What do you mean I have to dig with a trowel?!

Ruins of 2nd Mission church at Pecos Pueblo National Park, Pecos, NM.
Photo by author

Hello again, and welcome back! Today I’d like to expand a little on the development of archaeology as a field. I think it’s only fair as the popular view of the archaeologist is more than a little outdated. As far back as 1949 Alfred V. Kidder recalls the popular misconception of the archaeologist as either the “hairy chested” explorer, roaming the jungles in search of treasures and lost cities, or the “hairy chinned” epigrapher, sitting in his study with a magnifying glass studying inscriptions in an unknown language (Amsden, 1949). Even though Kidder recognized these as stereotypes in 1949, they have unfortunately persisted into popular culture, especially the former stereotype. I am happy to report that the field has greatly changed for the better over time. To begin with, the field is no longer almost exclusively male and has also expanded to include people from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Secondly, field methods have changed over time with the growing awareness that important data can be collected from even the smallest and seemingly unimportant sources. While I am ill-equipped to really get into the details of the demographic change that has occurred over time, I believe that being more inclusive has only been a positive thing. It allows for a broader exchange of ideas to occur, and also allows groups of people to take more control of their own cultural heritage. I am slightly better equipped to discuss the latter change in the field of archaeology, so that’s where I will focus most of my attention in this discussion.    

One example of the change in archaeological field methods is in how excavation is conducted. In the early days, it wasn’t uncommon for field methods to be more akin to the methods of looters than of modern archaeologists. Rather than the slow, systematic process of excavation, some early archaeologists would dig about for the more eye-catching artifacts and ignore the backfill of material that their field crew had just dug up. Why is this a problem? Think of an archaeological site as a crime scene. Things are arranged in a particular order that provide clues to the event that has occurred, and the investigator only has one shot to go through and properly record the details of the scene. Once it’s been recorded and cleaned up, the investigator has only their notes and records to rely on, as there are typically no more chances to go back and uncover new information. In a similar way, once a site has been excavated, one can never put it back exactly the way it was, so any information that was not recorded is permanently lost. Excavating a site is an inherently destructive process, so our only hope of preserving the information contained in a site that is to be excavated is in adopting a systematic approach to conducting field work.    

Clockwise from top right
Kwahe’e Black-on-White (A.D. 1000-1225, Pueblo II-Pueblo III)
Galisteo Black-on-White (A.D. 1220-1450, Pueblo III-Pueblo IV)
Santa Fe Black-on-White (A.D. 1150-1425, Pueblo III- Pueblo IV)
Mesa Verde Black-on-White (A.D. 1150-1280, Pueblo III)
Photos by author

One example of this change in the field of archaeology is apparent in the methods that A.V. Kidder applied to his excavation of Pecos Pueblo (now a National Park) in Northern New Mexico. Kidder applied the principle of stratigraphy during his excavations at Pecos Pueblo to establish a timeline of human occupation at the site. This principle was been borrowed from the field of geology, and is based on the Law of Superposition. In geology, this is best observed in a hilly road cut where banded layers of rock are observable. The idea is that each successively deeper layer of rock is older than layer above it. Kidder applied this principle to build a timeline, or chronology for the site by observing the layers of stratigraphy uncovered over the course of six field seasons between 1915 and 1922. Kidder was able to observe what kinds of artifacts seemed to occur in specific layers exposed by the excavation. Based on those observations he was then able to assert that artifacts of a certain style that were only observed in lower levels were older than artifacts of a distinctly different style that only occurred in the upper levels of the excavation, with transitional styles occurring in the intermediary layers of the site (Kidder 1962). In 1927, at the first Pecos Conference, the data obtained from the fieldwork done by Kidder and his crew led to the establishment of the Pecos Classification system. This system, in an updated format, is still used today to date pueblo sites in Northern New Mexico. You might ask, what incredible artifacts led to the creation of a regional chronology that is still in use almost a hundred years later? Why, the Pecos classification was primarily based on the stylistic differences between broken sherds from ceramic vessels.  

If Kidder had been from an earlier time in archaeology, he might have only been interested in recovering intact ceramic vessels to sell back to a museum. He would then have ignored the broken bits and pieces and discarded them in a pile without a second thought. This would have resulted in mixing together all of the different ceramic styles from the different periods of time that the site was occupied. It would then have been impossible to sort out if ceramic style A was older or newer than ceramic style B. By paying attention to the context in which style A was found in relation to style B, it became possible to build a regional chronology against which sites with similar artifacts in the surrounding region could be dated. This is a kind of dating method known as relative dating. Think of it in terms of how automobile design has changed over time, or how hair styles or clothing styles have changed over time. You may not know exactly when it was produced, but you might be able to differentiate a car built in the 1950’s versus one built in the 1960’s or 1970’s. Likewise, you might be able to associate particular hair or clothing styles to a particular decade or even century. There is another type of dating known as absolute dating, which actually provides a specific range of calendar years. The most commonly known method is Carbon-14 testing, but that’s another topic for another time.

Again, thank you for your time in reading this. You might have noticed I dropped some citations in there. I would encourage you to find the books I’ve citied if you might be interested in the archaeology of the Southwestern United States. They are easy to read and also have the benefit of not being terribly technical. One quick point of note. Both books contain images of human remains recovered from the excavations that each book details, so be warned. This too is an example of how the field has changed over time, as such photos would not be published today. A discussion of this would include a discussion about the Native American Graves and Protection Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, but this too is a topic for another time.       

Amsden, Charles Avery

1949      Prehistoric Southwesterners from Basketmaker to Pueblo. Southwest Museum, Los Angeles.   

Kidder, A.V.

1962      An Introductionto the Study of Southwestern Archaeology. Yale University Press, Westford.


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