Posted by: signalhillarchaeology | July 21, 2009

Adventures in Mapping

(Instructor’s note:  Here is the tale of one student’s adventures in archaeological paperwork.  You might not think it, but we actually do more paperwork than digging sometimes, or so it seems.  Here’s one really good (and funny) explanation of why this is so. Thanks Aaron!)

Contrary to popular perception, archaeology isn’t just about digging holes and
finding treasure. Sure, that’s only half of the job. The other half is
paperwork. And boy oh boy, is there a lot of it.

I’d hate to be the one who crushes some potential young archaeologist’s dreams.
The process of chipping away at the past, adding to, and sometimes even
challenging the historical record is definitely an exciting one. However, it’s
the paperwork that separates us from your average gold digging zombie tomb
raider, and that includes maps.

These are not gold digging zombie tomb raiders-- they are archaeologists doing what archaeologists love to do (or learn to love)-- mapping.

These are not gold digging zombie tomb raiders-- they are archaeologists doing what archaeologists love to do (or learn to love)-- mapping.

With a little practice, mapping isn’t a particularly difficult task, but for the
beginner, it is certainly a time consuming one. Every time a new layer of soil
is uncovered, the archaeologist must break out their pencil, paper, and
measuring tape. The map that takes the most time to produce, I’ve learned, is a
stratigraphic profile.

Stratigraphy, for those not familiar with it, basically refers to the layers of
the soil. Attention to these layers is one of the primary aspects that separate
the archaeologist from those tomb raiders (or, as we say in the biz, “pot
hunters”). It is not enough to simply take the object from the ground, treat
it, and store it. Determining what layer in the ground an object comes from may
indicate WHEN it is from, i.e. object A and object B are both in layer 2, so one
can assume they come from a similar time period. It takes a keen eye to study

Detecting changes in stratigraphy is one of the most challenging parts of digging...

Detecting changes in stratigraphy is one of the most challenging parts of digging...

Archaeologists look for changes in soil colour and texture, and
once they dig to a certain depth, they might decide to draw their profile map.
Without dwelling too long over the details of the process, one member of the
team looks for these changes in the wall of an excavation trench and measures
where they take place. They call out the readings to the mapper, who draws them
in, along with any rocks or other objects projecting from the profile.

Now that we’ve covered the technical details, let me give you the inside scoop:
profile mapping is one strange adventure. Emberley was a difficult site to
profile, due to its compact and rocky nature. For a while we thought about
putting out a want ad for one particularly mysterious layer that kept
performing a disappearing act. (LOST: Lot 6, particularly grainy and red. If
found, please return to Field School Team 4, 55 Dangerous Slope in the Woods,
Signal Hill, NL).
On Friday, Rowena struggled to dig to the bottom of an
especially thick layer of soil. At one point, her head poked out of the trench,
caked with dirt, and she yelled, “ORANGE! Everything is just orange! I HATE
orange!” Meanwhile, at that point, I was standing in a hole up to my chest,
measuring a profile, while my face at ground level was victim to an especially
violent wind. While a shower at the end of the day managed to make me
presentable after such an adventure, I was still finding tiny speckles of
Signal Hill in my kleenex two days later.

Mapping strata

"Orange!! Why is the soil always ORANGE!!" and other laments of the field archaeologist...

Despite its occasional difficulties, such data is an incredibly important part
of the work we do. Alongside the great artifact finds we make, maps and
paperwork complete the picture. They allow us to look at the artifacts and
features of a site in a meaningful way, and ultimately they enable us to reach
conclusions. Clues can be found in the soil too. As we search for answers
regarding the surprisingly mysterious Ladies’ Lookout site, these maps may
eventually be an important part of the puzzle.

–Aaron Critch (Student)



  1. Aaron,

    You perfectly summed up what all of us feel about paperwork! Way to go!

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