Dig Diary: My First Archaeology Dig
by Colin Campbell
When I signed up as Time Team America's artist, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew my job was to draw what the objects and buildings might have looked like, but my knowledge of the world of archaeology was minimal at best. The art history class I took in school (which was taught by an archaeologist) focused mostly on ancient histories: the Romans, Alexander the Great, the Egyptians. When I arrived at our first dig site on Roanoke Island, I was pretty sure we wouldn't be digging up any temples or pyramids, but otherwise I didn't really know what we'd be looking for. How do you go about finding a lost colony, anyway?
Fortunately, I was surrounded by archaeologists and they quickly filled me in: the evidence we were looking for was not stone walls but tiny artifacts, some no bigger than a single bead or piece of pottery.
That's when it dawned on me how incredibly slow and detail-oriented this process is. Of course, it is a very purposeful, methodical slowness, and it’s amazing how much activity it takes to be so slow. There was the backhoe clearing away the sand down to the original topsoil, then the methodical scraping of the layers, inch by inch, the sifting of every bucketful of soil that was excavated and finally the recording and cataloging of it all. There was this expectation in me, too, that we would start digging and sand would just fall away from buried structures and exhibit the past, right there for even my novice eyes to see, like a picture developing. Instead, watching these highly-trained folks labor on their craft and the intensity with which they collect data in incremental values, it slowly dawned on me how specialized archaeology is. It has to be, too, because of the very real danger of losing the evidence and context forever if it’s not done correctly.
But amid all that intensive labor, the silence would be punctuated by a whoop of joy when a find was made. I rushed over to take a look and was amazed how a tiny thing could get them so excited. It's all about the context, I learned. Find the right thing in the right place and a single piece of pottery can tell you as much as the whole pot.
On Roanoke, there was no expectation from the archaeologists that we would find anything really dramatic like wood framing of buildings. When we came down on what folks suspected was evidence of structures, it was just a different color soil where the decomposing posts left a stain in the sand. It looked like shadows or ghost images of the buildings as they used to exist.
It got me thinking about the nature of archaeological research. The process is a hunt for objects, churning through sometimes massive amounts of dirt, but in spite of that, the product is almost vaporous. It’s more the connection of all those objects together: points in a constellation, a sort of spider web of understanding woven together through countless hours of research, keen eyes for detail, and clever, informed estimations.
And, sometimes, a miraculous little object, tucked away in the dirt for hundreds of years.