Real World Archaeology: A Student’s POV

As the previous blog post stated, last week was our first week working at Wye House, the plantation where Fredrick Douglass lived as a slave. Ever since June 3rd, we have been hard at work excavating at both SERC (The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) and at Wye House; for myself these past few weeks have been my first experience practicing real world archaeology. I can sum up my experience so far in two words: surprisingly satisfying. 

“Why is it so surprising?” you may be asking. The reason I used the word ‘surprising’ is due to how surprisingly labor intensive archaeology can be. When I pictured doing archaeology as a little girl, I always imagined I’d be wearing those outfits archaeologists and anthropologists wear including an Indiana Jones hat, a whip, and being able to find the most amazing artifacts out of sheer luck. Well, that is not the case. During our time working at SERC I wore: jeans, a t-shirt with sleeves that needed to be tucked under my jeans, and I had my hair in a tight bun while wearing a baseball cap. I wore all of this while digging (sometimes bent over to reach the soil at the best angle) and sweating under a blanket of humidity, heat, and sunlight for hours at a time.

Currently I am wearing the same type of clothes while at Wye House, due to the heat and out of respect for the family who have invited Archaeology in Annapolis to dig there. This week, and especially today, has been a rather frustrating day for my group’s unit due to what our unit is revealing to us. A ‘unit’, is the 5 ft.by 5 ft square we dig down in order to be able to record the artifacts found and to map the statigraphy (the different soil layers of the earth, each depicting either human influence or a geological event). This is what our unit looks like as of July 1st.

Our Unit (Unit #88)

Our Unit (Unit #88)

 

Imagine digging in this hole as carefully but as quickly as possible. As the UMD graduate students tell us, it is something we as archaeological students will learn as we gain more practice. As a beginner, I can tell you it is a hard thing to do well. It becomes even more difficult when your unit reveals a level solely of large fragments of: bricks, mortar, and oyster shells. My group dug through this layer and it took roughly 2 to 3 hours to dig. The next day we had to sort, weigh, and discard (due to the sheer number of artifacts and not being able to store, analyze, and preserve these artifacts with the time they had left) as quickly and as carefully as possible before our day was over. It was a tedious process, but it was a process that needed to be done. Amazingly, the entire process was done in less than 2 hours!

Bricks & Mortar

Bricks & Mortar

 

It’s surprising how different archaeology is when compared to what I as a student learned and what I have been practicing out in the field. You learn all of these techniques and you believe you have them down perfectly, but doing it out in the field and messing up constantly can be frustrating. Despite all of the hard work and physical and mental exhaustion, this ongoing process has been rewarding and satisfying. Yes the work is difficult and you don’t really understand how tired you feel after digging through hard or wet dirt for hours, but the thrill of finding an artifact and seeing the work you have done is immensely satisfying. For example, our layer of bricks, mortar, and oyster shells, have been infuriating to dig but it has helped solidify our theory that these artifacts are the remains of the destruction of the slave quarters. We still don’t know how it was destroyed or brought down, but we do know that it happened. 

That is why real world archaeology is surprisingly satisfying: the work is painful and will leave you exhausted every day, but all of that work leads to finding artifacts that have not been seen and for providing a voice to those who may have never had one. Ultimately that is what archaeology is to me: a way for us today to discover and help those who could not tell their stories during their lifetimes to do so now. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to be like Evelyn from The Mummy or Indiana Jones, but right now I am happy knowing that despite how physically demanding archaeology truly is, it’s an amazing field that brings the past to life while making it relevant for today’s society.

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