Critters, Culture, and Compost: All the dirt that’s worth digging

Amy & Bill

Just recently I was able to spend a week in northern Georgia helping one of my best friends with a complicated project. My friend, Bill, is a professor of anthropology and an archaeologist. He’s been excavating a site with the help of students and volunteers for about four years along the Etowah River. I, myself, am pretty darn good at digging square holes.

Now, for those of you who may not know, I’ve been in archaeology for about 20 years. Some of that time has been as a professional, some as an academic. I’ve been in the field and in the lab, I’ve been the grunt, I’ve been the supervisor. I currently edit archaeology books, mostly stuff that only other archaeologists would find interesting, but it keeps me learning and keeps me tied to the field I love. 

I’ve known Bill for 18 years. We first started digging together in Sicily, teaching archaeological field methods in pretty much the coolest place I’ve ever been. It started out as the much wiser, older sister (me, naturally) with the annoying younger brother type of relationship. As we’ve aged, I’ve gotten a lot less wise and Bill’s a lot less annoying, but he’s still my brother and a helluva good archaeologist. We talk, analyze, theorize, offer crazy interpretations about his site, only to throw them out and pick them back up later and say “it’s not really that crazy, is it?”

So, naturally, when he says “come on down,” how could I pass up a chance to go dig?! To get my hands in the dirt, and take a step away from the chaos of everyday life? 

The bulk of the site, Rice Farm, is about 1,800 years old, dating to Georgia’s Middle Woodland Period. Evidence for habitation was initially found in the presence of broken pieces of pottery, chipped stone tools, and rocks that are broken and/or reddened by exposure to heat. When the plowzone is stripped off, discolorations in the soil indicate the locations of past structural posts, pits, or hearths. To date, there is evidence for at least 10 structures, some overlapping and telling us that the site was revisited over time. 

What makes Rice Farm especially intriguing, however, is what hasn’t been found yet, and, in particular, what isn’t in the two structures I’ve been able to assist with. (Full disclosure, this is my second “spring break” digging at Rice Farm.) Throughout the site, there’s virtually nothing that tells us what the people who lived there were eating. Normally, you’d expect to find bones from deer, turtle, fish, or other tasty critters, but nope, not at Rice Farm. Charred nut shell has been preserved, and there may be other vegetable material, but where’s the meat?

Further lack of evidence makes it clear: the structures I’ve helped dig are likely public buildings. To put it in modern terms, think of what you’d expect to find in a house versus a church. Think of the size differences, reuse (or rebuilding) over time. Think of the location on a landscape and how they stand out. 

Basically, we’ve found evidence for a couple structures that were not overlapped by a later building, with virtually no “trash” or “house-y” debris, on a rise just large enough to avoid being flooded when the river overflows its banks (as it did last year, providing us with this unintended gift). One structure contained evidence for a giant pit with heated rocks and acorn shell in it, but nothing to suggest a fire actually burned in the pit. The other is simply massive compared to the other structures and shockingly clean inside.  

Altogether, the lack of material makes Rice Farm boring as tears to excavate if you’re looking for sweet artifacts. It provides excellent fuel for giving your best friend grief over how bored you are. However, if you want to say something about the complexity of the culture who occupied this floodplain on the Etowah, you couldn’t have found anything better. 

The real kicker is that no one has excavated a site like this probably since the days of the New Deal, and recordkeeping and excavation strategies were not what they are now. It’s a very big deal, and thankfully Bill has an amazing network of colleagues doing specialized studies on everything from speciating the wood and wood-boring insects to studying polish on the stone tools to analyzing pollen samples. I can’t wait to see what they add to the story. 

Archaeology is addicting. Fieldwork is often physically intensive, and it can be downright miserable. At any phase it requires attention to detail and the ability to put things into a broader context. It is like trying to put together a puzzle when you don’t have all the pieces, don’t know what the picture is supposed to look like, and may in fact have the pieces of seven other puzzles mixed in. 

But in the dirt, I find myself again. My mind quiets, my focus sharpens. The outside world takes a backseat as I move from the known into the unknown. So today, I’m thankful for good friends who have become family and a field of dirt to move, one square at a time. 

Amy East is a freelance copyeditor, wannabe homesteader, and recovering archaeologist living in Cass County. She loves her family, her menagerie of animals, and her garden, although depending on the day, the order of those may vary. 

Any views or opinions expressed in “Critters, Culture, & Compost” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.