Writing a short paper at Mike Moratto's request on my archaeological mentor, the late and considerably lamented A.E. Treganza, I was reminded of the difficulty Trig had making the transition to the routine use of screens (sieves, as they’re called in some other venues); he, like others of his generation (the first generation of California archaeologists) had always been a shovel-and-trowel man.
It occurred to me that the issue – why Trig didn’t much like screens – might have had to do with his artistic, organic approach to archaeology; he really made himself at one with the site, and screening can’t help but remove the archaeologist from the site – either by putting him or her up on the backdirt pile shaking, or by leaving him or her down in the pit (oops – unit – that was another transition Trig had trouble with) relying on the screener to find the goods. The practice fragments, segments, partitions the excavation experience.
Like everyone else doing archaeology in the U.S., over the last 50 years I’ve gotten used to routine screening, but recently on Nikumaroro in Kiribati, pursuing Amelia Earhart, I had to pretty much eschew screens, and the results were interesting. We were stripping a large area of the site, going down only 10 cm. (because that’s about as deep as we ever find anything there), and doing it all by trowel. We had seven 2-meter wide lanes, with two excavators in each; they simply crawled, sprawled, along troweling and closely examining what appeared in front of them.
Interesting result: LOTS more tiny things found than we’d ever found in previous seasons screening. I think it was because the people were right down there with their faces in the excavation, with everything right in front of them, and they knew that THEY were the ones who had to find whatever there was to find, in situ. And because, given the particular character of the site – contained in the coral-rubble surge ridge on the windward side of an atoll – out-of-place objects were more evident in situ against the broken coral than they would have been if relocated into a screen full of the same rubble.
The Seven Site on Nikumaroro is a lot different from almost any site in the U.S., and I’m not advocating a wholesale abandonment of screens – just noting that there are times and places where, perhaps, they get in the way.
Unrelated screen/sieve note: I’ve sometimes wondered why British and Commonwealth archaeologists seem always to use dorky little circular sieves instead of the nice, efficient, rectangular rockers we prefer in the U.S.. Walking through the Spice Market in downtown Istanbul earlier this month, I came upon the answer – great heaping piles of the things, in every gauge, readily available for sale. Doubtless an implement of ancient and honorable parentage in the Middle East, picked up by the likes of Petrie and Wooley and a part of the standard tool kit ever since.