During my 40+ plus years of involvement in archaeology, the question I hear the most often from people is “What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever found?” And I know what they want to hear. They want to know where and how I discovered the “gold”. Barring the unlikely recovery of treasure, they may be satisfied with stories like finding the nearly complete skeleton of a wooly mammoth discovered some 40 feet deep in a southern Indiana quarry. Or perhaps the beautifully crafted silver trade items and jewelry exchanged between the French traders and the Native American villagers along the upper Wabash River Valley of northern Indiana. Their interest may even be somewhat captured by the discovery of small coins, worn smooth with much handling, perforated and marked with an “X” by enslaved individuals in the Kentucky hinterlands. But the things I have found most often, the assortment of waste flakes from the manufacture of chert tools or the equally boring collection of broken glass and whiteware dishes, maybe a broken “arrowhead”, comes as a disappointment to most.
I explain that the most exciting “things” I have ever found are not tangible. I want the people to understand the challenge of standing beside a large neat hole dug out of the earth, of looking down at a cleared excavation floor, and attempting to read the patterns of the past from stained patches of soil. I try to impart the real excitement of finally understanding, perhaps after some consternation, what happened in that place long ago. That once upon a time, there was a structure here with its pole supports around the outer walls. Perhaps this was a house, with a large trash pit that serviced the residents. And over there, a communal cooking area can be seen by a cluster of shallow pits with large reddened rocks. And the more you look, the more you see. It is truly wondrous to step back and take it all in, and figure it all out. It is at moments like this when you realize that you can sit back in a comfortable chair and read history, or you can stand outside in the dirt and reveal history. The true excitement is uncovering the story of how people once lived, through the changes made to the land and discarded items left behind … items that no human has seen for hundreds or thousands of years.
Even more exciting is the realization that these people were a lot like ourselves. Thousands of years ago, people learned how to survive in the Ohio River Valley. They developed technology to make the tools necessary to make a living. They observed the patterns of nature, and noted the seasonal patterns to enable them to procure the food necessary for their subsistence. And they not only survived, they thrived. They were so successful, that they also had time for other activities, and time to think. Like us, surviving was not enough; they needed more. They enhanced the quality of their daily existence through art and music. Through various art forms, they expressed themselves in beautifully designed and crafted items; through the musical instruments they constructed, they added the richness of sound and rhythm to their lives. We know that they also sought an understanding of their relationship with other living things in nature. Through their searching of the stars in the heavens and the celestial cycle, they interpreted their role in the universe. They needed more than food and shelter, they sought meaning to their very existence. And isn’t that just what people do today? Isn’t that exciting?
Corn Island Archaeology, LLC