“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.