One of the questions I often get asked as an archaeologist is “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found?” It seems simple and straightforward, yet it’s always an odd question to try and answer. What’s interesting to most people and what’s interesting to an archaeologist often aren’t the same things.
Think of the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark (And if you haven’t seen it, go see it right now. I’ll wait). Indiana Jones sneaks into ancient ruins, deftly avoiding poison darts, spring loaded spikes that activate at the touch of sunlight, and the world’s largest bowling ball, to make it out with a priceless golden idol that was worth all the risk.
But is it? Really, when you get down to it, it’s a statue made out of a shiny rock. Statues are nice, we can learn from them. You can see the art style of the people who made it. What it represents could be something very important to the people who had it. Or it could mean they liked cats. But now think about that temple the statue was in. This is a temple that, among other things, has solar and pressure-plate activated booby traps. Ones that still work after centuries without maintenance! That beats out most warrantees you’ll get now. Think of what could be learned by studying that temple… if the team could survive.
For an archaeologist, the artifacts found can be individually remarkable, but the real importance is what they tell us about the site they were found in. All of the things we find and all of the data we collect are tied together. Context is everything. This is one of the reasons archaeology goes so much slower in the field than it does in the movies.
Of course, we don’t deal with ancient spike traps much in regular archaeology. Not just because few traps keep working long after the culture that built them has gone, but because the best information we get can come from the least glamorous places. The best information about how people really lived comes from the garbage. Yep, that’s right. We get far more information from their tossed out leftovers than we do from that statue. The true treasure trove is when you find the garbage pit. Bones of what people ate, broken dinnerware, tossed out tools… the pieces of life from all around the site are collected in one spot. The trash.
All of these individual items, every artifact, is part of a larger context: the site itself. And not just the item itself, but how it was found. Where was it? How far underground? What was it near? An arrowhead taken from a sight is a curiosity. An arrowhead found within a site is a piece of a puzzle, one that tells the story of the place and the people who lived there when it’s put together. And that is the real goal of archaeology, to preserve the legacy of the people.
The most interesting things most archaeologist find aren’t artifacts… they’re sites. Not every site that is important is easy to spot, and not every place is important to the same people. In ancient Greece scholars once put together a list of incredible sites that people should visit. The Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria… the Seven Wonders of the World.
Of all these ancient sites, only the Pyramids remain. The rest were lost through the ages, fallen into ruin, destroyed, or lost to memory (If you can know Halicarnassus without help from Wikipedia, then you know your history!). If this happened to such well known places, think of all the other places lost through the years. And not every site has such obvious importance to the people who don’t use it. Many sacred places with long and rich histories might seem like simple wilderness to those who don’t know. With the amount of construction and development going on in the world today, ancient sites and sacred spaces are constantly at risk of being bulldozed.
One of the most important jobs archaeologists have is preservation. We work to identify sites that are culturally and historically significant. We ensure that they’re not destroyed when we can, or that the knowledge is preserved if we can’t. Sometimes the most interesting thing found is a place that’s important to people, has a story, and is important to them. And that’s not a thing. But it is the best part of the job.
A glimpse behind the scenes. A quirky back story. An interesting insight. When I go to Museums, I cherish these types of interactions, usually from a staff member taking a moment to share. These exchanges have been happening more frequently here at the Museum, as the Visitor Services team strives to constantly engage with the community and with our visitors. Keep reading for a virtual tour of some recent happenings!
If you have visited the Museum lately, you might have bumped into our Outreach team out at the newly transformed area now called the “hunting camp” (towards the back of the picnic area behind the Museum, or after marker 53 from the Boardwalk). This living display offers opportunities to interact with the Outreach staff at times when they are not conducting off-campus presentations.
Here, Seminole artist and filmmaker Samuel Tommie visits with Rey Becerra as the camp begins to take form:
During my ad hoc visit, Daniel Tommie, Sam’s brother and newest member of the Visitor Services team, shared how the hunters would bring back the entire bunch of bananas and hang it at the camp while it ripens (random fact: a “bunch” of bananas you buy at the store is technically called a “hand” of bananas, and a bunch of hands still connected to the branch is the actually a “bunch” of bananas).
Here, you can see Jeremiah Hall’s team of chickee builders adding life to the hunting camp lean-to, which is designed to demonstrate a how Seminoles adapted the chickee for even shorter-term use. Did you know that it can be up to 10% cooler under the thatched-roof of a chickee?
Can you spot Daniel Tommie in the background below as he takes the hunting camp canoe out for a ride in the cypress dome? Visitors may not have a chance for some interesting side-bar talk with Daniel while he is out on the water, but it makes for some fun conversation later and great snapshots along the Boardwalk!
Visitors sometimes bump into Rey for some random conversation as he prepares for a wildlife demonstration or tools of war presentation. Here, Rey enjoys chatting with visitors while he waits for a tour group to finish lunch:
Rey has a contagious laugh and many fascinating stories to share about his years of experience working with wildlife!
Tour guide Wilse Bruisedhead shares the back story of those fancy “hearts of palm” sold at the grocery store. Pictured below is the heart of the palm, known as “swamp cabbage”, which visitors could taste (freshly harvested and boiled) during our “Everglades Survival Day”!
Here Wilse demonstrates “gigging”, so visitors could try their hand at this “everglades survival” technique. How hard can it be to spear a fish or a frog as a hunting technique??
In addition to the line-up of special programs, visitors may start to see more staff walking through the galleries ready to answer questions or just share a greeting and a smile, out on the boardwalk getting some fresh air and studying the flora and fauna, or even having a little fun browsing all the new merchandise in the Museum store.
Visitors here catch a chance to hear insights about Seminole survival when they bump into Melanie in the West Gallery:
Below, a visitor from Ohio enjoys an opportunity to chat with Linda Frank, one of our Village artisans, making a traditional sweetgrass basket:
Happy staff enjoy showing off the “magic sunglasses” available for purchase in our Museum store and how they pop with color when taking them out into the Florida sun:
Museum staff are always ready to share a little fun, or some small talk about big topics with Museum visitors. We hope your next visit to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is full of engaging and interactive experiences!
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.
First, we wake up ridiculously early in the morning to get ready for work.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
The truth is that most of the time we don’t find any artifacts. We mostly find rocks, roots, modern debris, and worms.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In that case, we walk to every hole carrying up to 40 lbs of equipment through environments such as:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
And not all animals encountered in the field are dangerous.
Elementary school is a pleasant memory for most of us, isn’t it? Playing on the swings, jumping rope, learning the cool 9 times table rule, yet does anything strike terror into a parent’s heart more than hearing your child say, “I have to do a Science Fair project”? Ugh, the dreaded images of procrastination and meltdowns, late nights and running out of construction paper. It’s a parent’s nightmare! If you have or know a child who has ever completed a project by themselves, please alert the media!
But then there is the National History Day project. Started in 1974 in Ohio by a professor at Case Western Reserve, it has over a million participants competing every year. And every year a small portion of that million contacts or come visit us in a quest to win. Here in the research library, behind a locked door at the back of the museum, we help numerous students research their innovative ideas. This year has been no exception. As the Research Coordinator I have fielded many requests for information and visit appointments. Most are from high school students but not always. Sometimes middle school students want to study here too.
This past December we were lucky enough to host the Weiss School for gifted children. Driving down all the way from Palm Beach Gardens, a good two hour drive, eight students in sixth and seventh grade, four chaperones and one teacher, Mr. Steve Hammerman, came and toured the museum before “hitting the books” after lunch. This precocious bunch had lots of questions. Did you know that is a sign of intelligence? Intellectual curiosity is a hallmark of a good student and Bam! Bam! Bam! – the barrage of questions was furious! What a great experience! Who doesn’t love a student eager to learn?
Steven Hammerman, history teacher extraordinaire, was a particularly dedicated and earnest guide. He skillfully led the students (6 girls and 2 boys) through the choppy waters of forming a real hypothesis as we stood in the library discussing their focus. I was able to explain to them, as they were interested in the Seminole conflict of the 1800s, the newest thinking about the ethnogenesis of the Tribe. We know, and research is verifying, that the Seminole Tribe of Florida is descended from not just Creek people who migrated into Florida but also from the peoples who were already here. We also spoke of the Tribal view of the Seminole Wars. Let me change that to War, singular. Tribal members have often expressed to me that the time of the 1800s was really one long conflict with intermittent escalations. Those are what historians call “wars”. But really the 50 years before the end of the Civil War was one long tumultuous, murderous episode of betrayal and fear. Our Exhibits Curator, Rebecca Fell, talked about this concept while she and her team installed our current exhibit about Seminole struggle and survival during that war-filled century.
But I digress….the students from the Weiss School were interested in topics surrounding the conflicts of the 1800s: Andrew Jackson, General Jesup, how the conflicts changed the lifeways of the Tribe and how they survived. They were excited to find a concentration of books on Seminole life and the Seminole War(s). Most students worked in small groups reading and taking notes from the books on the shelves. Some were interested in the historic documents we had laid out on the Archival vault table with names like Andrew Jackson and Fort Brooke. It was a pleasure to teach them how to handle rare documents and watch them begin to comprehend the special care we take to preserve the history of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The day was a great success and Mr. Hammerman was very pleased with the progress the students made in learning how to research, how to find sources (hint: look at the sources used by the author of the book you are reading), and how to form a hypothesis and write a paper using the materials available (one of the most valuable things I learned in college – thank you, Dr. Andrew Frank!). All went home with just a little more knowledge of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a greater appreciation of what it took to survive and thrive! We had a great day hosting young gifted scholars who were excited to learn and excited to be here. What could make a better day than that?