I’m in the textbook.

I’ve been doing a little background reading for an article I want to write about single context archaeology (in addition to looking at textbooks to use for an Intro to Archaeology class)  and so I picked up Martin Carver’s Archaeological Investigation in the hopes that it would provide a better overview of methodology than the standard “Archaeologists dig in square holes!” American textbook. Of course I learned from Renfrew and Bahn’s Archaeology: Theory, Methods, and Practice and while I’m loathe to stray from the classic, I don’t think that students really need to become little Cognitive Processualists.

Indeed, Carver provides a good overview of what he calls the fossicker, historical, empirical, processual, reflexive and the evaluative methods. He cites Philip Barker  (who I have a soft spot for) for the empirical approach by saying:

For him the archaeological site was like a series of newspapers or carpets laid over each other, and cutting slices through them would show you nothing but disconnected shreds. He advocated large areas and the detailed digging of everything, even parts that were not thought significant to any research programme – because they might be one day. (…)

Early commercial archaeologists liked his approach: it implied that “everything” that was to be destroyed should be recorded. And it implied that it was to be dug and recorded with great precision: small scale, messy archaeology was next to useless. He set standards: archaeology must be very neat, immaculately clean, precisely defined and recorded in detail. Nothing else will do, and for those of us who learnt our trade in the late 20th century there can be no going back on this principle. Barker was an art teacher before he became an archaeologist, and his approach was to conjure a picture out of a sea of stony rubble by brushing and trowelling it – like a painter with a brush and a palette knife.


Sadly, I didn’t get to Carver’s approach, the empirical, because I was sidelined by this, under reflexive methodology:

So, that’s me on the right, digging “reflexively” in 2008 at Catalhoyuk. The plaster on the platform had been cut repeatedly to inter burials and then replastered again and I was trying to figure out which cut was associated with which plastering event. Man, what a headache.

It’s a little strange to be used to illustrate a concept that I’m not sure I completely endorse. I appreciate some aspects of reflexive methodology, and certainly Catalhoyuk offered some of the best archaeology there is to dig…but…I guess this is why you write your own Introduction to Archaeology book, right?

Health and Safety for Academics

I was excited to read what an archaeologist had to say in the New York Times as part of their science blogging special–there’s been a decent amount of buzz regarding the series on Twitter and on other blogs. I wasn’t prepared for this:

A 2×2 meter pit dug 6.5 meters deep. This is breathtakingly dangerous and her hard hat is laughable. The next blog entry mentions that the soil layers “have an almost cementlike quality” and that the pit had been consolidated with lime mortar.  Sadly, in the same blog post that protests about the safety of the excavations, we get this image:

Professors can write health and safety assessments that put themselves down at the bottom of a pit, but this guy looks like a workman standing at the bottom of a section that’s three times his height. No amount of wire fencing, lime mortar or hard hats is going to save this man’s life if the section collapses on him.

But nothing bad ever happens, right?

Just last December, Mario Bergeron, an archaeologist of 25 years, died after being buried up to his waist down a 4.5 meter hole.

The rule of thumb is for every 1 meter you go down, you should step back 1 meter. I don’t care how expensive this makes excavations, you are risking the lives of your crew.

To give you some idea, this properly stepped pit is about five meters deep from the fence line.

I’ve taken fairly breathtaking risks myself (not the least in posting this as it is potentially lethal to my career) but these kinds of practices are deeply ingrained in archaeology and someone needs to say something.

Never work over your head. Never let anyone tell you that it is a good idea or that you aren’t being tough enough. Never work alone.

Taking your levels.

“You do what?!”

We’d come across a photo of some American archaeologists (not the one above) taking depth measurements by using a nail, a line level, and a string and I was trying to explain why they were doing this.

“See, you take a nail, and you file a line on it, then you measure its the line’s height from the ground when you pound it in, then you tie a string to that filed line, then whenever you want to measure your unit…”

“Your what?”

“Uhhh, your sub-sectioned, arbitrarily dug context…you pull the string across….”

“What if your context is bigger than a meter wide?”

“You know that they dig in meter squares in America. Following the shape of the actual archaeology is unscientific.”


“Yeah. Anyway, so you pull your string across, making sure that the line level’s bubble is in the middle and then you measure to the depth of whatever you are digging, generally to see if your ‘unit’ is dug exactly to a 10 centimeter depth in each unit corner….”

“But what if the context that you are digging is sloped?”

“It’s usually ignored and picked up in the sections. Any finds are pedestaled to maintain these arbitrary levels.”

“Oh. So what happens if it rains or if your nail comes loose? How do you keep track of these randomly assigned heights across an entire site? You know we live in the 21st century, right?”

“Any decent finds are recorded with a total station. If you have one. And there’s someone who knows how to use it.”

“Why not just have an accurately surveyed datum and use a dumpy level?”

“Because whereas meter squares are ultra scientific, actually measuring anything accurately is not. And reducing levels is hard.  Math, y’know.”



The dumpy level. The guy holding the staff needs to straighten up a bit.

This conversation has been slightly modified from its original form and content. No American or British archaeologists were harmed in the making of this blog entry. Hopefully.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

2-Biface Knife2

If you’re an Americanist archaeologist:  Nothing.

He is clearly within an undifferentiated layer of yellowish sediment.  He’s been digging in arbitrary levels and pedestalled a biface for recording its depth, then will collect the biface and level the pedestal to the arbitrary “floor” he has excavated to in the rest of the unit. 

If you’re a British archaeologist: Everything.

He has clearly hit a surface that the biface used to sit on, and he should have levelled to that floor to preserve context, recorded everything on the surface, then removed the biface and continued until he found the next surface, as signalled by a stratigraphic change or more artifacts. By pedestalling the artifact he removes its context. 

Nice biface, regardless!

(My thanks to Travis S. for posting such a graphic example of this.)

%d bloggers like this: