Notes from the director
This is Ben Marwick here, the field school director. So far the content here has been written by the students of the field school, sometimes to fulfill their academic requirements and sometimes spontaneously and voluntarily when they just wanted to share some interesting observations. It’s been a great read and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback. However, I thought I’d get the last word in to add some more general information about the field school.
Shortly after the field school ended I was contacted by Nancy Joseph, the editor of the UW College of Arts and Sciences newsletter Perspectives, to answer some questions for a story on our field school. I’ve seen a draft of the story which will appear on the UW website (including comments from some field school students, I’ll link to it here when it’s published), but it’s much shorter than my original response. So the long version (you’ve been warned!) of my responses to the Nancy’s questions are below, for those interested in the details of our work and life during the field school. Nancy’s questions are numbered here with my responses directly following. For photos, have a look at our facebook albums. For more information please send me an email. Update: The final published version of the Perspectives story appeared online on 7 Sept 11 and can be found here.
> 1) What makes this particular site interesting? Our site, Khao Toh Chong, is interesting for three reasons. First, it is an unusually large rockshelter that gives excellent shelter from the rain and is nice and close to a stream. So it’s a very convenient place for people from any time in prehistory to live. It’s also a convenient place to for archaeologists to dig since the ground is flat, level and wide. Second, our site is very near a famous archaeological site called Lang Rongrien, which has some of the oldest traces of modern human activity in mainland Southeast Asia. Our site may have even older remains. Third, our site is quite near a big limestone quarry and finds from our site could negatively impact the expansion plans of this quarry. That would probably please the local people, who are generally not happy with the environmental destruction caused by the quarrying.
> 2) Had some excavation already been done before you arrived, or did this group start from scratch? Two local school teachers and their students had done some shallow amateur excavations a few months before we began work at the site. It was their work that revealed the archaeological significance of our site, and bought the site to the attention of the Fine Arts Department (the Thai government office responsible for archaeology).
> 3) What were you expecting to find, and what did you actually find? Based on our understanding of previous work in Peninsular Thailand, we were expecting burials, campsite remains and shell middens (piles of shell leftover from cooking and eating the shells). These kinds of finds help us to understand the timing of human occupation in the region, the timing of the change from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, the cultural affinities of the prehistoric occupants and how they adapted to social and environmental change. We found campsite remains in the form of broken pottery vessels, flaked and polished stone artefacts, burnt animal bone and charcoal from cooking fires. We found shell middens in the form of dense layers of shells. These layers were typically dominated by a single species of shell. Interestingly the dominant species changed over time, perhaps reflecting changes in the diet of the occupants, which may be related to changes in the local environment and the marine and aquatic habitats and the kinds of shell species that lived near the site. We were surprised that we did not find any burials in our site.
> 4) You mentioned in a previous email that this field school is a collaboration. How does that collaboration work? How many groups are involved, how many total participants, and what percentage are UW folks? Also, is the UW team mostly undergrads, or grad students? How about those from other places? At the highest level, the field school is a collaboration between UW, Silpakorn University (the only Thai university that has an archaeology department), the Fine Arts Department (the Thai government department responsible for archaeology) and the National Science Museum of Thailand. Archaeologists from each of these groups helped to organise the field school, acquire official permits and help with the analytical and intellectual work of the research. We divide the tasks up amongst ourselves according to our individual specializations and schedules. At the student level, several other groups were represented, including the Vietnamese Institute of Archaeology, the University of Philippines, Universitas Gadjah Mada (Indonesia) and the APSARA Authority (Cambodia). The participation of these students was supported by a grant from the Luce Foundation to UW Professor Peter Lape, Four Thai MA-level students from Silpakorn University also participated. These students participated equally alongside the UW students, even taking the exams and doing all the reading that the UW students were required to do. Five of the fourteen students were UW students, including one who is normally a student of San Francisco State University and joined UW specifically to attend this field school. The UW students were entirely undergraduates, mostly juniors and seniors. The Thai students and two of the Luce-funded students are graduate students. The other three Luce-funded students are junior career archaeologists, working full-time in research and cultural heritage management organisations.
> 5) Have the UW folks interacted much with the participants from other countries? If so, can you comment on how that may have enriched the experience? The UW students lived and worked intensively with the other students. We stayed in dormitory accommodation together, and the students worked at the site in small groups that included UW, Thai and Southeast Asian students. The most obvious enrichment was of language skills, the UW students were frequently busy making lists of Thai words and practicing useful phrases. They also became more aware of the importance of speaking clearly, less loud and fast and less idiomatically. The Thai students also introduced the UW students to more exotic Thai food than what they see in Seattle. At a deeper level, the UW students gained an appreciation of how different US culture is from other cultures and how to adapt their behaviours to manage culture shock and feel more comfortable among the local culture.
> 6) Regarding the UW participants, what archaeological experience did they have coming in? Are they all Anthropology majors, or could anyone participate? What sort of training was required before they got near a trowel? Were they supervised a lot, or simply trained well at the start and then trusted to get things right? The UW participants were all Anthropology majors but had no previous field experience in archaeology (only Anthro majors were permitted to apply). Most had some lab experience and all had taken several archaeology classes, some at advanced levels. We did three full days of classroom and hands-on training near the site before we actually began the digging. Initially the students were supervised very closely at all stages of the work (digging, sieving, recording, analysis, etc.), but they were also involved in all of the decision-making processes so they could see how their decisions influenced the methods we used. After they gained competence and earned the trust of the project directors, we let them work with less supervision and more independence. Students who demonstrated a special aptitude for the field work were given supervisory responsibilities.
> 7) Can you describe the physical setting–near a town or remote? Hot and humid? Everyone staying at a big campsite or was there some other sort of lodging involving interaction with local people? Did everyone share duties, like cooking meals? Just a general picture of what that was like for the students. Our site is located in a remote rural setting, about 30 minutes drive from Krabi town. It is among a rubber tree plantation. During our excavation the weather was hot and humid, with a few heavy rainstorms. Our dig location was nicely sheltered from the rain and our field lab got a bit wet only in the heaviest rain. Our accommodation was in dormitories in a nice hostel in Krabi town. All the female students stayed in one dorm and the male students stayed in another dorm. All the students shared the duties of the excavation and analysis, but we hired local cooks to prepare meals for us, using only local produce. We hired cooks to make sure our food was healthy and hygienically prepared and to spread the benefits of our project further into the local community by employing locals and purchasing local produce.
> 8 ) Did the students have any time off to explore the area? I recall a previous dig that I wrote about long ago being six days a week. We worked on the dig for six days each week and on the seventh day had a seminar class and half a day off for students to rest, travel around the local area, visit shops and wash their clothes. In addition to that, we had two full day trips that everyone went on. One was a kayak trip in the Pang Nga Bay, and the other was a tour of palaeontological and archaeological sites in the nearby southern province of Satun. At the end of the field work we also spent a few days in Bangkok exploring museum and galleries, including some behind-the-scenes tours and lectures.
> 9) What are the steps involved in the dig, from digging, to screening the dirt, tagging things, making measurements, cataloguing, etc. (in the simplest possible terms)? Yes, I think you’ve already got it in the simplest terms! Once the dig location has been chosen the the area to dig has been marked out with a string border, we then proceed to gently scrape the sediment from the surface with small hand tools like trowels. We always work horizontally first and vertically second. We try to follow the changes in the colour, texture and consistency of the sediment in the deposit. When there is a chance in the sediment then we stop digging, take measurements of the excavated area, record details about the sediment and artefacts and put all our finds into bags. Then we start the next level of digging. Within very thick layers we typically excavate to a depth of about 5 cm and then stop to record what we see and bag all our finds from that arbitrary unit. As the dirt is dug out, the excavator puts it in small buckets which other members of the team place on the top of big metal screens (1x1m) that have holes of 10mm diameter in them. This screens let the sediment fall through but keep most of the bones and artefacts at the top where we can pick them out (of course some of the smaller artefacts fall through and are lost, but using a smaller mesh means taking a lot more time to sieve the sediment, our judgement was that it wasn’t worth it at this particular site). We sieved a few units with a 3 mm screen to see if we were missing anything important and determined we were not. As objects are identified on the sieves they are placed into labelled bags that tell us what part of the excavation they came from. Then the bags go over to our field lab where they are lightly cleaned and rinsed. The artefacts are weighed, measured, labelled and photographed. Data on the artefacts are entered into a database. The artefacts are then bagged again for storage and further analysis or display in the future.
> 10) Can you comment on the value of field school for anyone considering a career in archaeology? Do you find that students either take to it immediately or decide pretty quickly that it’s not for them? Along those lines, can you also explain how the finds can be seemingly uninteresting to someone who doesn’t see the big picture about the information they can provide, and can be exciting to someone who does see the big picture? An archaeological field school is an invaluable experience for students intending to work or pursue further study in archaeology. Most firms hiring archaeologists require prospective employees to have completed a field school and field school experience strengthens graduate school applications substantially. The students all put in a great effort towards making the field school a meaningful and worthwhile experience for themselves, even as some of them struggled with the conditions and weren’t committed to a career in archaeology. For many students the field school experience is the make-or-break moment when they finally decide if archaeology is the thing for them. They don’t always know the result until after the field school is over and they’ve had a chance to digest the experience and reflect on it. Even though not all students are equally enthralled by archaeology, the thrill of personal discovery of an object is highly motivating. The finds are mostly not always spectacular and photogenic; they are broken pieces of pottery, bone and stone artefacts that have to be carefully and patiently examined, measured and compared to extract meaningful information about the people who used and discarded them. For many archaeologists, and some of the more committed students, the delight of the discipline comes from this analytical activity. But although the finds themselves are not always intrinsically exciting, the act of uncovering an ancient relic, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it is, is also frequently a source of delight and fascination, even when the student’s intellectual commitments are not wholly with archaeology. Participating in a big team project such as an excavation also adds to the frisson of the moment of discovery, since everyone on the team shares in the excitement of an interesting find at the site, even if it’s not a world-changing artefact.
> 11) What part of the process tends to be most challenging for the students? Conversely, what part do they seem to like best? The students managed all aspects of the fieldwork with skill and diligence. The most challenging part is probably maintaining a cheery disposition when deep in a hole, covered in dirt and sweat day after day with people around you speaking three languages that you don’t understand! The students seem to enjoy digging the best because it’s energetic and that’s where the most exciting and visceral discoveries are. But they also appreciate the peaceful and restful nature of working the sieves and at the analysis lab. Careful work at those stations was frequently rewarded by interesting discoveries and observations of patterns that were missed in the excitement of the digging.
> 12) In general, how did the students fare? Were you impressed with their work? Did their participation help move the project along in really useful ways? The students fared very well. There were a small number of typical minor incidents like splinters and blisters, but quick and comprehensive first aid kept them under control. One student spent a day and a half out of action with stomach discomfort, but thanks to the ready availability of high quality medication at pharmacies in Krabi town, her issue was easily managed and she quickly recovered. In general we were impressed with the students’ work. My Thai colleagues worked at the site with me and saw the students’ research presentations at the end of the fieldwork. We all agreed that the students did a great job with the physical and intellectual challenges of the field school. The students’ participation in the field school was vital to the advancement of this research project. The students were part of the first excavations at what we expect will be a regionally and perhaps internationally significant archaeological site.
> 13) What was unearthed during the field school, and what information will it provide about the history of that area? Our main finds includes pottery, shellfish, animal bones and stone artefacts. The pottery includes a small number of complete vessels which are in style that is characteristic of prehistoric sites in southern Thailand. This suggests that the occupants of our site were members of a widespread cultural group. Many of the stone artefacts we found were polished adzes or flakes produced during the manufacture or repair of these adzes. This kind of stone artefact is a typical farming technology, with some archaeologists suggesting that the artefact was attached to a stick to make a ploughing or digging tool, or an axe for chopping trees and clearing land for sowing crops. Many of the animal bones we found were of small mammals, fish and turtles. Some of these bones probably resulted from prehistoric human meals, since the bones show signs of burning and cutting, but some are probably a result of natural accumulations as these species natively live near the rockshelter. Most surprising were the finds of shellfish, which were highly abundant and concentrated in dense layers. The species of shellfish also changed over time. The most obvious change was from bivalve shells (clam-shell-like) in the older lower levels to gastropod shells (snail-shell-like) in the upper younger levels. Also included in the shell layers are burnt bone, pottery fragments and stone artefacts, indicating that the shell layers most likely result from human activity rather than natural processes. We think that the change in shell species over time may relate to changes in the local environment and adaptation by the shells and by people to climate change. We expect that further analysis of the shell assemblages will give important and unique information about how people adapted to climate change in this region.
> 14) Were there any surprises, either related to materials unearthed, or the collaboration, or any other aspect of the experience? The main surprise for me and my Thai colleagues is that everything went so smoothly! With such a diverse mix of cultures and languages and such tough field conditions, we were all impressed at how easily, efficiently and safely the team worked together.
> 15) On a personal note, how did you become interested in archaeology? Was it always a passion? Did you participate in a field school when you were a student, and if so, where was it and was it key to your decision to pursue this field? As a high school student I was very keen on empirical sciences, history and outdoor activities. As an undergraduate in Australia I sought a way to combining these interests and archaeology was the most promising option. At that time I did a non-residential field school (where the field work was close to my home so I could just take the bus to the site each day) as part of my Bachelor studies, which I enjoyed. I also independently sought out some volunteer field experience in more remote locations which was exciting work in exotic landscapes, involving helicopters and off-road driving. The discovery that I could also be paid for doing this kind of work also made a strong impression as I was contemplating my future after graduation. After graduating I did quite a bit of this paid fieldwork and then went on to pursue a research career by doing a MA and PhD
> 16) Are there funding sources for this school that I should be mentioning? We received support (financial and in-kind) from: The University of Washington Anthropology Department International Provost Grant, UW International Programs and Exchanges Luce Foundation (via a large grant to UW Prof Peter Lape) Silpakorn University Fine Arts Department of Thailand (Phuket Office) and the National Science Museum of Thailand.