Digging into Archaeology                      

Digging into Archaeology


Everyone has a story to tell and so do artifacts. Unfortunately, archaeology rarely has all the relevant historical facts, and that is where storytelling comes in. I wanted to investigate the role creative writing might play in archaeology and came upon a number of archaeologists who have also been intrigued by this intersection. How does storytelling contribute to scientific research and how can archaeologists strike a balance between fact-based reporting and literary storytelling? How can we use fictional stories with factual archaeological research? Is that “allowed?” These are a few questions that James Deetz, Adrian Praetzellis, Mary Praetzellis, Jim Gibb and other archaeologists have exposed to academic thought and critique.

Tim O’Brien’s fictional novel, The Things They Carried, opened my mind to the fine line between “facts” and “truths.” He writes, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” (pg. 158). In other words, writers may base a story on historical events and then make up details to fill in the gaps of the story to help the readers understand some part of the human experience.

The author in the field.

Having minored in creative writing I understand that in order to make a story believable, especially in a historical context, writers must research the daily activities and nuances of life during the time in which they set their story. This combination of research and creative interpretation is what Jim Gibb argues can help archaeologists hypothesize in a way they couldn’t do without storytelling. In his essay Imaginary, But By No Means Unimaginable: Storytelling, Science and Historical Archaeology, Gibb writes that “Creating a sustainable story with believable plot and dialogue requires precision and logic no less demanding than would be required in formulating and testing hypotheses.”

To me community archaeology involves linking historic sites and artifacts to the heritage of current residents and their stories. Archaeologists often reference historical documents, letters and other narratives from the past to help identify structures on a piece of land or understand daily life and how artifacts might have been used centuries ago. As long as we recognize what is fact from what is fiction, stories from the community could push archaeologists to ask new questions – questions about heritage that are important to current residents and not just the researchers.

Have you used storytelling as an archaeologist? Leave a comment and continue the discussion.

Written by: Sarah Janesko

Sarah Janesko holds a BS in Cultural Anthropology from Towson University and will begin her Master’s degree in Applied Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology at the University of Maryland this summer. As a rising professional in the field she hopes to learn more about how other disciplines, like literature, can play a role in archaeological theory and practice. She aspires to use archaeology as a tool to help communities connect through their shared history. Get in touch with Sarah at sarahjanesko@gmail.com


    Apr 1    
Historical Archaeology and Storytelling

As a recent graduate entering the summer months, I was still emerging from the fog of finals and the excitement of commencement when reality struck: I am in serious debt due to my student loans and I do not have a job. Yikes, this was a smack in the face, but I felt confident because I knew when I got that first job, it would be great. I absolutely love, love archaeology, and I felt certain that my hard work in school, an amazing internship, and good people skills would quickly pay off. Let’s keep in mind that this economy has made things tough for archaeology in general, and with limited funding, I was getting ready to face a potentially shaky cultural resource management (CRM) world. Knowing I had to be competitive, I did not walk, I ran, to my college career center and immediately sought their help. After a good month of working on my curriculum vitae (CV) and doing mock interviews with the fantastic “career developer”, as I like to refer to her, I was ready to enter the job market.

Armed only with my bachelor’s degree as my shield, a year of lab experience as my sword and a positive attitude as my armor, I sent my CV everywhere. I began with every governmental agency I could think of, then private CRM firms, museums, and so on. I went to archaeology and anthropology conferences to network, and I tried to get connected locally to archaeology related activities occurring in my community. I began to network like crazy, starting with Statistical Research Inc. Foundation (SRI). Two of their best people, in my opinion, teamed up with my alma mater, University of Maryland (UMD), and taught a CRM summer class coupled with an internship. Besides providing invaluable information, that class gave me the opportunity to listen to a panel of specialists involved in some way with CRM. I asked the SRI instructors if I could attend the panel as a graduate and I came prepared with my CV in hand.

After sending out what seemed like 1,000 copies of my CV to anyone linked to cultural resource management and archaeology, I now had to wait for the responses.  The waiting game was tough but the sea of rejections that came in, flooding my email, was worse. Reasons ranged from “you’re not qualified, you do not have enough experience” to “we are not hiring at this time, however, we will keep your CV on file”. Now the discouragement began to set in. And it really set in! I don’t understand; I am a fast learner, I have a great work ethic, and I am a team player. I had great grades, am a member of honor societies and dean’s list. Why couldn’t I land a job? I was so disappointed and frustrated. I had worked so hard to graduate and I just wanted to start my career. After some needed self-medication with wine and ice cream (not together), I picked myself up and, with even more determination, I sent out more copies of my CV, this time to places beyond my immediate geographic area: Guam, Hawaii, North Dakota, Louisiana, Colorado, Florida; anywhere that might be hiring.

While waiting again for responses, I received job offer. Could it be? Did the archaeology gods actually hear my prayers? The email was asking if I was available to work on a coring project with a firm that was represented at the SRI/UMD panel discussion. FINALLY!! I was so excited; I immediately accepted the position as a paid archaeology field technician.

The job was everything I thought it would be, and more. My office was a nature preserve on a marsh, filled with wildlife. We used a boat to transport us and our gear to and from the sites. My coworkers were fun and patient, willing to answer all my questions. The work was dirty and physically demanding, exactly what I had been looking for. Each day was similar; we used an auger, in teams of two, to extract various meters of core soil samples. These samples were measured, documented, photographed, Munselled and sifted. My team didn’t recover any artifacts, however, another team found two stone flakes. 


The author on site.

On the last day of the job, I took a moment for myself to watch and listen to the life of the marsh. While breathing the cool fall air, I could see and hear the geese flying south for the winter. I looked around me, through the cat tails, and at that moment I realized that it was all worth it. I was finally doing what I had been dreaming of. Moral of the story is to work hard, network harder and work hard again, and it will all pay off.


The marshes.

It did take about six months to get this first job.  Now we are in winter, so again, I am unemployed. I am using this time to send out updated versions of my CV and to continue to network. I am also studying for the GREs. Having a Master’s degree will enable me to be qualified for a long-term archaeological position. I was hoping for one solid year of hands-on experience before I went down the graduate school route so when I graduated, I would be qualified on paper and in the field; however, gaining that experience prior to a Master’s has proven difficult. With student loans and general bills pressuring me, I am feeling very tense, but I just keep in mind that spring is right around the corner, and I need to keep a positive attitude that work will come.

Written by: Nina Scall

Nina Scall, originally from Washington, D.C., now a resident of Long Island, NY, graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology.  Her love of history coupled with her strong attention to detail made archaeology a natural focus for her. With spring coming, she is looking forward to securing employment as a field technician.  Future plans include a return to school for a Master’s degree and volunteering with the Garvies Point Museum. Connect with her at nina_scall@yahoo.com 

    Mar 17    
My Journey to that First Archaeology Job

Archaeologists spend a lot of time investigating material traces that are not exactly glamorous. Seeds, bone fragments, broken plates. On one hand, it can take years for the evidence to come together and present a rich picture. On the other hand, a dish of charred grains and some soil microbes can radically change our understanding of a past human experience, which is worth far more than gold. In ten years of fieldwork, I’ve excavated barely a thimble-full of gold and jewels, none of which ever fascinated me as much as bricks, mortar, nails and other industrial crafts. In archaeology, nothing is “just” anything. I love bricks, and here’s why.

Bricks are a great example of how archaeology gets down to business. For one thing, they hide in plain sight. Archaeology sheds light on the unseen diversity around us everyday, everywhere. Chances are there are all kinds of bricks where you live, right? Houses, walls, chimneys, sidewalks, paths, garden edging, wells. Look a little closer next time you pass some, and you’ll probably notice variations in color, size and texture. You might see patterns or impressions, streaks of salt, glassy patches. Maybe numbers and codes, which are often used to keep track of placement. Bricks might have traces of paint or color, old holes to fit drainpipes and all sorts of other quirks. If the bricks look modern and clean, well, give them time. Another century of exposure, recycling and demolition will give them all kinds of character.


Thin-section view of mortar remains on red brick, 100x, XPL

Now think of all the questions you could start asking. Who made them, and how? What are they made of? Where did they come from, and how did they get here? Who put them together? Were they re-used? Are there odd ones out? These are just some questions we can ask of bricks now, and they are all important questions to an archaeologist like me. And a hundred years or five centuries from now, someone might be asking the same questions of places where you find yourself every day.


Cross-section of melting particles in hand-made red brick, 60x

So why are we looking at bricks above ground? Doesn’t archaeology happen in layers, underground? My answer is that we connect the dots wherever we find them to answer a question at hand. Bricks are a good example of how far archaeologists can cast their net. For example, on a large scale, bricks might tell us about an entire regional economy and how brick-makers lived decades, even centuries ago. On a much smaller scale, we can see what size and shape the sand grains in bricks are, or which elements are present in clays.

Linking up answers between large and small questions makes even the most boring and mundane materials exciting, because they become more than the sum of their parts. And that’s exactly what bricks are: lots of small pieces combined into something new. The same applies to mortar, concrete and other “aggregate” products which make up the bulk of our historic and modern buildings and cities. As archaeologists, we get a clearer view of how to explain materials from the past if we understand how they have changed and endured into the present.


Cross-section of yellow brick with reduced clay marbling, 60x

So bricks are all around you, and they are an apt metaphor for our common story. Think of what they’ve seen in their lifetime, who has walked over them, fought on them, who turned them out for bread and butter. I’m sure bricks have just as much to say as trees, and I think we take for granted the fabric of our cities. We construct our past like a building, and we tend to see it as immutable as concrete. Bricks matter because constructions are always changing, just like the people that live in them, in large ways and small. They are all very similar, but still all unique in their way. They all tell a story, just like all the tiny moments that add up to another day in the city.

The most important thing archaeologists can do is to show how everyone, everywhere is part of a history, probably many histories at once, and that every experience is a unique contribution. It’s not just a brick in the wall. Just because it’s not written down doesn’t make it any less valuable or any less true. The smallest and most personal moments captured in materials can speak louder than any word or statistic. What we consider common history should be complex and confusing, because all manner of people experience it differently. What archaeology reveals is the dynamics of how events are experienced, how cities take shape and how the bricks of our experiences are laid. In this sense, we don’t preserve the past. We make history.  

Written By:  Martin Schmidheiny

Martin studied and worked in Scotland, focussing on underwater excavations of lake dwellings and then medieval ships in the Black Sea. After spending several years in fieldwork in the northeastern US, he received his MA in Historical Archaeology from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, which included training in material analysis and petrography at CMRAE at MIT. Besides bricks, his research interests include urbanization, aggregate industries, historical production sites, and advancing field methodology.  

    Mar 3    
Bricks Aren’t Silent: Tales of Clay and Fire

As a CRM professional, one of the most interesting parts of my job is getting to travel all over the country meeting different people. The real privilege though, is getting to see the amazing collections people have picked up on their farms and backyards, now tucked away into garages, basements, and the occasional coffee table display. But, as wonderful as it is to be able to see these collections, even better would be to know exactly where they came from. Was it on the ground surface? Deeply buried? Near a creek on the property or near an old fence line? In archaeology, context is everything—where an artifact came from can provide us with vital information about what was going on in a specific area at a given time. 

So, what should you do if you find something on your property? Artifacts that are found on private land belong to the landowner, but you can help contribute to the archaeological record! The first step is to leave it in the ground, so archaeologists can get the necessary information about its context. The next step is to tell us! In DC, you should report artifacts and sites to Ruth Trocolli, City Archaeologist (ruth.trocolli@dc.gov) or Chardé Reid, Assistant Archaeologist (charde.reid@dc.gov). 


     Historic artifacts found in DC. Image courtesy of DC Archaeologist Ruth Trocolli

As the above picture demonstrates, objects that may not seem important, such as colored shards of glass, bottles, and broken ceramic sherds can provide archaeologists with useful information to date a site. Once archaeologists have this information, they might be able to tell you a lot about the history of your property! And, if it is determined that the artifacts constitute an archaeological site, you might be able to help name and register the site.

Remember, if you find something you think might be an artifact, stop digging and call someone. And, of course, it is illegal to dig or remove artifacts from parks and all public land. Also, never buy or sell artifacts!  Once the contextual information is lost, it can never be recovered.


        Another great reason not to buy artifacts—this dates to 2013, not the Early Archaic.

If you happen to have a family collection that has been passed down through the years and now no one can tell you where it came from in the first place, it is still worth having an archaeologist have a look at it—this article from the New Haven Independent earlier this month details how a private collection of Ecuadorian artifacts from a home in the area will travel thousands of miles back to their home country and be placed in a museum there—


If you love archaeology, and haven’t been fortunate enough to find anything on your property, or like me you live in an apartment, there are still many volunteer opportunities in the area where you can learn both about the history of the region and about the methodology of an archaeological excavation. At Colchester, volunteers take part in excavation and lab work of Old Colchester. Check out http://cartarchaeology.blogspot.com/. Likewise, the Archaeological Society of Virginia offers talks, classes, and volunteer opportunities for anyone who wants to learn more about archaeology in the area: http://www.asv-archeology.org/index.html.

Written By: Sara Ayers-Rigsby, MA, RPA

Sara Ayers-Rigsby is an archaeologist based in Virginia, where she has been working for EBI Consulting for nearly five years. Her work for EBI’s cultural resources team takes her all over the country. Her research interests include archaeology in the Mid Atlantic, where she spends most of her time in the field pondering how anyone could have been hardy enough to make points out of locally available materials like rhyolite or hornsfels.

Prior to working for EBI, she worked for other CRM firms in the Mid Atlantic, Midwest, and the United Kingdom. She always wanted to be an archaeologist, so she moved to Dublin, Ireland at 18 to study classical archaeology, and, after receiving her degree from Trinity College, Dublin, in 2005, she moved to the University of Bristol and received her M.A. in 2007. To this day, anything she has found in the field pales to the private collections she has come across.

    Feb 17    
Local Collections—Tell an archaeologist where you found it!

Welcome, and thank you for reading Archaeology in the Community’s debut blog post!* I’m Leah, and I am the outreach coordinator here at AITC. AITC is an education nonprofit in Washington, DC and we LIVE to bring archaeology to the public. I use the word “we” specifically, because the primary goal of this blog is to incorporate all of our readership into the very fabric of our community.

In the academic world, “we” doesn’t get used too often in our ongoing conversation about archaeology. “We” often refers the voiceless majority who might lack formal education and experience, or who are limited by time and location. As a result, formal study in archaeology risks being stripped of the local, the communal, the ancestral and the other personal aspects that make it an integral part of our everyday lives.

Our GOAL: It’s time for “we”—students, teachers, archaeologists, field techs, community members, curators, artists, activists—to step up and participate in the archaeological conversation. Our voices are crucial to the health of the field. As Jennifer McKinnon writes in her post, It Takes A Village to Build a Trail, on the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) blog: 

“…No amount of research can prepare one for the diversity in meaning and importance of heritage to a community; one member has a completely different understanding of a shared bit of heritage from the next member. And it is important to incorporate as many of those voices as possible…No matter how well-funded, presented or shiny an idea is, if a community isn’t behind it, it has no worth.”

Now more than ever, our voices must be heard. A recent push from Rep. Eric Cantor and Rep. Lamar Smith to cut National Science Foundation grant funding is a potentially devastating blow to archaeological research. In response to this affront, SHA created the #WhyArchMatters campaign, a web-based conversation aimed to galvanize supporters of archaeology. But there’s still a lot of work to do to ensure that archaeology has a fruitful future.

We can start by consistently reminding ourselves and our friends and family that every artifact or public site can connect us simultaneously to a particular day in history, a specific person, a local movement, a policy, and a global stage. All artifacts, no matter how seemingly trite, embody economic, social, political and spiritual stories. As a modern culture, Americans are increasingly materialistic. There is no reason why we cannot share the same enthusiasm for our shared belongings of the past that we do our banal personal possessions.

We must be responsible for making archaeology both personal and universal by assessing it from many different points and perspectives. We must acknowledge ancestral perspectives, community perspectives and diasporal perspectives. We must commit to addressing inherent power structures and injustice. But more than anything, we must resolve to continue the dialogue, encouraging voices from across the spectrum of stakeholders, with varying degrees of expertise and experience.

We must celebrate public archaeology, as difficult to define as it is. In, From Real Space to Cyberspace, Carol McDavid defines it as, “engaging the public in order to share archaeological findings and/or promote stewardship of cultural resources or to otherwise make archaeology relevant to society by providing the public with the means for constructing their own past.” In this blog, we’re trying to create a space for students, teachers, archaeologists, field techs, interested and inspired community members, curators and everyone else to voice their thoughts, concerns, and experiences. We also encourage spirited, positive, and well-meaning dialogue. 

To speak to the broadest audience, we need a universal space to have these conversations— outside of academic journals and field sites. It’s often difficult to express our complex thoughts on this topic, so AITC seeks to create many different forums for us to participate in the conversation. So, this is OUR spot and we welcome YOU, we celebrate your VOICE and invite you to share with you as we navigate our first public archaeology blog.

*We’re new to blogging so enjoy giggling at our assorted internet party fouls/faux-pas.

Written By: Leah Weissburg

Leah is a Masters in Public Administration student at George Washington University, studying nonprofit management and education policy. In addition to her work with AITC, Leah is a project manager and program evaluator at a public school district in Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Anthropology from Vassar College.  

    Feb 11    
Welcome to Digging into Archaeology
Blogging Archaeology
Photo By: BJ Gallery
    Feb 11  

Blogging Archaeology

Photo By: BJ Gallery


"Archaeology is fascinating to people when it is communicated to them in plain language."

- William H. Marquardt

    Feb 10              
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