A Day in the Life of a TAS Archaeologist

By Tiffany Cochran, Field Technician

When I tell people I’m an archaeologist with the Tribal Archaeologist Section (TAS) of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, they usually respond with, “That’s so exciting!” or “Awesome! Like Indiana Jones!?”  Most of the time I respond by smiling and explaining that sadly, it’s not quite as…eventful…as Indiana Jones.  Instead of fighting bad guys and dodging booby traps, it is a lot of walking, digging, lifting, screening, and sweating.  So what is it really like to be an archaeologist?  Let me take you through a typical day in the life of an archaeologist for the TAS.

  1. First, we wake up ridiculously early in the morning to get ready for work.image 1

Working outdoors means you have to take advantage of as much daylight as possible, which means getting started as early in the morning as possible.  Not a morning person, I wake up with just enough time to get dressed in my field clothes, grab a banana and a granola bar to eat in the car, throw some random food in a bag for lunch, and race out the door.

2. Next is the scramble to prepare for the field.

After the most important step in the morning preparations,

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Coffee, of course

there are several things we have to prepare before we leave for the field. By “the field,” I am referring to our term for going out to do a project.  Sometimes this is in an actual field or pasture, but it can be in any kind of environment, such as a home site, a hammock or tree island, a cypress dome, the side of a roadway, and sometimes even a patch of grass surrounded by a parking lot. One of our first steps is to prepare the Trimble, which is our mobile GPS device.
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We load a map of our project area onto the Trimble each morning.  Included in this map are the GPS locations of all of the holes, which we call shovel tests, that we need to dig for a particular project.  In the field, the Trimble can lead us straight to the location of each shovel test.  The Trimble also keeps track of information such as depth, disturbances, and termination reason.

Next is preparing paperwork.  A project “desktop” is prepared ahead of time, which is a folder that includes all the information we need, such as maps of the project area, locations of utilities we need to avoid, locations of the shovel tests to be excavated, topography, elevation, and soil info, and info on who leases the land and who to contact to get access to the area.  The number and location of the shovel tests that we need to dig is determined before we start the project.  We take notes for every shovel test we complete.  We use Shovel Test Forms to record the necessary information.

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I never saw Indy doing paperwork…

Once the Trimble is ready and paperwork has been gathered, each person prepares his/her own personal field equipment.  We each carry a backpack that includes your standard archaeologist’s equipment: clipboard, pencils, sharpies, measuring tape (in centimeters and meters, not inches and feet), sunscreen, bug spray, artifact bags and labels, water bottles, sometimes a snack for energy, trowels, compass, gloves (for screening dirt), a machete, and a Munsell© soil color chart.  We then put on our snake boots, a required piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) for a Florida archaeologist, and our hats.

image 5
Indian Jones got some things right

Now ready to leave the office, we bring our field trucks to our storage shed and load it with the equipment needed for digging shovel tests: shovels, screens, and tarps on which to screen the soil to make it easier to backfill the holes.  Once these are in the back of the truck, we are ready to head to our project area.

3.Fieldwork

Most of the TAS’s fieldwork consists of Phase I archaeological survey.  What is this?  Basically, any time there is going to be ground disturbing activity on the reservations, such as construction activity, fence installations, creating ditches, etc., it is required that the TAS first survey the area to make sure that the ground disturbing activity will not affect any cultural material.  Our surveys include pedestrian survey, or walking through the project area to see if we find any artifacts on the surface, and shovel testing, which means digging holes at regular intervals and screening the dirt through a mesh screen to see if we find any cultural material.image 6

The truth is that most of the time we don’t find any artifacts.  We mostly find rocks, roots, modern debris, and worms.

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And creepier things with far too many legs…

Once we have finished digging and screening the shovel test, we record the important information.  While the person who dug the shovel test fills out the paperwork, the person who screened the dirt puts the same information into the Trimble as a backup.  If we do find artifacts in the shovel test, we place them in bags to keep them safe and label the bags with info on the location, stratum (layer of soil), date, contents, and who collected the artifacts.

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Animal bone and pottery are our most common finds
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Sadly, I still have not found any pirate treasure… yet

4. Back in the office

Once we are done digging for the day, we head back to the office.  We first have to unload all of our equipment from the back of the truck to the equipment shed.  Afterward, we turn any artifacts in to the lab to be processed.  After stomping as much of the dirt off of our boots as we can, we take our personal equipment back to our desks.  We then try to clean ourselves up as best we can at the bathroom sinks.  I bring a fresh change of clothes each day so that I don’t have to sit in my dirty and sweaty clothes at my desk or in my car on the way home.  We plug the Trimbles into the computer and load all of the information we gathered on it that day into our ArcGIS© system.  We put our completed paperwork into the project folder.  The last hour or so of the day is dedicated to paperwork, such as the “desktops” previously mentioned or reports on the projects we have completed.  At 5:00 p.m. we clock out and leave to begin our long drive back home.

5. Dangers in the field

Remember how I mentioned that there are non-glamorous aspects of archaeology?  Sweat is definitely the most prolific.  This is Florida.  The heat and humidity here make you start pouring sweat the second you step out of your door.image 10

Now imagine digging holes for six hours in that mess.  Not only does it make things uncomfortable and rather smelly at times, but it can be dangerous.  Heat exhaustion and dehydration are real risks, especially in summer.  We make sure to bring plenty of water with us and we keep electrolyte tablets on hand just in case.  Besides the heat, nature can mess with us by sending rain, heavy winds, and thunderstorms.

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As I said, this is Florida…so, hurricanes.

We have to pay attention to make sure we don’t get caught in something dangerous.  Being out in an open field during a thunderstorm holding metal shovels is not a good idea.

The distance between shovel tests depends on what we believe the probability of locating cultural material in the area may be.  Probability depends on multiple factors, such as looking at historic aerial maps, soil information, elevation, and environment.  Sometimes we are lucky and are able to drive close to the project area.  Sometimes, however, we are blocked from the area by fences, canals, or giant man-eating alligators.

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Ok, that one hasn’t happened yet, but I still keep an eye out!

In that case, we walk to every hole carrying up to 40 lbs of equipment through environments such as:

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Hammocks…
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Canals…
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Cypress domes (AKA mosquito breeding grounds)…

and any other environment necessary. Even Innocent looking open pastures are actually cow patty mine fields.

There are multiple dangers in Florida archaeology that we have to keep an eye out for.  I have already mentioned snakes.  There are multiple venomous species in Florida and we have all nearly stepped on one multiple times, or nearly had one drop on our heads!

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Spiders are another risk.  Not just because there are venomous species as well, but because they are just plain creepy and I personally feel at risk of having a heart attack every time I accidentally walk into one of their webs.

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How would you like to run face first into this guy?!

While I may not have run into a giant man-eating alligator yet, seeing alligators while in the field is usual and we try to be wary.  We also have to watch for panthers, wolves, and bears.  My favorite section of our safety manual is where it tells us to speak to the bear in a calm, assertive voice and if that doesn’t scare it away, people have successfully fought them off with large sticks, shovels, and even their bare hands.

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Yeah, that’ll work.

It’s not a typical day in the field (at least for me) without getting some kind injury.  Usually it’s scratches or cuts from thorns such as Smilax, tree branches we have to barrel our way through, and going through barbed-wire fences to name a few.  Then there are the millions of mosquitoes trying to exsanguinate you, oak tree ants stinging you over and over until you manage to find them and squish them, ticks that can give you limes disease, wasps, and other insects I don’t know the name of, but I swear had to be created in a lab by a mad scientist bent on our destruction.

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It’s the only explanation for their existence and purpose in this world.

Other non-bloodletting injuries common in our line of work include back, neck, shoulder, and knee injuries from the repetitive physical labor involved in digging and screening.  Tripping and falling due to roots, cypress knees, vines, or in my case my own uncoordinated feet, is not uncommon and all of our equipment comes crashing down with us.  Bruises are regular features on our extremities.  I sometimes get asked if someone is abusing me.  I say no, I do this to myself.  Accidents on field vehicles are a risk as well.  One former TAS employee flipped his ATV and shattered his wrist.  He has metal plates and pins in his wrist now.

6. The glamour

You may ask:  Why do we do what we do?  With all the injuries, risks, and dangers mentioned above?  Since we don’t get to keep the artifacts we find for ourselves?  Since we don’t make a lot of money doing it?  And especially since we don’t get to battle Nazis while trying to recover priceless magical artifacts protected by formidable booby traps?

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If only…

Every archaeologist may say something different, but for me this career is one of the most interesting and exciting in the world!  The artifacts we usually find may not be exciting to most people, but no matter what it is, imagine the thrill of finding and touching something nobody has seen or touched for hundreds to thousands of years.  Or fifty.  Technically anything fifty years or older is a historic artifact.

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My mom wasn’t too happy when I pointed out that technically she’s an artifact now.

Every site that we find is a mystery that we get to try to solve.  We use the evidence we record on our projects to try to figure out what happened in that area and how people in the past lived.  In that way, we’re more like Sherlock Holmes than Indiana Jones.

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Too bad his hat isn’t useful for fieldwork.

Travel and Adventure!  As an archaeologist for the TAS, I don’t have to work in one place all the time.  I get to travel throughout southern Florida.  When I was working for Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firms, I got to travel to states all throughout the Midwest and as part of my archaeology field school I even got to dig in Ireland!  I get to travel all over, meet new people, and experience things I’ve never experienced before.  I have gotten to explore castles and caves, make friends in multiple states and countries, and take part in exciting discoveries!

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And play in trees!

And not all animals encountered in the field are dangerous.

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Though they did try to kill me with their cuteness!

 

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