Monday, November 5, 2007

Sediment, the Neglected Artifact

Archaeologists like stuff...there's no denying it. We revel in artifacts and, most particularly ceramics. And there are good reasons for that: artifacts in general, and ceramics in particular, can be dated, described in any number of ways, and illustrated. Reports and publications rich in artifact photographs and drawings will garner more attention then those with tables, charts, and unit profiles. (Compare the tin-glazed sherd and the profile drawing from one of our units at Port Tobacco.)

It isn't surprising, then, that the bulk of archaeological data receives very little attention, both in the field and in the lab. Most of it, in fact, is pushed through screens and then disposed of in piles or used to backfill excavation units. When it comes to documenting soil, a brief description of color and texture is all that typically happens. The more fastidious will seek several colors and several textures in what many would regard as a single layer of undifferentiated soil; but even that detailed information rarely finds its way through analysis and into the main body of the report. The project team is determined not to let that happen at Port Tobacco where, we think, soils hold the key to much of what happened to the town between its founding in the early 1700s until its virtual abandonment around 1900.

April and I have been planning a detailed strategy for studying the sediments at Port Tobacco, the first stage of which occurred, and will continue, during our shovel testing. Much of that work, we hope, will be underwritten by several grants; so I will not go into a great deal of detail. We hope to use sophisticated geophysical survey equipment, specifically a ground-penetrating radar and a proton magnetometer, coupled with more conventional archaeological techniques, to recover the data that we need. We will then analyze those data with the aid of advanced computer technologies such as three-dimensional computer-aided drafting and geographic information systems.

Oddly enough, for archaeologists, we intend to use the geophysical survey equipment in the manner in which it was originally explore site geology. But that isn't to say we will not seek archaeological deposits as well. The equipment, if we are successful in securing it, will help us identify buildings, graves, derelict vessels in the river, and buried wharves and piers along the banks. Exciting stuff, all of the digital, quantitative data that these gizmos can produce; but fear not: we'll still be out there looking for and collecting artifacts, and pictures of pots and shoe buckles will take their rightful places next to the charts, tables, and profiles.


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