The Art of Profile Drawing

Unit 4 north profile drawing.

Unit 4 north profile drawing. Source: Audrey Schaefer

Drawing a straight line between given dots on a plane is considered to be an easy task, but it is the importance of every line you draw and the dots you connect that really matter in the world of archaeology. As you may or may not know, archaeology is a destructive science. As an archaeologist excavates to deeper depths in their unit, they are destroying each level of soil they remove. Any evidence located in the layer being excavated is only known and understood by the archaeologist that is excavating it. Once removed from the context of both the soil layer and the unit, the information is then lost forever.  In order to prevent loss of information, archaeologists take precise, detailed notes of their excavations. These precise notes consist of pictures, forms and reports, profile drawings, and detailed field notes.

For a greater understanding of the different methods of archaeological note taking, one must first understand a few terms. The first, most used, piece of information is the provenience data. This data is repeated and copied on every piece of note-taking material. The provenience information consists of: the site number, unit number, level, date, initial of excavators, and bag number (if it’s a bag consisting of artifacts). A unit is the precisely measured off area where one will dig. In Annapolis, we have four units, each being a 5-foot by 5-foot square. The idea is to dig as wide as you would dig deep. It is known that we will not go deeper then 5-foot in Annapolis, therefore we dig 5-foot units. When digging down the unit, an archaeologist must have the keen eye for spotting changes in soil layers. These differences can be characterized by changes in soil color, soil texture, and presence or changes in amount of inclusions. These are then “translated” into a standardized description called a Munsell. Inclusions are any piece of material (gravel, brick, coal, oyster shell) that may appear in the soil. Once the archaeologist reaches a depth in their unit where no more artifacts or changes appear, they begin the units closing procedures. This area, with no more artifacts or changes in soil, is referred to as sterile. To ensure that they have reached sterile, the archaeologist will dig slightly deeper down.

In Annapolis, I worked in unit 4 with three other archaeology students. Unit 4 seemed to be (somewhat) the envy of those working in other units because we had great soil color and texture to work with. While other units had tough, hard soil, unit 4 contained an easy to dig sandy-silt and silty-clay texture. For those of you that do not know, silt is a light, somewhat fluffy, reddish-brown soil that has a tendency to stain your hand. Our unit, also, did not contain any significant features to slow down our digging. As Kate Deeley described it in her Intro to Archaeology class, a feature is “an immovable structure, layer, pit, or post, having archaeological significance”. The absence of features and easy soil texture caused us to move swiftly and before we knew it, unit 4 was the first unit to be completed (not that it was any sort of race!).

Unit 4 bottom of level H1.

Unit 4 bottom of level H1. Source: Audrey Schaefer

Because of our quick finish, we were the first group to learn how to profile. As mentioned earlier, accurate, detailed note taking is vital to archaeology. One of these forms of note taking is called profiling. Profiling is a procedure of documentation that occurs at the end of a unit, after sterile is reached. The archaeologist takes exact measurements of each wall of the unit at about 1-foot intervals. These points are then plotted to depict each level of strata. This drawing also includes inclusions and Munsell descriptions. To begin drawing a profile, it is first necessary to assure that all the walls of the unit have been cleaned of excess soil and that all pictures have been taken. Next, to begin profiling, an archaeologist must look at each wall and distinguish between each layer of soil or strata. Kate and Stefan told us that there are two different ways to do this: either to draw what you see or to draw what you dug. This decision depends on the archaeologist’s preference. We drew what we dug. After our group thought back to the last few weeks of digging, with lots of help, we used our trowel to draw in lines on each wall to distinguish between each soil layer. After these layers were determined, we prepared our arbitrary line. This is a line of level string that we placed on the ground level of each wall before we began drawing the profile. It was from this line that we took each of our measurements of depth. After the arbitrary line was in place, we recorded the provenience information on four sheets of graph paper (one for each wall) and labeled each north, south, east, or west. From here we took measurements of the depth of each strata, recorded inclusions, and took Munsell samples. This same method was repeated on each wall until our drawing accurately matched the different strata layers on each wall of our unit.

After getting last minute checks of our paperwork and the okay to backfill, it finally hit me that I had just completed my first unit as an archaeology student. As cliché as it may be, it was bittersweet to close our unit. Profiling is only a small aspect of the things that I learned in unit 4 in Annapolis and I cannot wait to move on and continue to keep learning!


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