Recording History (by Olivia Cardinell)

Recording History (by Olivia Cardinell)

The importance of archaeological excavations revolve around the drive to uncover forgotten, and missing pieces of history; my time with Michigan State’s Campus Archaeology Program aided in doing just that. I worked alongside Dr. Stacey Camp and 12 other CAP crew members to dig up the remains of MSU’s original observatory that was built in the 1800s. Walking into this field study I had an insignificant amount of knowledge on how a field study runs. However, as the field study comes to an end, I’m able to speak about and explain thoroughly the steps I took to perform patient surveys, shovel tests, dig excavation units, sift soil, and how to bag, clean, and catalog artifacts. The bit of information I find most important and will be expanding on is the importance of recording the details of an excavation from start to finish.

Taking field notes is a way to record the work you’re doing in order to avoid forgetting details, as well as being able to revisit the information in the future. Field notes should be written in a fashion that is detailed enough so that if someone was not working on the excavation site, they would be able to accurately imagine or recreate the site. The process of writing down notes can be drudgery, because the real fun part is digging and uncovering history! However, without any documentation of the process, the information can be lost once again. The act of digging up a site is essentially destroying any provenience and therefore eliminating the option of replicating information collected during an excavation. This means that taking careful notes makes it possible for people to refer back to the steps taken, choices made, and history discovered.

Information worth noting in field notebooks include: observations, soil changes, artifacts found, depth, dimensions, stratum levels, and drawings. A few examples of how I would typically organize daily information in my notebook can be seen below:

It’s extremely vital to write down the date and time when recording field notes. This makes it easier to share and compare notes with other crew members, as well as being able to efficiently refer back to these notebooks in the future.

Some notes require more detail than others. For example, the process of laying out a grid requires you to record many intricate details, in comparison to recording the soil type you came across while shovel testing, which can be conveyed with a bullet point.

Field notes should be legible for the very reason that other people will be referring back to it. Having a messy and unorganized notebook can prevent the information you recorded from being shared with the public accurately. 

All in all, the multitudes of newfound knowledge is far more important than how many buckets of dirt were dug from the ground. The hand-written notes we recorded, from the start of the field study, to the end, is what will aid in giving MSU’s observatory and its artifacts credibility. I’m so grateful to have been part of this incredible opportunity and for the widened skill set I will take with me.

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