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.