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Dig this Experience

Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania, 1997
by Linda Ruys, PIT Volunteer

Imagine yourself sitting in an office running a computer or teaching in a classroom when suddenly you receive a call from Warren, Pennsylvania, during which you learn that you’ve been accepted in the PIT program as a volunteer on an archaeological project in the Buckaloons. That is exactly how it happened to me as I was teaching one afternoon in Loves Park, Illinois. Getting there and finding a place to stay were only minor hurdles. But the dig was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the memories have lasted long after summer slipped away.

The search for the past is not done from the comfort of an armchair or even a desk. The work is long, over 40 hours per week in a hot, bug-infested atmosphere. The buckets are heavy, the shovel too, but the rewards are great and the friendships lasting.

So the search is on, and the flags are up, and in brief I will tell you what my routine was for nearly a month as a volunteer archaeologist. First, the most important equipment you can have in your backpack is your water bottle. Dehydration is always a possibility. Each person is assigned a toolbox and a bucket with necessary excavating equipment. The basic tools are a trowel and a file for sharpening it, a tape measure, a level, and a plumb line. You also need a pen and preprinted forms for recording each artifact’s exact location. Every person works in their own premeasured square (about 3 by 3 feet). When an artifact, such as a piece of pottery or chert from flintknapping, is discovered, you must record its provenience. This means measuring north-south and east-west in your square. Then with line and level attached, you measure the depth at which the artifact was found. All calculations are recorded on paper, and the artifact and the paper are placed in a small plastic bag. Digging then resumes. You only go down about 2 cm at a time. When you have gone 10 cm you stop and “square off” the unit, making sure that all four walls of your square are perfectly even.

A second aspect of the job is screening, which is done just outside the immediate dig area. All dirt is placed in a bucket from your square and must be screened separately from anyone else’s soil. If additional artifacts are found, they must be placed in a plastic bag and labeled, minus the exact measurements.

A third part of a dig may include a “walk-over.” Soil may be plowed about 30 cm deep and disked. Any artifacts that appear on the surface are marked with a colored flag, each color representing the type of artifact found. The method is used to see if any area may warrant further investigation. In order to make sure most artifacts are discovered, a line of several people is formed carrying flags of many colors. As each type of artifact is found, a flag is placed by it to mark the location. You walk slowly the length and then the width of the field. This allows items you might have missed at one angle to be seen from another. Then the artifacts are mapped using surveying equipment that is attached to a computer, re moved, and bagged like any other find.

All this is done in an atmosphere that ranges from complaining, to monotonous routine, to elation when a core or perhaps an arrowhead is found.

I felt all of the emotions mentioned above, but mostly I felt excitement. I discovered and held a core in my hand. Just to know I was the first person to hold it in 500–1,000 years was a humbling experience, difficult to put into words. The joy of discovery is what this is all about. The Buckaloons (Irvine Flats) is now a very special place to me. I often thought as I was working what it might have been like to live in this village. It is a beautiful place, and perhaps the original American Indian inhabitants thought so too.

The other volunteers were great. Many lasting friendships have been made as a result. It was a pleasure to know and work with the Mercyhurst College staff and students. On behalf of PIT, a big, big thank you for this awesome experience!
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