Sight. With a field of work that depends on the interpretations your eyes make, it’s relevant, right? Step back for a moment, think about the anomalies in life that make up what we see; the ways in which we recognize and can see differences in relief.
In the last three weeks I’ve learned that I see what I am looking for, but seeing what I am supposed to see as an archaeologist is difficult.
We’ve spent two weeks learning how to use a compass, operate a total station, a GHSS GPS receiver and even a GSSI Ground Penetrating Radar in order to produce detailed maps of both the surface of archaeological sites and their subsurface deposits. The newer technology provides scientific byways of acquiring knowledge of a site, but oral histories, stories and legend are other culturally rich ways of learning of place and practice. While learning how to use these newer technologies we’ve poured over maps and photos planning the best ways to study a place with as minimal impact as possible. All of these techniques are avenues of sight we are developing and learning how to use.
Using the total station paired with Field Genius, a mapping software program, we can see exactly where a point in space once we’ve measured it. Likewise, using Terrasync paired with a GNSS GPS receiver, we can see the lines, points, and polygons, we have created while recording a place. Learning how to use these tools has been an equivalent to drinking straight from a fire hose. More information you thing is possible to process, but the awesome thing about experiential learning is that you do process all of the information given to you. This may not happen in the lab, but in the field, jumping into surveying using these techniques, opened my eyes. No pun intended.
For example we left Grand Ronde, OR, for a field trip in the Willamette National Forest to assist the CTGR THPO and the U.S. Forest Service in a surface pedestrian survey. Our instructors had us line up two meters apart and look for anything that didn’t belong. Here’s that experiential learning coming into play as well as the problem of seeing what I’m supposed to see as an archaeologist and tribal historic preservationist. After a few frustrating hours of no finding anything. I finally found something: a rusty hatchet. By the style and wear I’m guessing it was Forest Service issued perhaps a year or two ago. The entire experience made me laugh. You know why? The hatchet didn’t belong. It was neither a representative of the recent occupation by an unauthorized gathering, nor related to the past practices of Mollala, Kalapuya, and Klamath peoples.
I realized I had become so focused on finding a particular thing; I was missing everything around me. The absence of something can tell you just as much about a place as the things present. I was looking for lithic debitage, expecting to find obsidian flakes or tools, but I was missing the bigger picture. Briece Edwards, Principal Archaeologist for the CTGR THPO, reiterate over and over, “that once you understand practice, you understand place.” I realized I wasn’t seeing the site as an active place with resources that still used today.
In that moment of discovery, the seeing of the sight became much more than surveying and mapping the mountain meadows around me. It became seeing for the first time how a place becomes and remains important. It is not only the objects found or holes dug that make a place or practice important, but also the viewsheds, the freshwater springs, the trees surrounding the meadows, and the visits to a place that leave no material traces.
This field trip was a way for me to begin the process of seeing place as living things that have history, artifacts, meaning but also their future. Surveying was a new skill that helped facilitate this. I couldn’t have learning this in a classroom or a lab. It was something I had to learn in the field; making mistakes in order to learn how to constantly adjust my focus so that I wouldn’t miss the bigger picture of a sight, and every sight is worth truly seeing.