Noteworthy: Digging Into What People Choose to Write Down

Excavations at 2011 Field School
Excavations at 2011 Field School

In continuation of my semester-long research project on Beaumont West, MSU’s sole prehistoric site excavated by CAP, I have entered the initial stages of report writing. This requires not only the results of the artifact analyses, but also the details of the site excavation so that I can put the artifacts into context. Beaumont West was excavated in 2010 and 2011, and none of the original technicians or students remain involved in CAP. Therefore, if I want information about how the site was excavated and what was found where, I must rely upon notes. It is standard for archaeologists to keep a field notebook to record what was done on a daily basis. This is useful for both refreshing one’s own memory when you write summary reports at the end of a field season, but it is also critical for the use of other scholars who may need this information for other purposes later on. One of the first things a budding archaeologist learns is the importance of recording notes, both in a field notebook and on excavation forms.


In my search for the information required for writing a report on the site (i.e., the dates it was excavated, how it was excavated, the depth and size of the feature, what was found in context with the feature, etc.), I turned to field notebooks from the 2010 and 2011 field seasons to determine exactly when, where, and how the site was discovered and excavated. I first browsed the notebooks of some of the field supervisors; however, I was surprised to find that these contained hardly any mention of the prehistoric site. Where was the underlined exclamation, “We found an Archaic projectile point today!”? And what about, “We now believe that Feature 1 is a 3000-year-old hearth”? My frustration grew, but after some reflection I realized that as a prehistoric archaeologist, of course I would be excited to find such things amidst all of the historic sites, but this might not be the case for everyone. The materials were also found during field school excavations, the supervisors were likely very busy and were unable to record information about every specific excavation unit.


This raises the question: how do people choose what to write down? From archaeologists of the present to MSU students, faculty, and administration of the past, individuals do not and cannot write everything down. They are selective in what they record, if they record anything at all. People write down what they feel is most important at the time, which of course varies based on one’s perspective. When writing documents that others will read, it is also common to record only things that make you or your institution look good and exclude mistakes or anything negative. This is important to consider when perusing field notes, but is also crucial to researching in archives, which is an activity quite common among CAP fellows. We search for accounts from the past using a variety of sources, from official documents to student journals, which gives us multiple perspectives on the same subject. Yet these documents still do no give us the whole story. Archaeology has shown that what people chose to write down on paper is often biased and selective. For example, smoking and drinking were officially banned in Saint’s Rest, MSU’s first dormitory. When students wrote home to their parents, they spoke only of their good behavior. However, when CAP excavated Saint’s Rest, the evidence for drinking and smoking in the dorm was abundant. The students partied, but this was something neither the students nor the administration ever wrote about. Archaeology provides yet another dimension to historical research—by getting dirty, we find out the dirt on people in the past.


Of course, I do not believe that previous CAP supervisors were trying to hide anything, it was just a matter of time and perspective that influenced what they wrote down. I’m sure future archaeologists will shake their fists at me for not recording information they consider important, data that might inform a specific question that was not part of my own research objective, or even just silly oversights on my part (yes, it does happen, I admit it!). Luckily, I have been able to find much of the information I needed in the notebooks of field school students who worked on the site, who wrote very detailed notes (no doubt in part because student notebooks are usually graded). These contained much of the information for which I had been searching, and I was suddenly quite grateful for the inherent fear of bad grades which constantly looms over students’ heads. The process has reminded me that as I move forward with gleaning details from field notebooks and move on to other projects involving archival research in the future, I must always be aware of the different motivations and perspectives of those whose hand I read in order to land nearest the truth.

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