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Magnetometer, Radar Are Modern Tools in Ancient Excavations


Assistant Professor of Anthropology Colin Quinn recently concluded a six-week field school, the New River Headwaters Archaeology Project, in Ashe County N.C. The group is investigating a prehistoric village  – the Woodie Site – conducting geophysical survey and excavations designed to find material remains from the site.

The New River is one of the most important thoroughfares for interaction between communities in the Southern Appalachian Summit, where resources such as mica and copper are abundant, with communities across eastern North America that used these resources in ritual ceremonies and as prestige items.

Quinn said, “By studying sites along the New River, we have a unique opportunity to study human adaptation to mountain landscapes and broader questions about interaction, identity, and climate change over the past 10,000 years.” 

Students are sharing blog posts about what they are doing and discoveries they’re making in North Carolina.

July 11, 2019 - Technology Supports Non-Destructive Ways to Know the Soil Before Dig

This post is by Sarya Khandare '22, a student from Mumbai Maharashtra, India.

As we started field school at the Woodie site in Western North Carolina, the first thing Dr. Alice Wright told us before we started digging was how the dirt we were standing on was a non-renewable archaeological resource. Digging into a unit that has been set up and screening through the soil destroys the structure of the soil strata, the plough scars and marks found, the exact locations at which artifacts were found and the context thus given to them. This highlights the importance of recording precise measurements and systematic mapping for all archaeological exploration. However, one thing I have been fascinated by is the role of geophysical technologies such as magnetometry, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), soil conductivity and resistivity measurements as supporting non-destructive ways to know more about the soil before digging into it.

 We used a fluxgate magnetometer on the Woodie site to locate anomalies in the subsoil. The magnetometer detects fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. Changes in the flux density observed can be indicative of not just metal objects in the subsoil but also subtle changes in soil composition. The map showing the variations in the magnetic field in the area being explored can be used to identify possible features such as postholes, trash pits, fire pits, and even artifacts such as clay pottery. The sensitivity and range of the flux mapped can be changed to detect weaker prehistoric magnetic signatures. A magnetometer cannot be used in locations with a large amount of metal objects in and around it as there would be too much interference. However, since the Woodie site was an isolated farmland with little man-made construction around it, it was one of the most important tools we used during the dig to locate areas of interest and determine locations for opening excavation units.

On a field trip to the Berry site, we learned about the role of GPR in sites where magnetometers cannot be used. GPR works by emitting low frequency radio waves into the material and picking up their reflected signals. It can work over large areas and create high resolution subsoil images. The Berry site is the location of a Native American settlement and a fort built by the Spaniards. Imaging subsoil features not only helped spot specific areas to excavate, but also helped locate one of the most distinctive features of the site, the moat surrounding the fort, as there was a noticeable difference between the reflective properties of the soil surrounding the moat and the soil that later filled it up.

Therefore, these subsoil mapping techniques can be used to reduce the time and effort put in to look for significant features in the subsoil. They can be used to determine the most valuable locations to set up excavation units or carry out shovel tests. They also prevent archaeologists from having to go in blind and accidently leveling out an important feature, allowing these archaeological resources to be fully studied. And although laying out magnetometer grids through all the weeds at the Woodie site was a pain, it has helped me marvel at the significant role of these subsoil imaging technologies in effectively extracting information from the site. 

July 7, 2019 - Museum Visits Provide Context to Archaeological Study

This post is written by Nandini Subramaniam ’22, a student from Bangalore, India.

During the four-week archaeology field school in North Carolina, our small group of students, TAs, and professors visited quite a few museums around western North Carolina. Within the first 10 days, we had already toured the Museum of Ashe County History and the New River State Park Museum. We also explored various local tourist attractions like the Linville Caverns. Understanding the cultural and ecological histories of the area being excavated allowed us to contextualize what we discovered in the field.

The State Park Museum provided us with important information about the ecology of the New River region. We learned about the main wildlife around the river such as river otters and snapping turtles. More importantly, a short film in the museum explained the history of the Woodie Site and its discovery in the 1970’s. This showed us how archaeologists at the time did preliminary research to establish if and where the site was to prevent a dam from being built in the area. The museum taught me about the what the land may have been used for in the past which helped us interpret various features found on site.

At the Museum of Ashe County History, we explored the cultural history of the Southern Appalachia by showcasing artifacts and collections from various others archaeological projects. There were reconstructed ceramics and pottery excavated by a local archaeologist. The archaeology presented in the museum gave me an idea of what to expect on the site. The museum also showcased religious aspects of Ashe county over the last 300 years through exhibits of miniature church models and religious texts. There was a section on Ashe county in World War One and Two. However, this museum failed to present indigenous histories in any scope and failed to discuss issues of racism in the area.

While museums provide a significant source of historical information on an area, their representation of pre-colonial history is often lacking. As students of archaeology and anthropology, we must take a holistic view of the histories told to us and be aware of the empty spaces in each narrative. Each book we read and museum we visited had its own stories of Ashe County that together provided some context to what we were studying and why.

July 1, 2019 - Drones and Archaeology: The Future of Exploring the Past

This post is by Emily Walker ’22, a student from Tallahassee, Fla.

On the Monday of the second week of our field school in North Carolina, the last thing I expected to hear was that the drones were coming. But these drones were not out of Star Wars, but rather technology we would use to get a better sense of the topography of the site we were working. Our field school, and archaeology in general, involves much more than just digging. Like any other scientific field, archaeology involves many technological instruments that help with everything from spatial positioning and plotting points to surveying a site by looking at its varying levels of magnetism. And for archaeology, as well as many other fields, drones might become an integral part of exploration in the future.

With the drones came their operators from Hamilton: Forrest Warner, a video audio specialist, and Bret Olsen, an educational technology specialist. That Tuesday and Wednesday, my classmates and I were vaguely aware of a loud humming over our heads. We later learned that the drones, programmed with coordinates and a set altitude, were flying in directed grids over the site, taking thousands of photos as they went.

On Thursday we were shown the product of the giant collection of photos taken over the last several days: a 3D model of the landscape produced through the process of photogrammetry, or the process of producing 3D models from 2D information. It is in this process that the future use of drones in the study of archaeology lies. On a basic level, it allows us to get a better understanding of the landscape we must contend with while digging as well as the landscape (albeit most likely somewhat altered) once occupied by those peoples we seek to investigate.

The use of drones and mapping offers an exciting future in data collection and public outreach and education. Bret explained to us the potential of using the 3D maps created from data collected by drones and other instruments to eventually render artifacts themselves three-dimensionally and to create a virtual reality experience, for both those in the archaeological community and beyond. Since excavation can only occur once, VR experiences would allow archaeologists in the future to get a better idea of past explorations. For the general public, VR could allow the exploration of an area not often accessible and could provide them with a better idea of specific findings as well as general archaeological processes.

But we weren’t only introduced to drones and their potential, we were allowed to fly them. With controllers similar to a video game controller with duel joysticks connected to an iPad, I nervously started the drone and raised it off the ground. I was terrified by the prospect of being in control of a several-thousand-dollar piece of equipment but found myself enjoying how quickly and smoothly I was able to direct it through the air. After flipping the drone so that it was facing my classmates and I, I was able to snap a picture, using an app on the iPad called DJI Go. While I am not nearly skilled enough after my brief flying experience to help render a 3D map, I was happy to capture our excitement in that moment.

June 27, 2019 - Successful archaeology requires teamwork” 

Today's post is written by Paige Harwood, a student from Selkirk College in Castlegar, British Columbia, Canada, who is participating in the project. 

Upon my acceptance into field school, my professor handed me a book called Introductory to Archaeological Field Work. Dirt smudges coated the front cover and its pages were decorated with highlights and illegible margin notes.  It had been the book she used during her first field school and was passing the tradition onto me. Anxious to discover what I had gotten myself into, I spent the next three days studying the book. With chapters on photography, excavation, ethical concerns, site preservation, and numerous other topics, it covered the basics of many key aspects of fieldwork. But as I have since come to learn, successful fieldwork isn’t solely dependent on the procedures and methods adhered to, but also the relationships fostered.

When first arriving at our campsite, I was met by a group of strangers. I wasn’t from the same school or even the same country as anybody around me. I had committed to spending the next eight weeks with these individuals. What if I didn’t fit in? In all my studying I never considered the role relationships and communication play in archaeology. Perhaps the most significant discovery I’ve made so far during this trip is that successful archaeology requires teamwork.

Very few elements of fieldwork can be done alone. Not too dissimilar to a sports team, site survey and excavation is a collaborative effort.  Everyone is united by a communal goal and the accomplishment of one member means success for the entire group. Archaeology is less about what “I found” and more so “what we discovered.” Effective fieldwork begins with a cohesive team who communicate, work within each other’s strengths, and challenge one another to improve.

By the end of week one, it became clear there was no option but to fit in. When living, working, and relaxing with the same 10 people, relationships are bound to form. Our cooperation in the field continues at camp as we cook and clean together. The games we play and jokes we tell in the evenings carry through to the field, filling a long day of work with laughter. I’d love to credit this to the charming personalities of those here, but I’m beginning to believe field school, and perhaps archaeology in general, has a way of bringing people together.

If I ever write my own introductory to archaeology book, chapter one would be on the importance of group collaboration. Perhaps it is not a science nor a practice or method of fieldwork, but it is a fundamental component of archaeology. Friendships built at camp generate success on the field and teamwork at the excavation site instills a sense of community. It is through solidarity not isolation that discoveries are made, and history is revealed.

June 23, 2019 - From student to research assistant

The second post is by Sabrina Pike ’20, an archaeology and creative writing major from Kailua Kona, Hawaii.

My first archaeological experience was two years ago in the forested landscape of British Columbia, excavating First Nations pit houses. I was a student, just out of my freshman year and unsure about my career path. So, I decided to attend Hamilton’s six-week summer field school. We were out of touch with the world except for weekly trips into town. Excavating became so exciting as I was digging for artifacts, unsure what was under the levels of soil but knowing that I was finding objects that would aid in the understanding of a culture. I loved the experience so much I became an archaeology major.

NC field school 2019
Sabrina Pike ’20 (right) and Sarya Khandare ’22 running the total station. Photo: Colin Quinn

Now, two years later, I am in North Carolina excavating another archaeological site. Except this time, I am no longer a student on the project, I am a research assistant. A research assistant plays a vital role in ensuring proper protocols are being followed at the site and assists in tasks necessary for conducting excavations.

 There is an interesting mix of responsibility and freedom from this position. While I am still learning new methods and concepts, I have a strong foundation in archaeology that I rely on as I help teach the students the process of excavation. Before, I had been responsible to learn how to excavate, help with chores around camp, and take good notes in my field journal. Now I must do all of that and more. I direct students on what to do around camp, assist in instructing them on archaeological concepts or instruments, and supervise them as they are excavating. But I am reveling in this experience. Things I did not know my first year I am now able to teach to other students, like how to identify flakes of rock or ceramic sherds in the archaeological record.

Despite my previous knowledge, I am still learning so much as a research assistant. On the New River Headwaters Archaeological Project I was taught how to use a total station last week. It is an instrument which precisely records where objects are in the area and provides vital context for artifact analysis. Now, I am the go-to person to run the total station when the directors are conducting other activities around the site. It is rewarding to know that I am responsible for such an important part of the excavation process. Despite my new responsibilities and continually learning new things, the most rewarding experience by far is connecting with the students and further fostering their love for archaeology.

June 17, 2019 - Rock Art on Cranberry Creek

Students in the field school are busy excavating the south side of the Woodie Site, hoping to find out more about a late woodland era occupation. The Woodie Site was first surveyed in 1969 to determine whether or not cultural resources would be disrupted by a proposed dam project on the New River.  They uncovered quite a few artifacts in a short span of time. However, since almost half a century ago, no research has been on the site (until us!).

One of the most exciting features of the Woodie Site is a ‘cupule’ stone found on the banks of Cranberry Creek (an offshoot of the new river). The cupules, which are about 5 cm in diameter, were carved using stone tools.  They are one of the most common forms of rock art, consisting of circular indentations made on stone without a utilitarian purpose (i.e. a similar divot created for a game, or for grinding grain would not qualify as a cupule).

This particular stone is yet to be definitively dated. It was potentially added to periodically for centuries.  We know that similar stones on waterways in the region have marked locations that later revealed large Late Woodland villages (A.D. 600 to A.D. 1200).  

The ritual purpose of the stone is undetermined, however, it is thought to be somehow connected with the underworld. The fact that the stone is located on a waterway is meaningful in and of itself. Rivers are a major part of Cherokee spirituality. Regardless of the season, going to water daily was thought to wash away illnesses and bad thoughts (information provided by the Ashe County Museum).

 According to Dr. Alice Wright (Appalachian State University), co-director of the New River Headwaters Archaeological Project, some work is being done with modern Cherokee who might be able to tell us more about this type of stone’s significance.

Our group has begun cleaning off the stone today.  We are excited to see what is uncovered. 

- Eliza Renn ’20

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