Archeology isn’t just a job; it’s a sensory experience. The work takes place in diverse environments that range from the dry heat of the desert to the stifling humidity of the coast. You endure weather conditions that are frequently less than optimum—hot and dusty in the summer, rainy in the spring and fall, and cold in the winter. Field work is definitely not for the faint-of-heart, but it is an experience you never forget and not just because of its physical challenges. It broadens you in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Not only do you experience the excitement of finding new sites and shedding light on past cultures, it puts you in touch with who you are at a basic level. Living for six weeks in a tent in the desert teaches you to appreciate all those mundane creature comforts you take for granted like a flush-toilet and a hot shower. It makes you realize just how good you have it in your everyday life.
At its heart, archeology is a profession that engages all our senses. Some, like smell and taste, come into play in a peripheral way, such as the smell of decaying leaves on a forest floor or the stale odor of brackish water. It’s the taste of sand in your mouth and a simple appreciation for the lukewarm water in your canteen that washes it out.
Hearing comes into play in a number of ways. Scary sounds that alert you to danger such as a sudden rattling in the weeds ahead that freezes you in place. It’s also the grating crunch of your shovel as it slices through a matt of roots or the scraping noise your trowel makes when it encounters an object other than dirt.
For an archeologist, sight and touch are probably the most critical senses. Good powers of observation are essential. You learn what to look for on the landscape such as old foundation supports, mounds of rocks arranged in a unusual way, or changes in topography that denote high probability areas for sites. You develop what’s called “a good eye” or the ability to differentiate artifacts from natural objects while sifting through dirt excavated from a test pit. In essence, you hone your “second sight” or your capacity to see subtle differences such as the wear patterns that distinguish a natural looking rock from a ground stone (see Photo 1) or a chipped stone (see Photo 2) artifact.
The work we do in archeology is very tactile. We touch everything—the dirt or sand we’re digging in, all types of debris such as leaves, roots, animal bones, shell, rocks, broken glass, and rusty metal (hence, the need for routine tetanus shots). This tactile sense along with our powers of observation helps us to differentiate the artifacts from the natural objects. For example, it’s the look and feel of a fragment of earthenware pottery that distinguishes it from a chunk of raw clay or a small piece of sandstone (see Photo 3).
Ultimately, when archeologists tap into their five senses they open windows to our past. Interesting, but why should we care? Because our heritage is a national asset of incomparable value that brings inspiration, knowledge, and pleasure to so many. Each time we visit a national monument such as the Arizona Battleship Memorial or an archeological site such as Colonial Williamsburg we are connected to our history in a very tangible way. Understanding where we came from and how we got to where we are gives a strong sense of our place in the world.
Our nation’s historic places and archeological sites reveal the richness of the American story. These wonders are available to all of you, but the skills used by archeologists to identify and interpret these old sites need not be for archeologists alone. Each of you has the capacity to tap into your own five senses to assess the world around you. I challenge each of you to go on a sensory excursion. The next time you take a walk open fully to the experience. Don’t simply look at the path before you, but really “see” what’s around you. Hear and feel the wind on your face, smell the earthy scent of the trees or the sweet fragrance of the flowers, and touch the blades of grass. You might be amazed by what you learn about yourself in the process.