Ha! Ha! Fooled Ya’!

Archaeologists must be masochists (I should know, I was an archaeologist in pre-retirement life). Who else would willingly work in out-of-the-way places with no amenities, in blazing heat or freezing cold, bend your body into unnatural positions so you won’t step on/sit on/kick some precious (you hope) artifact or feature, or get run off your site (or worse, out of camp) by wild animals.

Archaeological sites are notoriously unpredictable. Just when you think you know what’s happening, you find something weird or unexpected – which is just as likely the absence of something you expected – and you have to change your entire excavation (or survey) strategy on the spot. Archaeologists have to be constantly on their toes, even though they are usually on their knees, or bellies, digging (maybe even praying).

I’ve been the victim of the unexpected many times. Here are a couple:

Gotcha #1
La Loche, northwestern Saskatchewan. My colleague and I were surveying a new highway right-of-way just south of the village. It was easy work. The soil was sandy and there were almost no trees (in spite of being in the boreal forest), so all we had to do was walk the right-of-way and map and collect any artifacts we encountered. At first, we found nothing exciting, just flakes of the expected quartz, quartzite and silicified sandstone. But then, just when we were about to give up on the place, I found a couple of flakes of a white homogeneous, extremely fine-grained stone that I had never seen before. A couple more lay barely a metre beyond. And then more. I followed the trail, finding more and more flakes. I was puzzled. What could this stone material be?

And then, there it was, the mother lode. I laughed. I tossed away those mystifying flakes.

What lay before me was a broken white porcelain toilet. I had been collecting porcelain “flakes.” I called my colleague over and we both had a good laugh. I swear I heard the site laughing, too.

Gotcha #2
Chambery Coulee, southeast of Eastend, in southwestern Saskatchewan. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum (where I was a curator) was excavating “Scotty,” a Tyrannosaurus rex, in the bottom of the coulee. I joined them for a few days where I discovered that chiseling through rock is much harder than digging through dirt (and more painful because I constantly smacked my thumb with the hammer). So when they told me there were lots of tipi rings (stone circles) on the prairie level above the coulee, I dropped my hammer and chisel (avoiding my foot) and headed for the hills that rimmed the coulee.

I won’t bore you with the details of my mapping strategy, except the one that is essential to this story. I used a piece of orange flagging tape on a 6″ spike to mark each of the thousands of artifacts (mostly flakes, rarely tools) that lay inside and around the tipi rings. Once they were marked, I mapped them, removing each flag-tipped spike as I recorded what it marked.

It was one of those scorching hot prairie days. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky. I was hot and tired. I desperately wanted to get back to camp, to wash, to have a beer, and to hear what the gang from the T. rex site had found. I packed the last of the spikes into my backpack and slung it onto my shoulder.

But wait! Way off there, a hundred of so meters away, was a speck of orange. Rats (or words to that effect)! I dropped my pack, dug out my notebook and pencil, and paced the distance to it.

I shook my head. I laughed. Fooled again! What sat at my feet was not a flag-tipped spike. No. It was a Scarlet Mallow, a wild flower native to the prairies. The flower was exactly the same colour as the flagging tape.

I walked back, picked up my pack and went back to camp. The crew had a good laugh. I’m sure the Scarlet Mallow had a good giggle, too.

#Archaeology #ExcavationTales #PorcelainToilet #ScarletMallow #SaskatchewanArchaeology #SurveyTales #MargaretGHanna