It Really Is Worth the Wait

Doing archaeological fieldwork, you never know exactly what you’re going to find, where you’re going to find it, or how long it’s going to take to excavate it.

All archaeologists dig in levels, although your particular site determines the depth of your level.  At Fort Michilimackinac, we dig in five foot by five foot squares, digging down in tenth-of-a-foot levels.

Every archaeologist also knows that if an artifact is peeking out at the bottom of a level, you shouldn’t pull it out before you can get your trowel all the way underneath it.  Hilary’s square this past summer was notorious for artifacts occupying multiple levels.


There’s two reasons we don’t yank artifacts out of the ground, much to the chagrin of most of our visitors.  First, we really have no way to know how large the artifact is.  Sometimes we can estimate size based on what we think the artifact is, but we don’t know how much of it is left and how far it continues into the ground.  By pulling it out prematurely, we have a very good chance of breaking the artifact.  Additionally, we would disturb all of the soil and other artifacts around it, thereby losing the artifact’s context.

Theoretically, this makes sense.  But what about when you’ve actually just happened upon something amazing that won’t emerge until at least the next level?

In early July 2012, I was excavating around some original eighteenth-century wall posts in the fur trader’s house we are excavating at Fort Michilimackinac when I discovered an inch-long strip of iron peeking about an eighth of an inch out of the soil; it looked like a nail, which we find a lot of at the fort.  It wasn’t a big deal.

Actually, it was.  At the bottom of the level, a quarter inch of the iron was peeking out, with bone on either side of it.  My eyes widened as I realized what it was.  I had no way to confirm my suspicions, but I just knew how amazing it was.

Alas, I had to excavate a level in my other square, and then I had to teach a group of students to excavate a level in another square.  It was three full weeks before I even returned to the square with my secret treasure.  Everyone wanted me to start in the area where the special artifact was located, but I decided to instead excavate the rest of the square first.  On the fateful day of excavation, my suspicions were confirmed and everyone “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” over my artifact.

It ultimately took an entire month until the completely intact pocketknife emerged from the earth – antler handle carefully carved in the New World, with iron blade imported all the way from Europe tucked neatly inside – as if it had simply fallen out of someone’s pocket in between the wall posts.  It had waited for me for over 250 years.

The best things in life are worth the wait.


You Only Get One Chance

“It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”  ~Grace Hopper


We live in a culture of mistakes.  We are expected to make them.  We demand to be forgiven for them.


We don’t think about consequences.  After all, we are invincible.


But every once in a while, you make a decision so significant that you realize the true power you hold both to preserve and to destroy.

I met my friend “Steve,” for instance, when I was 16 and he was 19.  We didn’t grow close until a year later, but by the time I was 18, we were involved in a clandestine relationship, full of handwritten love poems, secret rendezvous, and dreams for the future together, regardless of our current significant others.  It was magical—until I moved away to go to college, and he stayed home to work at a gas station.  We drifted further apart.  I got into archaeology; Steve got diagnosed with ALS.  Then I met the man I thought I would spend the rest of my life with; Steve got sicker.  We still talked occasionally, and Steve said that all he wanted was to be with me until he died.  I couldn’t bring myself to be there for him, and now it’s far too late to undo the damage that has been done.


Some mistakes can be fixed; others are permanent.  You only get once chance, so you might as well do it right the first time.

At Fort Michilimackinac, each archaeologist spends four days a week, for eleven weeks, with a mason’s trowel sometimes as tiny as an inch long, excavating and screening maybe only twelve to fifteen cubic feet of dirt for the entire summer under the watchful eye of visitors of all ages.  People love to comment, “Why do you work so slow?  That would kill me!”

As archaeologists, we’re trained to know the importance of context; what you find is only meaningful as long as you can understand the relationships between elements of a site.  It’s important to record as many details about those relationships as possible.

We make a map of every level, which might mean every two to three inches or every half an inch.  It might mean drawing the locations of different types of soil, or it might mean piece-plotting every single artifact in three dimensions.  And we take copious notes.


Our notes, our maps, and our photographs of the excavation process are all we have to recreate the site in the lab once we’ve finished our excavation.  The precision and accuracy of both our excavation and recording methods will determine what information is recovered and what is lost forever.  What we find and miss has the potential to change our understanding of history.

As we dig up the site, we’re destroying it.  We only get one chance to do it, so we want to get it right the first time around.

Life Isn’t Fair when You’re a Woman in Archaeology

women in archaeology

When asked to draw and describe “an archaeologist,” Dr. Susan Renoe (2003) discovered that students typically draw a white man either a la Indiana Jones or crazed scientist like that seen above.

My parents always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up – a doctor, a lawyer, even the president of the United States.  What they didn’t think they needed to tell me in the 1990s and 2000s was that I would have to work twice as hard as the men in my field to get where I wanted to be.

You can see the statistics about the numbers of women in archaeology:  according to the 1994 census completed by the Society for American Archaeology, 64% of professional archaeologists are men, and 36% of professional archaeologists are women.

You can read the tales of other women in archaeology:  in a conference roundtable of the American Anthropological Association, Dr. Sarah L. Surface-Evans and Dr. Misty Jackson heard “stories of how members of the public assumed that they were not ‘in charge’ of a field project that they were, in fact, running.  Visitors would walk right past the woman directing the project, and ask questions of males in the group, particularly if the male appeared older than the average field crew member, because the visitor was looking for the ‘project leader.’”

But nothing prepares you for the shock when you encounter discrimination against female archaeologists firsthand.

“You can’t be an archaeologist – archaeologists aren’t pretty.”

Or so said a man on a dating website who was trying to flirt with me.  Dude, I would rather you take an interest in me for my brain than for my body.

“Long hair and big boobs?  Real archaeologists don’t look like that.”

Or so said a male professor of archaeology whose class I subsequently decided to drop.  Professor, “real” archaeologists come in all shapes and sizes; what matters are their skills.

“Look at those hands – you better let me use the shovel because you’ve clearly never done a day of manual labor in your life.”

Or so said a male amateur archaeologist on whose projects I will never step foot again.  Sir, I can wield a shovel, haul full buckets, and push a wheelbarrow as well as any member of my crew; I just happen to be a student for the other two-thirds of the year.

It’s not easy to be a woman in the “Old White Boys’ Club” of archaeology.  I have been picked on by peers, made to prove my worth to superiors, and disrespected by members of the non-archaeological public – all because I am a woman instead of a man.

But for every time I have wanted to give up, I look to my mentors – my mom who was a woman in archaeology when it was far harder than it is today, my advisor who leads the premiere program in Great Lakes archaeology, and my boss who runs the longest continuously ongoing archaeological excavation in the United States.  These women made it in a man’s world, and so can we.  It’s our job to make this world a little fairer for the next generation of women in archaeology.

women in archaeology