GPR: A Ground Breaking Experience!

It was a cold Monday morning when Jessica Curteman, the senior archaeologist at the Grand Ronde Historical Preservation Office, entered the lab with a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) device. I had read about the use of radar waves [used to survey archaeological sites] in the past, although when seeing the machine in real life I couldn’t help but think about the way in which it strongly resembled a baby stroller. Thankfully, I soon discovered that I would have the opportunity to work with the GPR team, allowing me to spend time learning about this some-what mysterious device.

In the beginning, I was curious how GPR actually grants archaeologists the ability to locate, identify, and map features under the ground surface. With the help of Jessica, I began to understand the complex way in which the GPR device is able to greatly assist in surveying a site. From what I gather, the surface antenna attached to the bottom of the baby stroller does most of the work, as it is the producer of the radar energy. The energy produced sends out multiple signals that are subsequently reflected by anomalies within the soil.

Although we have not yet preformed a full analysis of our findings, I was lucky enough to study the GPR display screen as my teammate Markee pushed the device. Markee explained that this was one of their favorite surveying techniques, as it allowed them to view instant results. I agree with Markee—there is something incredibly rewarding about seeing physical results present themselves in front of you (even if the data need later processing to more fully interpret their meaning).

GPR offers archaeologists the ability to see beneath the surface without disturbing soil, although this technique does not come without cost. The first cost is the literal cost of the baby stroller/GPR device – around $40,000. They definitely don’t sell them at Costco in a bundle of 20. Secondly, it takes dedicated time to complete a GPR grid, this often deters archaeologists from undergoing low impact methods of survey, as they don’t have the time or resources to undergo such in-depth data collection. Finally, there are the ways in which GPR data can be altered and skewed by the world around the surveying team. The GPR is greatly affected by radio waves, meaning that you-and everyone around you – is required to turn off their phones when the ground penetrative radar device is in use (this is harder for some more than others).

You may be shocked to hear that GPR is not the most glamorous form of archaeology- although I have envisioned a final instalment of Indiana Jones where Indy leans over a GPR screen, hands cupped over the screen as he tries to decipher whether or not the file saved for the 50th time. Like many minimally invasive forms of survey, GPR can be a time consuming act; often those final lines of the grid are as tiresome as they are satisfying. As your team pushes that baby stroller/GPR through an open field, a rocky forest or, as Jessica put it “hundreds of ant hills”, remember that you are pushing towards a future in archaeology that preserves rather than disturbs.

(Fiona Pushing the GPR- photo by me)

A New Way of Thinking About Things

The first time I was introduced to thinking about the things archaeologist find, the things we see in museum exhibits, even the things we buy and sell in thrift stores and auctions differently was during the FIMA group tour of the collections housed at the Confederate Tribes of Grande Ronde’s collections facility at Chachalu Historic Preservation Offices. Instead of referring to the items stored neatly on the collection shelves as “artifacts” or “objects” the Cultural Collection Coordinator Sybil Edwards explained that those things are “belongings”. What an interesting concept to consider a slight change in wording could have such a profound effect on the way we think about the things archaeologists dig up.

Belonging has a much more personal and deeper connotation than merely labeling everything with the scientific coldness inherent in “artifact.” Belonging implies that the things archaeologist find, or those items that are donated to the collections, are connected to a person that there is a narrative and a story that the item has to tell. A belonging has had a life of its own and formed connections with people and places.

Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center

The traditional questions that researchers ask of material culture are questions such as “How was it made?” “What was it used for?” “What is it made out of?” But, changing the word from artifact to belonging in describing these objects also changes the questions we ask. Instead of asking standard scientific questions associated with an artifact or specimen, “belonging” not only reflects the way the community understands objects, but also helps researchers think of things in a different way. Instead we are more likely to ask more personal questions of a belonging such as what are the stories behind these connections and what can we learn about its journey of belonging? We begin to focus on who. Who did this item belong to? Who were they and what was this item to them?

Youth Archaeology Day

Aguilar, Flintknapping 2019

On Thursday July 18th, the FMIA team along with Chris Bailey and the HPO staff facilitated Youth Archaeology Day with the Youth Ed students. The activities took place around Chachalu and included a variety of stations. The two that I primarily worked were flintknapping and the bow and arrow station. My experience with bow and arrows was exclusively with compound bows so it was really interesting to learn along with the students on how to properly shoot the more traditional type. It took a lot of trial and error but I was able to shoot off three arrows.

After the bow and arrow station I went over to flintknapping with Sara. This was my first time participating in flintknapping. I have always thought the process was incredible so it was a privilege to be able to participate as a student and to also teach the students of Youth Ed. The materials we used at our flintknapping station included obsidian, antlers, gloves, leather pads, safety goggles, and a tarp to catch falling flakes. The method Sara Gonzalez (our Field Director) taught us was pressure flaking. This involved using the leather pads for protection against the sharp obsidian as we used the antlers to apply pressure and pop off flakes and shape our points.

One student was was able to craft an Ishi1 point in roughly 45 minutes.

Ishi Point Example, Puget Sound Knappers

Seeing his dedication and expertise was inspiring and motivated me to continue working my point even after slicing my knuckles twice. The closing activity took place in the mini plank house and focused on the students asking us questions they had about archaeology and us as individuals. This included our inspiration and education journey that led to us being here at Grand Ronde. One of the questions we were asked was when we knew we wanted to be an archaeologist. I shared that it had been a passion of mine since childhood and my love for it continued to grow through the years as I read anthropology and archaeology related books and spent time in museums.

The mutual learning environment that was created during Youth Archaeology Day solidified my desire to focus my leadership project on creating curriculum for junior high through high school students to work in the collections and archives in the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO). In having a background in both anthropology and education, I think it’s vital to listen to what is important to the students when crafting a curriculum. Understanding their strengths and skills and learning from them is just as important as any lesson plan I could craft and teach with my expertise. I look forward to creating a collaborative learning space at Grand Ronde that can be used for years to come.

Ishi Point Photo CreditPuget Sound Knappers

For Additional Information on Ishi: “Ishi, the Last Yahi”