The Life of a Field Assistant, Part 4

Sometimes the life of a field assistant can be really boring. In the mornings, there is often little for me to do. When everyone is around, all of the units have two people in them, which is the ideal number. Thus, most mornings I am often ambling around among the students as they dig until a screen needs to be checked or a question about what to do next arises. Or walls needed work. Most of my time spent in the units was helping to fix the walls. In archaeology, it is very important to keep the walls of a unit straight and square to the bottom. The reason for this is threefold. For one, context and association are everything. We need to know exactly where an artifact was found in order for it have meaning beyond an artifact. More on this to come later. In this regard, keeping the walls straight allow us to keep units separated, as the best scientific practice. Second, documentation and analysis. The walls of a unit tell a story, that of time. In the wall, we can see all the different layers of soils to document the order, thickness, and if there is anything within the wall, such as a layer of brick or gravel. Finally, it is so aesthetically pleasing and satisfies all of our OCD. That last one is only partially a joke. But most of all, it takes a long time to get right, often hours of time. Thus, an extra helping hand never hurt anyone!

Then there are the times the life of a field assistant can get really exciting. When a student finds a really cool artifact is certainly one of those times, or when we can identify for certain stratigraphy that was not understood for 50 years. For the longest time, the soil layers where we were digging went from topsoil to plowzone (300 years of agricultural mixing) to subsoil (a pre-cultural layer brought in by the glaciers). Last year, when digging though a gravel driveway associated with a 19th century occupation, we noticed a thick brick layer than ran right into the gravel driveway. Looking at the records, this gravel lens is jsut about all over the site. Cool! Hypothesis: when the 19th century structure was built, they leveled out the land, which is why there is a layer of building material. So, new stratigraphy ran topsoil, 20th century layer, 19th-20th century occupation layer, 19th century topsoil, plowzone, subsoil. That is just a bit more complicated than before. Fast forward to this year, excavating a ten by ten foot area with a 19th century planting hole in the middle of it. Basically, near the time of the construction of the 19th century house, the family decided to place some trees in their front yard and we were seeing the remnants of the holes they dug to plant the tree. Two of the four units were already at subsoil, so we had a good idea of what we were looking at. As one of the units reached the brick lens, an indicator of the 19th century spreading event, we stopped to digging to document. We do this by spraying a bit of water onto the unit, to really make the colors and differences in soil pop. When we did it this time, the chief archaeologist and I both noticed a uniform depression, indicative of softer soils, and a slight change in color of the soil. What was really telling was this depression, the softer interface between the plowzone and the planting hole, was right on line with the planting hole in the already dug unit! Now, according to the law of cross cutting, in order for something to be cut through it must first exist to be cut through. In other words, plowzone, the layer we once thought was ubiquitous across the site, does in fact stop being plowed in the 19th century, for this planting hole did not appear in the 19th-20th century layer. In short, it proved that the stratigraphy was what we hypothesized it was last year! I know that was a lot of information, and probably a little confusing, but establishing a change in stratigraghy after a site has been dig for 50 years is very, very exciting. Think of it as finding not one, but three new secret rooms in your house that you have lived in for the past 50 years, and those secret rooms are full of old books and pictures, clothes, toys, diaries, and letters of the past occupants. Truly, that was an exciting day.


  1. An exciting find indeed! There is something special about the discovery of history that is very difficult to put into words. I was technically second in command. Anytime the chief archaeologist was not around, I was in in charge. But even with him their, I had essentially executive authority. You are absolutely correct, the smallest things matter ever so much, hence why when we dig, it is in measurements of tenths of a foot, using a trowel. Everything must be as precise as can be.

  2. Sounds like such an exciting find! I don’t know much about archaeology personally but it’s really amazing that you get to be part of these kinds of discoveries. As a field assistant, are you in charge of the students that you’re overseeing do the digging? It’s surprising how important the wall and its straightness are – what seems like such a little thing sounds like it’s actually so crucial! Good luck with the rest of your project!