The Personal Benefits of Doing Archaeology: Subversive subsurfaces.

In discussing the relevance of archeology to anything, there is an easy answer provided by my friend Peter Wells, a specialist in Culture Contact and the Central European Iron Age. Peter tells his students on the first day of class that "Archaeology is the study of everything that happened anywhere, any time, with any human beings that ever existed or exist now." And if you think that he is exaggerating, you don't know much about Archaeology.

Recently, my friend Elizabeth Reetz has asked a more narrowly defined question: "What are the benefits of environmental education through archaeology?" Elizabeth goes on to ask of her archaeological colleagues their "... thoughts on doing archaeology and how it has provided a greater connection to the outdoors, the environment, natural spaces, and special places ... how has it increased your knowledge about a place, its ecology/environment, academics in general, or how has it increased your knowledge about yourself or your cultural history."

And my response was something like "well, Duh" so she was like "Well, OK then..." and now I seem to be committed to writing a few blog posts on this...

My very first brush with archaeology can never be told publicly because it involves issues that most people will not take at face value and that are not worth the explanation. It involved chicken and some balloons. Say no more. But my second brush with the field is more explainable; I was taken by someone, probably my father, to have a look at an excavation underway in downtown Albany. The excavation was being run by Paul Huey, it was of the old Fort Orange, one of the earliest European settlements in New York State, or for that matter, anywhere in the new world, and one of the people working on it was a man who would become my friend and colleague for many years, John Wolcott. John told me things that I internalized and that changed my view of everything thereafter, and as I learned more about Fort Orange, I internalized those things as well.

I could tell you a lot about the material culture, the foundations and trash pits, the squares the excavation was divided into, the bagging and labeling of artifacts, and so on and so forth, but instead I'll tell you the very important key lessons that I learned from that excavation and the subsequent events related to it:

1) The Establishment ... the government, established businesses, the leaders of society, etc. etc. ... don't want you to do archaeology and even when they are actually involved in it, they resist it. Whatever is going on underground, whatever we learn when we dig that stuff up, is almost always something that those in charge prefer to not have revealed, even if it has nothing to do with them. The reason for this is simple. If you are in charge of running a city or if you own a business that changes the landscape in any way at all, the most convenient assumption is that the land is virgin and you are it's only lover. Any prior "activities" that may be evinced in subterranean evidence is best left unacknowledged. Otherwise, it may be hard to claim primacy and control.

2) In a related manner, archaeology is almost always subversive and done by people who are comfortable being subversive. Sometimes, like John Wolcott, they even look subversive, while other times, as in the case of Paul Huey, they don't. But they are, always.

3) Wherever you look, what you see is not what you get. Divining the nature of the landscape beneath the surface is an art and a science that requires knowing things that most people don't know and a combination of scientific methods and careful inference, and even then, must often be ground-truthed. I know for a fact that when I'm standing around somewhere outside, anywhere in the world, with a bunch of people who are not archaeologists, I am seeing, knowing, understanding things about which they are clueless. Like a mystic who sees an aura and thus knows things about a person that even the person does not know, an archaeologist sees things about a landscape that others can not see but that still have important meaning. Except the mystics are faking it.

It is very important to note at this point that an archaeologist is also a geologist, in part. Depending on the kind of archaeology you do, you are also an architect, a blacksmith, a caveman, a farmer, or any of a number of things that you have to know a lot about, enough to do on your own, as well as some kind of geologist. Having done archaeology of many different time periods on two continents and several vastly different regions of greatly differing cultures with utterly different technology, I've had to become an expert on everything that there is to be an expert on, and I can tell you it is quite a burden. I can't say how often I'm involved in a conversation, and I know things that other people are talking about and that they are not quite getting, and I just keep my mouth shut and think "If only that person was an archaeologist, this conversation would not be so misguided!" ... but I digress. The point I'm making here is that when we look at the landscape that 'aura' of it's past and its subterranean secrets are understood through both archaeological and geological methods and inference.

So when I drove today from my in-law's home in Plymouth Minnesota to my home in Coon Rapids Minnesota, the following thoughts occurred to me:

"Are those hills behind me all part of a moraine, or is there some bedrock involved?"

"Is this plain contiguous with the plain across the Mississippi, and if it is, where is the river channel that must have existed prior because this would be impossible for the river to be located where it is now if this was also a glacial lake, which it is."

"The amount of material used to build up these highway ramps, which create fake hills that are totally unnatural, is very large. I wonder how much of that came from the eskers and kames I drove past a few miles back."

"I wonder if the bison bones I've heard found in this area are from the period that this was a lake, or from after that."

"Since we are on the east side of the Warren River and the west side of the Mississippi, did anyone live right here during the Paleo Indian period."

"Is that turkey going to get hit by a car or what?"

"How much of the seasonal standing water here ... none of which has existed in the living memory of anyone who lives in this modern suburb ... was drained by historic farmers, and was there enough spring surface water that the Ojibwa who lived in the village just off to the left of me could have canoed past the rapids?"

Other than the thought about the turkey, none of these observations related to glacial geology, paleofauna, Native Americans, early historic farming and land alteration, or more recent highway construction would have occurred to anyone but an archaeologist. Does that make me a better person than someone unprepared to have those thoughts? Probably not. In fact, it probably makes me relatively useless. Some other guy driving the same route was probably thinking up a way of folding a protein into a new shape that would cure some disease (my drive took me by a place where they do that) and some other driver was probably thinking up a scheme by which a major retail department store chain would make more money and thus create several dozen jobs (my drive took me by a place where they do that too).

But that was not Elizabeth's question. Her question was "what are the benefits of environmental education through archaeology." In this case, I could do this; I could take a bunch of students out to any landscape around here, with a bunch of historic maps and maybe some old photographs, and a little bit of training in things like tracking elevations and observing surface features, and have them all make up stories that explained everything they saw. Different teams of students would be provided with different information: Some would have the oldest maps showing Native American villages and trading ports, other would be given some information about glacial geology, others would read a few chapters of some local history about the poor farm or the ditch digging programs during the depression, and others would be set up with an interview with a civil engineer from the Department of Transportation currently overseeing a major road project. After a day or two of interpretive landscape viewing, they could get together in the same room and talk about what they think, find and argue about their differences, and generate a set of questions that might be asked with more information, possibly even information best gleaned with a shovel or a coring device or a walk in a corn field. At the end they would leave with a novel and enduring sense that when you look at the land around you, you only see the surface and there is often much below it, or at least, there is often an interesting explanation (archaeological or geological) for why it looks the way it does, which is so obvious to us archaeologists but a fact typically lost on everyone else.

Later, the kids will learn how their new knowledge will bother some people.


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Oh, my!

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 21 Mar 2012 #permalink

when I'm standing around somewhere outside, anywhere in the world, with a bunch of people who are not archaeologists, I am seeing, knowing, understanding things about which they are clueless. Like a mystic who sees an aura and thus knows things about a person that even the person does not know, an archaeologist sees things about a landscape that others can not see but that still have important meaning. Except the mystics are faking it

Well said!

I do agree with you about the "seeing" thing. I imagine archaeology is a lot like geology in that respect. It's a matter of getting the education and then seeing case history after case history until you develop an intuition about what to look for. Show me a bunch of pottery shards, and to me, it will look like.....broken pottery. I don't have the background to "see" it meaningfully. Likewise, don't kid yourself about being an expert geologist. You do know more about it than most anthropologists/archaeologist than I have run across, though.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 22 Mar 2012 #permalink

I would be careful about what you think I don't know about geology!

But yes, here are large areas of geology that I know little about. I don't kid myself.

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