Thus far, Washington has been most welcoming.

This summer, I’m an archaeology aid for the Forest Service in East-Central Washington. I’ve never done any archaeology work, and have come to realize after this week of introduction and orientation that I knew very little about what archeologists do and why they do it in terms of field work, but I have already learned a lot.

We didn’t go into the field yet (although we did tour around our project area and the surrounding forest quite a bit), but I can share a little about archeology and what archeologists do in the field based on what I’ve learned thus far (gleaned from my crew-members, my supervisor, and the orientation materials provided by the Forest Service):

  • Archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology (the study of man / human culture). Archeologists study the ancient and recent past of humans through the recovery and analysis of material remains.
  • Why does this matter you ask?
    • For one – these historic material remains are non-renewable resources.
    • Archeology also helps us understand not only where and when people lived on the earth but also why and how humans have lived in the past. In this way, archeologists can gain insight not only into the changes, but also the causes of these changes that have occurred in human culture throughout history.
    • As they study material remains they can identify patterns that can provide explanations for anything from the origins of agriculture and complex societies to how and when people first came to inhabit the United States.
    • Archeologists help provide information about the lives of individuals and groups of people that might otherwise remain invisible.
    • Archeological information helps us define our collective heritage and helps us develop our sense of our own history

I’ll have more to share on how archeological surveys are conducted and what the work is like once we get into the field for a week or two. However, the basics are that the crew surveys an area by walking transects, in our case 30 meters apart, and you look for material remains on the ground.  Archeology crews go in before a controlled burn, timber harvest, or trail construction project takes place so that areas of historic significance or with historic artifacts can be protected.

Although I cannot say what material remains we find or where we find them (to protect the resources and cultural sites we come across) I can say what is typically found when doing archeological surveys in woods like these:

Prehistoric artifacts:

*“Prehistoric”: in general this means “before the period of written history (1750)

  • lithic scatter : the reworking of projectile / stone tools which produces flakes
  • flakes : thin fragments of rock resulting from the reworking of stone tools / projectile points
  • projectiles : i.e. arrowheads or spear heads
  • talus pit : tallis refers to what looks like a hill side of rocks. Native Americans created a pit in said rocks up on the hill side to store food as a means of sort of refrigerating the food.
  • culturally modified tree : a tree (very often cedar in this area) which has a rectangular shape of bark strips missing from its trunk (bark used to weave baskets, etc.)
  • pictograph: painted images on stone
  • petrogylph: pecked images on stone (i.e. carved into stone)

Historic artifacts:

* “Historic” – means essentially anything from around 1750 (European contact) to 50 years ago (so right now: 1966)

  • cans : the type of top the can has (pull tab, church key top, etc.) helps determine the age of the can
  • bottles : maker marks help determine the age as does the color and thickness of the glass
  • glass : color determines the age (ranges from aqua, to green, to amber, to purple)
  • misc. metal: barbed wire, paint cans, etc.
  • cabins or remains of cabins
  • fire pits

Few other terms:

  • isolate: one artifact found without necessary relation to other artifacts. This is basically something someone dropped in the woods
  • site: any location where something obvious happened – essentially there will be groups of isolates or a noticeable structure (building, fire pit, tallis pit, etc.)
  • traditional cultural property (TCP) : an archeological / historic site associated with cultural practices or beliefs of a community
  • cultural resource management (CRM) : archeology conducted to comply with federal and state laws to protect archeology sites

To wrap this post up – a bit about the landscape I live in. For a gal not from these parts, I find myself often swooning. The eastern side of the cascades is the dry side, so not the misty-filled forests I most often associated with Washington. However, at this moment in May, the woods are still vibrantly green, with patches of wildflowers (yellow, white, and purple) and lichen draped like finely-cut tinsel off tree branches. The wind often picks up in late afternoon, giving that mesmerizing song of dancing evergreen branches. Some of the trees here I recognize from my many weeks spent in the Sierra, but some are new friends, those I saw infrequently if ever before : Douglas fir and tamarack (a deciduous evergreen) for instance. Most of the days have been sunny so far, but the mornings are chilly and the air thinner than my sea-level lungs are used to.

The surrounding area is full of hiking trails, and great vistas, and also a cave (see images below –we got to tour it). Where we are located here is rather central to getting around to the rest of the state, so I am very much looking forward to exploring.


The Forest-Service-provided bunkhouse I live in is situated with a river 100 meters off, the cascades bordering the horizon on both sides, just inside the national forest boundary. So, at last! Dream achieved – I am living in a forest.

Driving to and from here for any reason is a treat – the sinuous road along basalt hill sides, with patches of evergreen trees, and coats of spring grass brings many an awe-filled sigh to my chest. There are cabins and small homes scattered along the way, but for the most part it feels a sort of peaceful, tucked away nook a bit in the middle of no where. I hear that the summer brings droves of tourists, but for now I am enjoying the quiet and small-town feel. I wake up to the sound of mountain songbirds and a morning jog can include sites of mule deer, elk, and big horn sheep. This is ridiculous. This can’t be real.


Although we’re in radio silence here (no cell service, and no internet) I am looking forward to 3 months of a little disconnect – and also to becoming best friends with the local librarians (who do have wifi). Mostly I am just feeling incredibly thankful that I get to experience this place and learn a new way to read a wooded landscape – through archeological eyes.

More next week how our first week actually in the field goes!


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