In past articles (May 2014 and June 2014), I have described the work of the Archaeological Society of Alberta – Calgary Centre, at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park. This beautiful park, accessed from Highway 1A between Calgary and Cochrane, is the location of our research into the history and archaeology of a sandstone quarry and the people who worked and lived there about 100 years ago. With the renewal of excavations this year, I thought it was time for a little update about our work there.
This summer I have been busy running a volunteer excavation program at the Workers’ Quarters, where the quarry offices, managerial residences, and single mens’ bunkhouse were located. In June, we excavated for five gloriously sunny days and now we are in the midst of our fall series of dig days. We have planned for ten days, but depending on weather conditions and the speed of our progress, the actual number may vary. As a creature of routine, this enforced flexibility is a quite a challenge for me. It seems I have not escaped the dependance upon the weather that my farming ancestors faced. sigh.
Our program is public in more ways than one: we invite interested laypeople to join us in excavating the site, and we do this work in full view of casual passers-by. We are happy to chat with our participants and answer questions spectators may have about what we are doing.
After years of working in the public eye, I have recognized a general perception of archaeology held by those outside the profession. The most common question we hear is “Found any dinosaurs yet?” which launches me into an explanation of the difference between paleontology (the study of ancient life — including dinosaurs) and archaeology (the study of past human culture — which occurred millions of years after the extinction of dinosaurs). Ironically, this week I have been plagued by the presence of a Royal Tyrrell Museum truck parked right beside our pits. A paleontologist is working nearby studying ancient mammals protruding from the rocky outcrops of the park. another sigh.
The next most frequent query is “Found any gold yet?” which highlights the idea that we are digging for treasure with actual monetary value. Usually I just laugh and explain that the people who lived here were unlikely to have left behind anything so valuable, and that any artifacts we find belong to all Albertans and are stored at the Royal Alberta Museum for display and research. I suspect this popular misconception was fueled by the adventures of the cinematic archaeologist Indiana Jones. At this point I must shamefully admit to you, Dear Readers, the influence that this fictional hero had upon my adolescent self. Viewed at a critical moment of self-development, the original movie suggested a life of romance and adventure if I were to follow my chosen career path. Sadly, I have not saved the world from the Ultimate Evil, nor have I traveled to exotic shores in quest of artifacts of mythic proportions. When it came right down to it, practicality won out and I chose to study Alberta Archaeology, in the hopes of job stability in an environment of relative safety from violence and disease. I fear I am the antithesis of Indy, but prefer to think of myself as defying the stereotype.
Another regular comment when people see the methodical and careful progress of our excavation is that I must have an unusual abundance of patience. This also causes me to smile; I am actually highly impatient by nature, but digging is similar to meditation. This week I got carried away describing the zen-like nature of excavation: the repetitive motion of one’s trowel-hand moving across the unit, the sound of the trowel scraping against the earth, the peacefulness of the surrounding valley, the warmth of the sun on one’s back … — until the laugh and good-natured head-shake of my volunteer brought me back to the needs of the moment.
Part of the reason we are so meticulous in our excavation is that we are trying to record the relationship of the artifacts to each other, because this helps us understand their meaning and function. When I explain this, many people remark that we are piecing together clues like detectives do. This is an observation I whole-heartedly endorse. Uncovering artifacts from the hidden depths of the soil and then discovering their relationship to each other, helps us create a story about the artifacts and how they were used. Yet another confession must be made at this point: as a child I was also unduly influenced by Nancy Drew and longed to use science to discover the hidden workings of the world around me. The most precious birthday party gift I received (age eleven), was a hardcover book in which Nancy Drew participated in an archaeological dig. I still have it. Upon rereading it some years ago, however, I discovered horrible errors in methodology were committed by my favorite girlhood idol. shrug.
When I am explaining our excavation site to people, I wave my hands over the stone cobble foundation we are uncovering and conjure the structure of a two-room shack in the air above it. I can see the house before me and picture the family living in it. Some people say I have a good imagination, especially if they are not used to envisioning a three-dimensional object from a flat photo or map. That may be true, but my imagination sometimes causes me to jump to conclusions or to create romantic fictions about the identity of an object, which is not good at all. For example, last week, in the last screening of dirt for the day, we found a small metal heart with a heart-shaped perforation at the centre and two tabs on the back. I was instantly struck by its symbolism and concocted a fanciful tale of its possession by one of the little girls who had lived in the house. I hoped it had been the lock-plate on her diary and imagined what secrets might be hidden under the next trowel of dirt. When I showed it to my colleague, however, he immediately noted it was identical to one he had found at a different site years ago and pronounced it to be a tobacco tag. I was somewhat deflated, but not to be put off for long, I suggested the father may have given it to his little girl as a token of his affection. Of course, I acknowledge this was a figment of my overactive creativity.
So, you now have a window into the world of archaeology as I know it. Subject to the vagaries of the weather, fending off dinosaurs and gold diggers, struggling for enlightenment, I dig for clues, in order to piece together stories about the past. And when I catch my imagination running wild, I know I must rein it in and temper it with the actual facts laid out before me.
This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.