If you have wondered this yourself, you are in good company. Archaeological enthusiasts of all ages frequently ask me some version of this great question. Faced with all this evidence of the past, where do you begin your search?
As I frequently say in my classes, it really depends on the question you're trying to answer. Unlike 150 years ago, North American archaeologists don't just dig wherever they feel like it, hoping to find something like buried treasure. Today, we appreciate that excavations are inherently destructive. We have to be selective and careful, leaving some of the site behind for future study whenever possible. We're also not psychics: we can't foresee where the artifacts, structures, or features will be (though see my previous post about GPR).
In my research, I'm interested in learning more about cooking, humans and animals, and the use of different places on the landscape through time. Because of this, I'm really interested in finding activity areas with cooking features. This summer, I went back to Alaska with several new tools to try to home in on features at a new site, Bachner, and a site where I've worked before, Niidhaayh Na'.
I was thrilled to get back into the backcountry this summer with a crack team of three MA students from the University of Wyoming. We also brought with us what we frequently referred to as our "fifth crew member": a ground penetrating radar unit rented from UW's Geology Department.
Whenever one of my crew says something like, "Oh wow, this is weird. Wait... What...? Bree, can you come take a look at this?", I know something cool is about to happen.
That's almost exactly what happened this summer on a rainy day at Quartz Lake. I was writing notes about our two 1 x 2 m targeted test excavations when Molly called me over to the screen to take a look at something "weird". As a very experienced field and lab archaeologist, I knew she must have found something either very bad, like a piece of historic trash in what we thought was an undisturbed pre-contact cultural context, or something really neat.
Here's what was in Molly's hand:
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.