’s time, especially during parts of the year when fieldwork isn’t possible (or when units get flooded!).