How hard can it be? After all every sober person on this continent is expected to do it. Every child from the age of three or so will proudly demonstrate his or her ability to waddle in a straight line from mommy over to daddy.
Yes, the directions sound simple enough but when you are a) trying to walk in a straight line with 5 or more people, or b) trying to walk through some impenetrable vegetation such as tall grass, rocky meadows, or a tree, or c) walking over large distances, it can become quite a challenge.
Despite this Archaeological Survey methods, such as Field Walking, are the essential first steps of any archaeological project. In some cases the site may only ever be surveyed and recorded without being excavated. Though the techniques range from aerial photography, to remote sensing, to topographical mapping, one of the simplest and cheapest methods is to line up a bunch of archaeologists and ask them to walk across the potential site in transects.
This was one of the things we learned to do on Friday Sept 17 2010. It was our first day on the site and for many of us it was our first introduction to archaeological field methods. We had a lot of difficulties walking through the tall grass which was almost a meter tall in places. We even reached clumps of elephant grass which was more than 150cm tall! (I know this for sure because I am exactly 155 cm and there were times when the grass was taller than me). In addition the ground is uneven and full of holes that are covered by the vegetation.
Besides the difficulty of merely walking across the field we also had to make sure that we were walking in pace with our other team members. This could be very hard to do when visibility was low, so we had to rely on each other to look out for those closest to us and pass the news along the grapevine if someone was falling behind.
We also had to make sure that were walking in a straight line! Now this is very hard to do if you don’t have a compass to check your bearings with. However it is very important to take the time to do this because if you don’t you risk cutting into another person’s transect meaning the same ground may be covered twice while another area is not covered at all. As White and King mention (2007) it is the crew chief who sets the pace and the others must pay close attention to him as well as to each other since you may not only be crossing each other’s paths but you may also be covering the ground at different levels of intensity. Depending on the project a more fine-tuned approach may or may not be needed and this will be determined by the crew chief.
Despite all the initial challenges we did find a lot of bone remains scattered on the surface as we surveyed the area on the east side of the road. By carefully sweeping the grass aside with our feet and legs we were able to spot them where they lay on the ground. The finds consisted of various leg bones and pieces of black plastic bags which our instructors said were often found in association with the animal remains. They also told us that the bones were probably churned up by the bulldozers that had passed there to collect soil for backfill.
Such initial finds are often the first clue to identifying new sites. However, as Roskams argues (2001), Field Walking can also provide a lot of information in its own right. One of the problems with the technique is that it assumes that the level of artifact scatter on the surface is somehow proportional to what’s below (Roskams 2001). Though this may not always be true the results do give us an indication of what may be there.
All in all it was a very productive day, and we learnt a lot even with the challenges we faced. It seems fitting that our first steps as Archaeologists, and our first task in this course, mirrored the first steps of many archaeological projects.
Roskams, S. 2001. Excavation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
White, G. & T. King, 2007. The Archaeological Survey Manual. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek Calif.