I love the Indiana Jones movies, they are a lot of fun and I really like Harrison Ford as an actor but I have to say, he has ruined the public perception of what archaeology really is about. For example, I do not own a felt Fedora, a bullwhip or a pistol. However, I do own an excellent Tilley hat, a nice Marshalltown trowel and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been in a fist fight; none of those fights were with other archaeologists or Nazis. Archaeologists do not follow maps to buried treasure (It is an artifact, not treasure!), we would not search an entire site for just one artifact, and X never marks the spot.
As an example of just how wrong Indiana has portrayed archaeology lets just look at survey work. So if X never marks the spot, how do we actually find archaeology sites? Very often members of the public tell us about artifacts they have found. This has led to the discovery of sites such as the Norse occupation at L’Anse aux Meadows and the Maritime Archaic cemetery at Port au Choix (In nearly 20 years of doing archaeology I have never been told about gold artifacts – sorry Indiana). Many archaeology sites are found as part of an archaeology survey that come in two main forms; a survey geared toward finding sites of a particular culture or a survey to find any archaeological sites. The two are not mutually exclusive; even on a survey searching for a particular culture, all the sites that are found are recorded. Surveys are usually undertaken in areas where archaeological work has not been done before. I am pretty sure Indiana Jones would never take part in an archaeology survey unless he knew a site existed in the area.
Usually surveys that are geared toward finding sites of a particular culture are often run by academics with specific research questions. For example, I worked on a project where the director was mainly interested in finding precontact aboriginal sites on the Baie Verte Peninsula; in particular, he was mostly interested in Dorset Palaeoeskimo sites. During the survey we made sure to search places where Dorset sites are typically found such as outer exposed coastal areas because the Dorset were a marine oriented people. Luckily enough we did find some Palaeoeskimo material, but we also found several sites from other cultures such as Recent Indian and European. We ended up excavating a nice Recent Indian site that summer, despite the fact that the focus of the work was on Palaeoeskimo material.
I’ve discussed another survey that was geared toward finding sites of a particular culture in my previous post on the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq. That survey was geared toward looking for Mi’kmaq sites; unfortunately, it was not as successful from a Mi’kmaq perspective as was the survey I participated in looking for Dorset sites. However, the Mi’kmaq survey did result in the discovery of 18 new archaeology sites.
The second type of survey work, when the goal is to find all archaeological sites, is often undertaken in areas where little archaeological work had previously occurred or in an area that is slated for development and has to be archaeologically assessed. I have also participated in this type of survey. In 1997, I helped to survey the area around the community of Bird Cove on the Northern Peninsula. The area had never been assessed archaeologically and we ended up finding 15 sites that year which contained everything from 4500-year-old Maritime Archaic material to recent European material.
In terms of archaeology surveys prior to development, an example in this province would be the huge multi-year archaeological survey undertaken in the area around Voisey’s Bay just before the mine and processing plant were slated to be built. In just the mine area, more than 50 sites were located. They included everything from Maritime Archaic and Intermediate Indian to more recent Innu, Inuit and European sites.
Regardless of the form of survey, prior to any ground disturbance the archaeologist must apply to the appropriate permitting authority (Provincial Archaeology Office, Nunatsiavut archaeology Office or Parks Canada, depending upon where the survey is to occur) for an archaeology permit before survey work can occur. In the case of the Provincial Archaeology Office that authority comes from the Historic Resources Act. Each permit application is reviewed and if an application is found to be lacking information (which rarely happens), the correct permitting authority will notify the archaeologist of what needs to be corrected. All archaeological resources that are found during survey work are recorded and that information is passed on to the appropriate permitting authority. If the permitting authority is assured that historic resources will not be impacted, the project can proceed. Of course, this is a very simplistic explanation, but it is the bare bones of the process.
On the ground, regardless of the survey form, a team of archaeologists or people trained by archaeologists usually undertakes archaeology surveys. Depending on the area to be surveyed, the team may spread out in a line with a few metres between each member and they will dig a test pit with a shovel and trowel. Usually the test pits are 30-50 centimetres square and the team member will be looking for artifacts or maybe soil changes that may indicate a buried occupation horizon. If nothing is found the team member will pick up his/her gear, move ahead a few metres depending on the archaeologist’s discretion, and dig another test pit. However, if the team member finds an artifact or a soil deposit that may relate to a site the archaeologist is notified and the team may dig extra test pits around the find spot in an effort to delineate the potential size of the site. The site may be comprised of just that single find in the test pit or the team could find themselves on the edge of a site that is thousands of metres square in size. All of this methodology is typical and is usually defined in the archaeologists permit application. Survey work can be slow, tedious and backbreaking if you find nothing; I somehow doubt Indiana would have enjoyed survey work.
This method also resulted in the discovery of North Cove, the Recent Indian and Dorset Palaeoeskimo site that I excavated as part of my Masters Thesis near Bird Cove. Unlike Indiana Jones, I didn’t have to shoot anyone or get into a fist fight with any Nazis to find the site and everything I found was properly recorded and documented.
As much fun as the movies were, as an archaeologist I have to ask, did Indiana Jones do anything to help archaeology? Yes, a little. The movies and character certainly popularized the discipline and made people realize the importance of properly displaying artifacts in a museum for everyone to see. Yet, he did so much else that makes archaeologists everywhere cringe. I can’t really see Indiana applying for a permit to do survey work, nor can I see him recording everything that he found. Indiana would not go through this process, he’d just shoot someone.