I forgot…sort of

Hello again,

I feel somewhat embarrassed crawling out from below my stone, some five months since I last posted.  Following all the sweeping changes of the last few months I kind of forgot I had this blog, but I also sort of stopped giving a crap.

A chance email from a friend earlier today jogged my memory, and so I figured I’d bring things up to date.

I moved to the DC area with my wife in September and she began her job as a museum specialist in the Smithsonian, while I kept looking far and wide for work.

The Smithsonian may be a very prestigious institution but my wife’s pay is crap. So for about a month or two we lived at the edge of poverty, our savings cleaned out by the cross-country move and the very high cost of living in the DC Metro area. Both of us began thinking about the option of food-stamps without actually uttering the words.

Then I finally caught a break.

In November I was hired by a large multi-national environmental consulting and engineering firm to be one of their senior archaeologists.  What that means is that I get to plan and execute archaeological survey, testing, and recovery projects ahead of large development projects.  Its a pretty good job with great pay and a goodly amount of responsibilities.

I don’t get to do my own research, but I have been able to take part in some interesting projects in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware over the last few months.  That’s three more states under my belt. I think that brings me up to eight in which I’ve put shovel to earth.

Right now I’m finishing up the project report on work we completed in Howardsville, Virginia. Howardsville is a small hamlet settled by freed slaves after the Civil War and continuously occupied by the descendants of the first settlers until today.  The community is largely abandoned now, and the youngest people still living there are perhaps in their 50s.  The location will probably be developed soon, so it felt good to be able to do some work that is documenting almost a century and a half of life in what is a vanishing community.




I mentioned before that I’ve been doing cultural resource management (or CRM) archaeology for about a decade now. CRM is a fancy term to encompass things like historic preservation, protection and preservation of historic sites, properties, and artifacts, graves protection and repatration, public outreach, and so forth. Most of the time though, CRM means determining if sites will be impacted by development, and if necessary, excavating them to collect archaeological and historical data which will be lost if the site is destroyed.

The CRM industry exists largely due to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act which requires that

“to take into account the effect of the
undertaking on any district, site, building,
structure, or object that is included in or
eligible for inclusion in the National
Register.” [16 U.S.C. 470f]

What this means is that if a development project is funded by Federal (or federally assisted) monies, it requires an assessment of historic and archaeological properties which will be impacted, and their mitigation if they are deemed important. There is a lot more to it than just that, and different states also have their own laws and regulations. For example, in Washington State where I’m currently living and working, there are laws which require all developments within a certain distance of known sites and or coastlines to include an archaeological assessment prior to any earth moving.

I was out in the field doing just such an assessment today. A coworker and I were sent out to a property on the south side of Drayton Harbor to inspect the portions which will be excavated as part of a septic installation. Drayton Harbor is located in northwest Washington right on the Canadian border. In the photo below you can see the harbor and the city of White Rock, British Columbia on its northern shore. You can also just barely make out the Canadian Rockies in the distance. Quite a view, eh?

View of White Rock, British Columbia from Drayton Harbor

we typically test an area by digging shovel probes. Shovel probes are small circular excavations about a foot in diameter and of variable depth. In Washington we typically dig shovel probes down into glacially deposited soils, as the thinking goes that no humans would have been around to deposit their trash prior to the glaciers that were in this region some 13000 years ago.

We dig the probes at more or less fixed intervals and screen all of the dirt from each hole through 1/4″ mesh. The idea is that if there are any sites in the area we will see artifacts in the screen, and then we can map where we found them. As we lay out a grid of shovel probes and map it, we can then see the extent of the site in space. Its how we find and map in sites.

Above is an example of an excavated probe.

Shovel probe survey is the nemesis of any self-respecting archaeologist. They’re tedious, back-breaking, and generally shitty. Most of the time you find nothing, and then you just pick up your gear, and haul it over to the next probe. Sound like fun? No? No, it isn’t.  But every once in a while you do find something.

We got a little bit lucky today. We found very diffuse, highly disturbed remnants of a shell midden on the property we were working on. Shell middens are pretty much piles of shell that people threw out in the past. If they did it enough, then the shell middens built up over time, and formed their own soil matrices and landforms. The people living on the coasts of Puget Sound ate a whole hell of a lot of shells, and then dumped them outside of their villages and camps.  They also threw out other food refuse, broken tools and other random garbage into their middens.  Over time, these shelly landfills would decompose and a shell/soil matrix formed.  People then built over the middens, placed their houses, storage pits, cooking pits, hearths, burials sometimes, and other things into the middens, and with time dumped their own garbage on the peripheries as well. Give the process several thousand years and you can imagine the palimpsest of occupational histories which builds up.

What we found today wasn’t nearly as fancy. It looked more like a series of small deposits, perhaps a basket or two of shells that were then kicked around and spread out over time. The shells were badly crushed and there wasn’t many of them. There was also very little garbage in the midden besides the shell. Whats more, judging from the burned soils and tree roots in the region, it looks like historic loggers clear cut and pulled stumps from the location, and messed up what little deposits there were to begin with. So a site like this isn’t much to write home about. It won’t get saved as there is no real data potential there. Its just mixed up scattered shells. Yes, we know the Indians out here at a lot of clams. This isn’t going to advance anybody’s knowledge. But we recorded it, and it will go into the records for posterity. Perhaps someday somebody will want to study the distribution of small camps across the landscape. Or maybe not, whatever. Either way I got payed. I’ll also get payed for writing up the report that describes how this thing was no big deal.

It’s good work if you can get it.