Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Archeology Spring Training

I have been posting a bit about baseball of late, this being the season when teams are in training camp trying to loosen up the muscles and tune up the skills. 

Same for me, as I anticipate my annual trip to Vindolanda to dig for detritus of the Roman Empire. 

I am strong of back and resolute of purpose, so have never really had any problems lifting things-wheelbarrows, spades, pints-so for me Archeology Spring Training is mostly getting the legs in shape for a no-car trip.  Oh, and training in the eyes.

Long walks are the best for both.  Up and down hills, spouse in tow when possible.  It is a marvelous time of year when the snow and slush melts, punctuated by those dispiriting late winter blizzards.

But I keep my eyes constantly scanning the ground, looking for.....well, for anything out of the ordinary.  Because you just can't always be sure what it is you are supposed to be finding at a place like Vindolanda.  Anything can and does pop up if you keep troweling long enough.

But a few basics to tune the scanners on to:

Bronze.  It has a distinctive patina when it ages.  It will even stain the earth around a bronze artifact which is an excellent warning to scrape slowly and carefully.  The magic color looks like this:
Oh, and if you ever find a bronze inscription of this size and clarity in a Roman site you can probably go visit it at the British Museum whenever you are in London.

Mostly what you will encounter is small stuff, camouflaged among various rocks and pebbles.  Here is some good practice:
Of course you spotted the coin right away.  It was after all a bright sunny day, unlike many at the dig site.

This rather looks like a late Roman Emperor, perhaps wearing some kind of a turban.  But alas, only a common Lincoln penny with some odd corrosion from the nasty road salt we use in these parts.  It is still worth a penny however, which you can't say about some of the crumbling bits of "ghost coin" that you find near the surface in a typical Roman site.

Here is another problem found on archaeological sites.  Multiple layers of road surfacing.  In this case partially obliterating an inscription.  I can make out BOB and perhaps SAY.  Sometimes you can only figure out so much.

A common misconception of neophyte diggers is that it is all about finding stuff.  Of course the artifacts are important, but it is more important to figure out what the artifacts are telling us.  Here for instance is an array of artifacts that suggest a lower class  household with children of both genders, at least one of whom is an infant and at least one other of whom is in school.
What? Too much of a stretch?  Lets look closer:
Wooden block complete with smallish tooth marks.  Along side of which is a wrapper from a snack food of the sort commonly put into school lunches.  We also have:
A juice box, typical artifact of grade school snacking.  This particular example says it is Gluten Free and Lactose Free, so we might infer some real or perceived health issues.
A plastic sabre toothed tiger.

A pink bandaid next to a maple seed indicative of local flora.

A cigarette butt, perhaps evidence of a smoking adult in the household, but a common enough artifact that "scatter" from the nearby sidewalk can't be excluded.

All this may seem a little silly, but let me assure you, toss a coin and a plastic sabre tooth on the ground alongside each other and come back in a few centuries.  Guess which one will in all probability still be identifiable!

For more on this important but frankly sobering topic visit The Flotsam Diaries a blog on ubiquitous plastic as chronicled by one of my fellow Vindolanda diggers.

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