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 brought the GPR but also a tool called a bucket auger with me this summer to improve my odds of stumbling across a cooking feature within an activity area. A bucket auger allows you to take a small core, about 3" in diameter, over 10 feet deep in foot long segments of sediment. Because of the small size, I think it feels like reaching down into the soil with your hand and pulling up what's underneath your feet.
I tested a basic rule that other archaeologists have suggested for sites like mine: hearths should be at the center of the highest concentration of artifacts. Using the auger, we could map artifact densities across the site and target areas that are projected to be the most dense.
At both sites, we placed a grid of auger tests across the length of the landform. Niidhaayh Na' has had more archaeological work than Bachner, so we had a smaller grid. We also conducted auger tests where the GPR indicated there might be anomalies. In this way, we had a systematic strategy for determining the artifact concentration across the site.
Overall, this method was very successful. We found several features, tools, and an ochre crayon at Bachner based on our auger testing grid. At Niidhaayh Na', results were more mixed, but we still found pounds of lithic material at the site. This could be because Bachner was occupied for longer and/or by more people. It could also be that we were testing in all the wrong places at Niidhaayh Na'. Like anything else, we will need to conduct more research to determine of this method works better at different sites.
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.