Sunday, December 22, 2013

Shovel Testing and Pragmatism

I have been thinking about pragmatism as a philosophy for archaeology. Let’s work through an example of how a pragmatist views their work. We will focus on a common practice in America, shovel testing

Hypothetically, we have a project to do. You and I own an archaeological consulting firm working in the southeastern United States and are awarded a contract by the US Army Corps of Engineers. We are tasked to do a “cultural resource inventory” of a forested 100-acre parcel of Army land that is planned for new developments. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) applies, as does the whole process of quality review that goes with it. Our objective as consultants is to conduct archaeological and historical research on and about the property, and produce a synthesizing report, all of which meets the minimum requirements that the Corps and the state historic preservation office (SHPO), the “regulator”, have previously established for conducting such studies.

The Corp’s goal is to get through the compliance process as efficiently as possible and, under the NHPA, they are required to make a “good faith effort” at identifying “historic properties” (a technical term referring to important, “significant”, archaeological and/or historical resources) that may be affected by the proposed land development. The SHPO’s role is to review the report for conformity with their research protocols, review the development proposal, assess the consultation letter the Corps provides, and then to agree (concur) or disagree with whatever claim the Corps makes about the project’s affects to historic properties. Archaeological work is thus part of a much larger effort at complying with the NHPA.

We assign the project to Jane, an experienced archaeologist, giving her the role of principal investigator. She is knowledgeable about the archaeology and history of the region surrounding the project area, and of the research protocols of SHPO, and of the section 106 process. She has twenty years of work experience and five as being a project manager, leading numerous projects. She has available to her the necessary budget, time and staff to get the work done, including other archaeologists, archaeological technicians, laboratory (lab) staff, a GIS technician, a historian and a architectural historian. She implements the project as a multi-pronged research program. The historical background research is delegated to a historian and is done to ascertain prior land use (who owned the land previously, who lived there and where, and what was the land used for, and if important events, such as battles, occurred there. Local archives, Army records, local histories, land records, historical maps, aerial photographs will be reviewed; prior tenants or landowners may be interviewed. That research could take six weeks. She assigns a separate task to the architectural historian to visit the project area and record four old military buildings; additionally, that person assesses if the project area can be conceived of as a possible cultural landscape, especially, a military one. Meanwhile, two archaeological technicians visit the parcel and do a quick walk over to identify any obvious sites that may there and to discern areas that can be excluded from the more intensive site discovery process known as shovel testing.

Jane had been informed by the Corps archaeologist, Consuelo, that two archaeological sites have been previously recorded within the project area: a “lithic” scatter of stone debris, flakes and other sharp stones, and ground stones, all of unknown age but presumed to be prehistoric; and, a mid nineteenth century farmstead, the main feature of which is a stone foundation. She receives the site forms. From the visual inspection and review of topographic maps, Jane decides that 75 acres are level and dry enough for the shovel-testing program; the other 25 acres are too steep or are wetlands, so they will be investigated through a systematic walk over.

Shovel testing is a technique to discover new sites and to determine the boundaries of known sites. It is typically done when surface vegetation is too thick such that the surface of ground soils is not visible. It is a simple process. The shovel test pit (STP) is similar to a post hole. You dig a round hole, maybe 30 centimeters in diameter, to a depth of 40 or 50 centimeters (deeper if necessary). The removed soil is pushed through a screen, artifacts are collected, and soil types and soil changes are documented. The equipment used includes simple shovels, mason trowels and box screens (a shallow wooden frame with, usually, ¼-inch wire mesh as a bottom). The soil is described in terms of loam, silt, sand, or clay; its color is matched to a Munsell Color chart. GPS coordinates are taken to document the STP location, usually with a device that is accurate to one meter. Photographs of the STP and its soil profile (how it looks from a side view), may be taken. The profile description and all the other information are recorded on standardized field forms (in paper form or digitally). The STP is back-filled to a level grade such that it is not a safety problem for humans or other animals that could walk over the location. Any artifacts found are put in a labeled bag and brought back to the lab for cleaning and cataloging; (it is also possible to be required by contract to do “field identification” and rebury the artifacts in the STP when it is back-filled). One or two people typically do these tasks per hole. Of course, one hole does not provide much information. Thus, many STPs will have to be dug across a project area. Conceptually, you impose a grid over the project area composed of numerous rows, “transects”. The rows will be a standard distance from each other, and within each row, the holes will be a standard distance from each other. The distance in between rows and STPs is called the interval. The maximum interval that can be used is often dictated by SHPO protocol. Tighter intervals are at the discretion of the project manager. A shovel-testing program is labor intensive and time consuming.

Working with the GIS technician Jane identifies on maps the 75 acres for shovel testing by outlining transects, and the other 25 acres for systematic pedestrian survey. She expects that a minimum of 1200 STPs will be dug for the basic site discovery process. The two known sites will need to be re-recorded and another 40 STPs will be dug across them in tight intervals. She has allotted five weeks for the fieldwork. With three teams of two people each doing 25 STPs a day, and maybe record one additional site, she hopes the fieldwork completes in 21 workdays. The extra time is buffer for inclement weather and the possibility of additional sites to record. She sends a crew of five technicians and a field director to do the field archeology.

Since her background is in historical archaeology Jane asks you and I for the help of John, another archaeologist, whose background is in regional prehistory. The two of them work together and start building the report with John doing the archaeological research. Jane also is monitoring the progress of the fieldwork, the architectural study, and the historical research. In addition, she is running liaison with Consuelo, who is doing field inspections and needing weekly updates to pass on to the Corps project manager. Then, a week into the fieldwork, the historian informs Jane that he thinks there may be an 18th century occupation within the project area, in the southeast corner. As luck would have it, the field director had started on the north end, near the lithic scatter, and was working southward. Jane instructed the field director to tighten the STP interval when they got near the southeast corner. Sure enough, they found and recorded a small late 18th century site, an alleged homestead in the suspected area. The tightening of the STP interval was deemed the “correct decision” as the small site could have “fallen through the cracks,” the intervals. Consuelo was happy about this find and would, months later, write a good evaluation about our consulting firm.

A few weeks later the fieldwork was done. Jane, John, the historian, the architectural historian, and the field director wrote the draft report; and the field director and architectural historian completed the required archaeological site and architectural inventory forms for SHPO. The 19th and 18th century sites were recommended as significant and deserving of protection. The lithic scatter was recommended as not significant because no time sensitive tools, “diagnostics”, or features had been recorded. The project report and forms were edited one last time by Jane and delivered to you and me. We reviewed the set and forwarded them to the Corps project manager. The Corps did their review and made a few suggested changes. Jane and john made the changes and we submitted the Final report along with the SHPO forms, original field notes, and bagged and labeled artifacts to the Corps. With the project finished, we invoiced the Corps and received payment. Weeks later, the Corps filed their consultation package with the SHPO in which they determined that the two historic sites were important and will be avoided by the development by being left in “green space”, undeveloped land within the project area. The lithic scatter was deemed not important and a road will be built through it, destroying it. After their review, SHPO concurs.

A year later, and a few other projects behind us, we get a call from the Corps, on a Friday evening. They want to issue us a task order to emergency excavate a Middle Archaic site, five to six thousand years old, and “get it done today”, meaning, as soon as possible. The story is that that during construction of the above project a construction worker, and relic hunter, found several “arrow heads” and other neat stuff not too far from where the lithic scatter had been (it having been scraped away by a dozer). With this find, the construction supervisor stopped work in that area and called the Corps. Consuelo promptly visited the site and had a crisis moment. She recognized the “arrow heads” as being diagnostic of the Middle Archaic and they were likely dart points. She also noticed that at least one fire hearth, and maybe another, had been exposed by the dozer work. In addition, she knew that those features are typically full of important archaeological data. Back in her office, she re-reviewed the shovel-test pit effort and discovered that the STP pattern had just missed the new site by a few meters. A significant site had fallen through the cracks. She hit the panic button and her life would not be easy for several weeks. The Corps contracting officer crammed a Task Order in our hands and we had a crew on site Monday morning with John as principle investigator.

Here we must stop the story. Inadvertent discoveries, as these situations are called, are not fun. They often lead to acrimony and hard feelings.

Indeed, our focus here is on pragmatism as a philosophy of archaeology. Pragmatism focuses our attention on the results and consequences of things and events. Therefore, let’s think about Jane and her response to the situation. We know she is competent and practical but we know nothing else about her. She could be a direct and clear-sighted scientist, she could be a social activist and a humanist with ambivalent feelings about science, or she could be a pragmatist. Knowing her philosophy helps to speculate about her response to the above crisis.

Jane is a scientist: Jane does not take the incident personally but she is aggressive at defending the professionalism of her work. Defending the command and control structure of the system, and her status as a subject matter expert, she takes ownership of the project because she was project lead. The project was done very well. She made an important adjustment during fieldwork. She reminds us that all authorities in the quality review chain (you, me, Corps, SHPO) approved the work. She and our company received accolades for the work. The work was scientific and met the standards set by protocols. Making a “good faith effort” does not mean all sites have to be discovered. Shovel testing is a statistical random sampling method widely used by professionals. It is a scientific method providing probabilistic, not absolute, outcomes. She recommends that SHPO consider changing their interval protocol. She thinks that John is the appropriate person to do the follow on work as the subject falls within his area of expertise.

Jane is a social activist humanist: Jane takes the incident personally. She feels awful that this happened; poor John and Consuelo--they must be suffering. John had to delay a vacation because of it. Everyone did their best; it was a great team effort. She loves the collaborative nature of the work. They all worked within the system and the system failed them. She wished archaeology could provide more clear outcomes; often, what it does provide seems just made up. She thinks real science gives more-better outcomes, and archaeology just comes up short. Additionally, she just wants to help people, especially those that are outside of mainstream society. For her master’s thesis, she got to help “people without history” have their voices heard. She hopes this event does not upset local tribes. Shovel testing is such a terrible technique but what are the alternatives? Imagine using a bull dozer to find sites and the destruction it would do to the environment. She’ll help John all she can if “they” (you and me) need her to.

Jane is a pragmatist: Jane has mixed emotions about the events. She does not take the inadvertent discovery personally but the disruption of the routines and schedules of John and Consuelo is concerning. As she focuses on the here and now, and the project was long ago, she reviews the project files. She concludes everyone on the team did good work. She is also reminded, once again, that success and failure often come bundled together, although the revelation of each might be separated in time. She considers cultural resource inventories to be technical projects that, in themselves, are not science; they are data gathering and descriptive efforts and products that often consume, use the results of, prior descriptive and scientific results. Jane thinks science requires high-level comparisons across several studies. Thus, this study could be compared to several others of similar kind and the new generalizations made could be called scientific results. For example, by comparing numerous projects from within the region, one could calculate the average number of sites present per acres shovel tested for that region. That ratio would be a useful--to archaeologists and planning staffs--scientific fact about the region. Moreover, shovel testing is a mediocre method for site discovery but no economical alternative method exists. Jane does have a personal complaint about not leading the follow on work, which she conveys to you and me. She knows John will do a good job; but given her experience, she believes that she could lead this new research effort with a good team composed of many of the same people, John included, that worked the previous project. What truly irks her is the double standard in American archaeology that allows prehistorians to lead research on any kind of archaeology, including historical archaeology, but “never” (rarely) allows historical archaeologists to lead research outside of historical archaeology. She sees herself as an archaeologist first and the division of pre-history/history is a stupid illusion perpetuated by a fallible profession defending an arcane professional legacy and its internal social status quo.

A pragmatist is a blend of the first two perspectives and the blend is qualitatively different from the others. The first is a scientific attitude steeped in command/control hierarchies and the authority of the professional and the profession. For such people, order in the world is paramount. Moreover, this perspective believes in “testing” no matter what the test is. The second perspective is steeped in compassion for and assessing the well-being of other people. One’s life goals are to help people. These two perspectives are the yin and yang of Western Civilization; they are Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian. Biblically, they are, respectively, Old Testament and New.

A pragmatist who accepts the Western Tradition tries to avoid committing to one side or the other because each is deemed an exhausted dead end by itself, and they will work the two opposing ends into a newly conceptualized middle. The other option for a pragmatist is to reject the Western Tradition and find solace in some other tradition.