Where the rubber hits the road, or in our case, trowels, remote sensing, and true grit!
Fieldwork is the time when archaeologists get to head out to a site and get their hands dirty. It can be the most fun and exciting part of being an archaeologist, but there is also a lot tedious and detail-oriented work involved. The main purpose of fieldwork is to collect and record archaeological data. It is not just excavation. Fieldwork can also involve surveying and mapping an archaeological site. Most fieldwork is done seasonally. Archaeologists prefer to gather data when it is warm and dry, leaving the cold winter months for work back in the lab.
Site Survey: What do we have here?
The basic goal of archaeological survey is to get to know a site: Where is it? What could it be? How well preserved is it? This important first step is taken in order to understand the nature of an archaeological site. By doing so, archaeologists then have a better idea about how best to protect or further investigate the site. A surface, or pedestrian, survey is often the first thing that is done on a new site. Archaeologists look for above-ground evidence of an archaeological deposit by walking around in an organized fashion and recording what they see, and where they see it.
Artifacts and features—such as mounds, extra green spots in a lawn or a suspicious depression—can all be clues indicating hidden archaeology. A sub-surface survey comes next, and provides archaeologists a sneak peek into the site through the excavation of small holes. This can be done systematically on a grid, or sometimes probes or small test excavations are placed next to visible surface features to get a better look. Soil probes, augurs, and geophysical instruments can also be used to "see" underground. These techniques can provide lots of data on the location, size, type and layout of an archaeological site—vital information for determining if and where to excavate.
Excavation: Can You Dig It?
Archaeological excavation can range from a small 50x50 cm test pit, to a 1x1 meter unit, to a trench spanning several feet. Archaeologists try to work in increments that are easiest for mapping and recording. This helps archaeologists keep their data organized, which is vital for any future study. Archaeologists excavate by systematically removing dirt from a unit in layers. These layers can follow the stratigraphy of the soil or can be based on an arbitrary measurement, such as a 10-centimeter level at a time.
After dirt is removed it gets shaken through a screen so that even the smallest of artifacts can be recovered. While a chunk of ceramic or a glass bottle may be obvious in the soil, tiny things like beads, flakes, or a lead shot may easily be overlooked. Regardless of the size of the objects, it is important to recover as many clues as we can from the site and record that data so that subsequent excavations will have a road map of what has already been found—and the precise location of these discoveries.