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.


Every Archaeologist’s Pocket Needs This

I’m sure every archaeologist would have a different answer if asked what they could absolutely not go into the field without.

My fieldwork essential is very small and lightweight.  Just 2.5 inches long and weighing in at 1.8 ounces, it is made of heat-treated, high carbon 420 stainless steel.


My Leatherman micra was a gift from my Dad when I started doing archaeology.  With 10 tools in 1 tiny package, the Leatherman micra can’t be beat in the field.


(1) Knife – crafted from corrosion-resistant, high-carbon stainless steel, the knife is super sharp.  It is very useful, for example, in cutting rolls of plastic to reinforce your sandbag berm protecting your site.


(5) Nail cleaner AND (8) Nail file – Let’s get real:  every archaeologist needs these in the field!  Nails break on a semi-daily basis, and there is always, always, always dirt underneath our fingernails.  It’s just the nature of the job, and most of us conveniently forget our manicure kits at home.

(9) Medium screwdriver – Do you use a laser level at your site to take your depth measurements?  If you do, then this screwdriver comes in handy every time you have to change those pesky batteries – both on the laser unit and especially on the remote!

(4) Ruler (4.7 inches/12 centimeters) – This precise measuring guide is a perfect scale for photographing artifacts in the field.  You can use a fancy scale once you get back to the photo lab.


(2) Spring-action Scissors – The scissors are best for cutting light materials.  I typically use them for cutting the string when I am stringing out my squares, for cutting flagging tape to tie around marker posts, or for cutting electrical tape to mark intervals on a geophysical guide rope.

(6) Tweezers – They are perfect for removing slivers in the field, which seem to happen far more frequently than we’d prefer.  They’re also useful for picking up tiny artifacts from your window screen!


(10) Extra-small screwdriver – Designed for extra-small screws, such as eyeglass screws, this is one of the less-frequently used tools on my Leatherman.  However, it’s a lifesaver when the screw on my sunglasses comes loose, saving me from the ocular hazards of eight hours in the blazing sunlight!

(7) Bottle opener – We all know that archaeologists need our beer.  With your Leatherman micra, you’ll never be caught without a bottle opener for those caps that don’t twist off, saving yourself time and energy!

(3) Flat/Phillips Screwdriver

Not only does the key ring attachment make it easy to keep your Leatherman micra handy, but in a pinch, a string can be tied to the split ring loop to create a make-shift plumb bob!

Perhaps the most important function of the Leatherman micra in the field is at 3:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays when the scissors are responsible for the success of my crew’s “popsicle break.”