Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Not Boltgirl's usual day at the office
On those days when I'm not busy punching out Nazis or mackin' on Karen Allen--it's exhausting, but I do what I can--my work as an archaeologist looks a lot like this:
Pile of 1,000-year-old stone flakes
The prehistoric stone technology I study is pretty well summed up by the lame-o joke about how to sculpt a statue of an elephant (take a block of marble and chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant). When long-ago people made a tool out of stone, say something cool like a spearhead, they started with a fairly hefty piece of rock and knocked small chips, or "flakes," in the parlance, off of its edges in order to shape it into the final product. Needless to say, the waste flakes generally outnumber cool final products by a score of several hundred to one, so most of my time is spent looking at and thinking about these piles of little broken rock fragments.
The process looks like this (the demonstration artifact is a gunflint from the Tucson Presidio, the fort built by the Spaniards in the mid 1700s for protection against Native Americans):
Identify the artifact: hmmm, it's a gunflint.
Measure the artifact: 30.89 mm long.
Weigh the artifact: 8.98 g.
Enter measurements and other info in the database. Note the lightning quick fingers.
Repeat a few hundred times per day and voila, it's the glamorous life of the lab archaeologist. Honestly, I have to chase Nazis and rob Egyptian tombs just to relax.
Look back at the gunflint for a moment; it actually is more interesting than it might seem. The honey-colored chalcedony this flint is made from indicates it came from France. The fact that it was tossed into a trash pit in the Tucson Presidio dating to the later 1700s shows that Tucson was on the tail end of the Spanish supply line; by this time on the Continent, the Dutch had wrested control of the gunflint market from the French and had been supplying all the armies of Europe with flints that looked very different from this one for a couple of decades already.
It's sort of like the French discovering Jerry Lewis movies in the 1980s and thinking they were cutting edge. Or maybe like American soldiers in Iraq getting crappy Interceptor body armor instead of the newer, much more effective Dragon Skin.
Yes, that's why archaeology is interesting and, perhaps, comforting. No matter how old the artifact in your hands is, it usually ends up showing you that human society hasn't changed appreciably between then and now. Only the details are different; the underlying motivations and behaviors are pretty much the same.