Second-Worst Possible Fieldwork Result

My excavation at Sättuna has taken an interesting turn. I'm not feeling particularly down about it, but the fact is that we're getting the second worst possible results.

The worst result would be to mobilise all this funding and personnel and find nothing at all. We're certainly not there.

The best possible result would be to find all the cool things the metal detector finds had led me to hope for, viz the foundations of a 6th century aristocratic manor. We're not there either.

The second best result would be to find other cool things than the ones I had expected, say, something with quite another date or function than I was looking for, but intriguing (and publishable) in its own right. No such luck.

What we have found is plentiful prehistoric remains, about one sunken feature per four square meters, quite labour intensive to document, and completely banal. And unpublishable. So I have the funding and the personnel to dig the site, I have the heritage-management responsibility to dig it, but I have no scientific motivation to do so. It's like winning a year's supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell.

When you strip a field in Sweden's southern third, there is an overwhelming chance that you will run into an Early Iron Age settlement from c. 500 BC to AD 400. They are characterised by innumerable small pits filled with dark soil, a little charcoal and nothing else. Among them, you will find a good number of hearths, and if you're lucky, a few house foundations made up of post holes. None of these features are likely to contain any small finds. The great majority of them can't be ascribed any functional interpretation at all: they're just pits. These settlement sites are the main occupation of Swedish contract archaeologists. I had the misfortune of spending the field season of 1992 on one of them, right under the current direct railway to Arlanda airport.

What has happened at Sättuna is apparently that the part of the mid-1st Millennium metalwork scatter that we have stripped is located on top of typical humdrum Early Iron Age settlement remains with a light dusting of lithics from shore-based activities in the Middle Neolithic Late Mesolithic. The 6th century activities I came to study have apparently taken place on that era's ground surface in this part of the site, not involving the digging of any deep pits, and so that material is now contained entirely in the ploughsoil, where it is for all practical purposes only accessible through metal detecting. The post holes of the 6th century buildings are very likely to be found under the adjoining field, where the metalwork scatter's centre of gravity is, and where the land owner has just planted a crop of wheat-rye hybrid grain that cannot under any circumstances be disturbed.

But we soldier on bravely, cleaning the surface to find more pits and hearths, sectioning them, sieving the fills and finding almost nothing worth sticking in a zipper bag. We've done more than half of the sunken features already, but there is of course always the possibility that the next one you uncork is different from the rest. In the light of previous experience, though, this does not look at all likely.

BTW, today I came up with a pun.

Q: What do you call an archaeologist with nothing to excacavate?

A: Featureless.

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1) I don't get the pun;

2) you didn't by any chance consider your misspelling of "excavate" as a pun somehow, did you? As a CDSJELEA (Certified Dilettante of the Study of Just Enough Latin to be Extremely Annoying) I find "excacavate" interesting in its combination of ¨cacare" and "cavare¨.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. What are all those small pits? Are they post holes? Were they part of buildings or fences? Were they used to store grain? Can you float the soil and look for tiny charred grains or other plant material? The modern farmer is growing hybrid wheat-rye. What were the Neolithic and Iron Age farmers growing? Any chance you can come back next year after the neighboring field has been harvested and excavate there?
Good luck. I hope you find something publishable.

Aww... maybe you'll still find something write-uppable. Perhaps some sixth century outcast horded interesting items in a hut right where you'll next poke around.

I thought the joke was funny, but don't think it fits the defenition of 'pun' in any language. Still funny, though.

That would be 'hoarded', I think.

Dveej, check out how I use the word "feature" in the main text of the entry.

Haha, "ex-caca-vate" is good!

JSB, thanks for the encouragement! The pits are not postholes from houses or fences. If they contain charred plant remains, they are unlikely to be worth the cost of analysis, as the pits provide no functional context that the plants might flesh out. Returning at a later date will have to wait a long time, as I am wrapping up my 1st Millennium aristocracy project and moving on to other things.

On many sites in Denmark the plough has destroyed the younger (Vendel, Viking) features while the pits, postholes etc from early iron age remains. Could it be the same here?

Yes, I am certain that a lot of shallow features have been obliterated, that is, the ones that didn't reach the glacial subsoil. But we would still be able to see any roof-bearing postholes, since they have to be dug very deeply.

Speaking as an archaeologist: Great joke!!! :D

I feel for you. It is always a gamble with excavations. But really, i think Iron Age archaeologists must start reflecting more about how to excavate, for what and why. A lot of information still rests in that mixed up top soil and correlating the distribution of all types of finds, not just metal ones, to the underlaying features might lend insight into spatial organisation.

Still, it is an ugly truth that not all sites are remotely equipped to yield interesting information. Just remember - it could be worse.

And you have the added bonus of Neolithic finds! Lucky you. Any pottery, or just stone?

The plough layer we've removed over about 800 sqm was 0.35 m thick. This works out to a volume of 280 cubic metres. We've metal-detected it in layers of 15 cm. Would you like to sieve it for me? (-;

No Neolithic pottery so far. In fact, only two sherds pre-dating the 18th century, both of the ugly 1st Millennium type.

God argument for plough soil archaeology though. Only striping the field wouldn´t have given you any evidence of aristocratic presence, while the metal detecting certainly did so.

Talk to the farmer and pay him for his loss of income! Im sure he will let you expand into the other field if he wont lose any money.
Good Luck
Martin S

Nope, tried that. It's the standard method of getting access to farmland for excavations. But this guy wants to do his farmer thing and is happy to allow me to do my archaeologist thing only as long as I don't interfere with his work. He is not primarily driven by economic rationality. Quite common among farmers, I believe.

May I ask you what may seem a foolish question? Are the post holes you find in such large numbers arranged in circles or in squares? It actually makes a big difference to my own research. And if they are in circles (or ovals), what is the diameter of those circles? And can you tell if the posts that were once in those post holes stood straight up, or if they leaned? And if they leaned, which way did they lean? Did they lean toward the center of the circle, or toward the outside of the circle, or every which way? I'm studying housing construction, starting with Homo erectus and going all the way to historical times, and all these things make a difference, actually.

By DianaGainer (not verified) on 20 Sep 2008 #permalink

"A lot of information still rests in that mixed up top soil and correlating the distribution of all types of finds, not just metal ones, to the underlaying features might lend insight into spatial organisation."

That is correct! On the sites that i have metaldetected (systematicaly) the top soil and features i have between 90 -100% of the non iron (prehistoric) artefacts in the top soil...

Diana, we have only a handful of postholes, spaced out too widely to belong to the same structure. But there is a large literature on prehistoric house construction in Scandinavia.

knowing little about european archaeology, but having heard some rumors about methods that are different than we have here - might i suggest collecting some samples from the pits and sending them off for phytolith analysis? you'd then have a) a type of data set not common for the region, so it would be publishable at least for that reason. you could also decide to float samples of the same pits and then see how well the phytos compare to the macros, that would be a useful reference piece for future researchers.

Thanks Megan. These sites are the commonest garden variety in the business, so another paleobotany and/or phytolith dataset won't wow any journal editors. The main problem is tying such data to some interesting prehistoric behaviour or custom beyond "digging lots of pits and backfilling them". Quite apart from the fact that I could personally not contribute actively to such lab work, and would thus be lucky to become a credited author at all.

I'm gonna cut my losses here: dig the surface I've stripped in a decent manner, write it up and pull out as cheaply as possible.

Heads up, Martin (and all other Aards out tere)! Please check out starting from now and for the next couple of days or so. There will be a sh*tload of cool detector finds (the posting has commenced) from the metal detector rally at Thy, Jutland (Denmark), the weekend past. The finds date primarily from the last 2000 years, but since that is quite a wide stretch, some finds are orphans and would very much appreciate being informed about where they come from. Let'em grey cells do their thing!

Tobias: Wow! Archaeology porn! Very nice site - thanks for the link.

Martin: Be careful what you wish for! If I were back in Sweden now, I'd sieve till my hands were raw for you, just for the sake of sieveing (and cuz I'm not quite right in the head and think sieving mud in the rain is good therapy).

By Christina (not verified) on 22 Sep 2008 #permalink

Considering that the Stand der Forschung on Iron Age settlements in Ãstergötland for some reason appears to be that continuity from the EIA to the LIA is about as rare as hairs on eggs, it would seem that the results of your field-work is quite interesting.

By Svante Norr (not verified) on 28 Sep 2008 #permalink

Thank you Svante, I hadn't thought of that. At least the fieldwork results allow us to say that the late-1st Millennium settlement at Sättuna has an unusually long ancestry on site, though the actual quality of the Early Iron Age evidence is mundane.

Gotta get the charcoal samples to the wood expert before sending them to Poznan for radiocarbon.