While digging one of many shovel test pits during field work, my partner and I made a small discovery. Before we had even broken the earth for our test pit, we found a sizable sherd of ceramic laying on the ground near the flag we were to dig at. It was rather thick, with a black glaze on one side and a white glaze on the other; as we were near a field it was clear that this was an artifact turned up by a farmer’s plow. To a pair of fresh field school students, it was like the find of the century, especially after a day of finding nothing but rocks that could be artifacts. Upon showing the artifact to the nearest archaeologists, we found that it was most likely a nineteenth century piece of crockery. This was disheartening to hear at first, as we were not looking for nineteenth century artifacts on that day, we had been looking for seventeenth century artifacts, such as Native American or European trade goods. Upon seeing our initial disappointment, we were reassured that our find had not been nothing, and that even though this artifact did not tie into the research question posed for the dig directly, it served as an important piece of data in understanding the overall occupation of the site. This served as an important lesson, one which contextualized much of the work we had done up to that point that didn’t feel as exciting or flashy as finding a rare artifact.
Archaeology is a science which is driven by data. The wider a set of data is, the more comprehensive the understanding that can be drawn from it. It is for this reason that the most credible studies and surveys draw their conclusions from a wide and varied group of test subjects. In order for the study to be complete, there exists a need for data which does not support the hypothesis posed. Unlike in other sciences where non-supportive data could mean a dead end, in archaeology all data helps determine the history of the site. In the context of archaeology this can be framed in the digging of shovel test pits, each of which yields statistical data which will then be used to decide where to open test units. In
order for the archaeologist to understand the area that is being excavated, it is necessary to know where the artifacts aren’t, just as much as where they are. Connecting this back to the previous anecdote, we had searched all day for evidence of European contact and found nothing, save for some lithics of Native American origin. Then the ceramic sherd was found, giving a relative date for when goods like this arrived on that site. In spite of this data not supporting the hypothesis that this site was a location of European contact, this still contributes to the historical understanding of the site and its occupation. It is easy to get sucked into the romantic idea of archaeology of uncovering fantastic artifact after fantastic artifact without realizing how important it is to diligently study every part of a site. Since that lesson was learned, it has contextualized every empty hole and shovelful not as a failure but as a piece of data just as valid as an exciting artifact that we were hoping to find.