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The Archeological Survey: Methods and Uses






Introduction and Definitions

A Brief History of Archeological Survey

The Variety of Archeological Survey

Basic Archeological Site Survey Methods

Special Types of Survey

Recording and Reporting

Predictive Survey for Comprehensive Planning



Forms Used in Recording Archeological Survey Data

Archeological Predictive Studies

Example of an Archeological Review Procedure Using Predictive Data

Automated Management of Data and Research Results on Archeological Surveys

State Archeological Co-ops: Their Evolution, Dangers, and Value

The Archeological Survey: Methods and Uses
U.S. Dept. of the Interior


There has never been a detailed definition of the term "archeological survey" on which all archeologists--and others who use the word--have agreed. For this reason, it cannot be assumed that if an agency simply contracts with a qualified archeologist it will necessarily receive a survey report that is fully consistent with professional standards that satisfy the needs of management. What one archeologist might call a "survey," another might call a mere cursory inspection. Moreover, as noted in the last chapter, the reasons for and methods of making surveys have changed considerably during the last century and, most dramatically, during the last decade or so. As a result, it is entirely predictable that if an area surveyed 20 years ago were surveyed again today, many archeological sites not noted in the first survey would be discovered.

The situation is by no means hopeless. It certainly is possible to identify all the archeological sites in a given area, within reason, given thoughtful planning and adequate resources. There are certain predictable pitfalls to avoid in planning such a survey, and this chapter attempts to describe them.

It will be easiest to describe the variety of archeological survey types and activities, and their results, against a standard environmental setting. Accordingly, we will undertake a study of Griffin Valley, in the State of Indeterminate.

Griffin Valley is shown in Figure III-1. It lies in relatively gentle, rolling country with a good deal of environmental diversity, along the Phillips River. Much of the valley is a part of the Ford Ranch, whose 75-year old buildings appear toward the left side of Figure III-1. Excluding these buildings from consideration for the moment, we can define the nature of the valley's archeological resources for the purposes of our example.

Figure III-1. Griffin Valley today looking NE.

Human beings first entered Griffin Valley about 11,000 years ago. At that time, toward the end of the Pleistocene, much of the valley was covered by a pluvial lake, as shown in Figure III-2. The lake was shallow and marshy, and many large herd animals came there to drink. Waterfowl abounded. Because it was an ideal place for hunters to live, a small wandering band, manufacturers of the famous Clovis points, established a campsite at the low pass near the future location of the Ford Ranch buildings. This spot afforded them some shelter from the elements, was close enough to water to be convenient but not so near as to frighten game away from the shore. It commanded a view of both the lake and the small valley to the north, down which game often passed. The band visited this site recurrently for several centuries, and hunted around the lake margins. One season, three hunters from the group surprised a mammoth foraging along the south shore of the lake. Floundering around, the mammoth became mired and could not escape. The hunters waited for him to weary, and then dispatched him with many spears. The entire band then moved to the kill site and butchered the beast, leaving his bones, the spearpoints that had killed him, and their butchering tools and firepits when they moved on.

Figure III-2. Griffin Valley ca. 9000 B.C.

As the Pleistocene ended, a more diversified sort of hunting and gathering came to dominate the economy of the area. Now the lake was gone and grasslands covered much of the Valley. The really big game was also gone, and vegetable foods played a larger role in the diet of local people. Small hard seeds from grasses were ground on milling stones, and small game was hunted. During this period a good spring flowed out of the low rocky mountains at the south side of the valley, and it was around this spring that a good-sized semi-permanent village was established, as shown in Figure III-3. This was a very convenient location, with easy access to fresh water and grasslands, and a short walk from the sage-covered low hills where the hunters had camped three thousand years before. During one period of about a century the climate turned arid and the available seed crop grew very sparse. Women now had to range farther afield to gather an adequate supply of seeds. A temporary overnight camp was established at the north edge of the valley, near a creek at the edge of the sage fields. Here seeds could be stockpiled and ground before being transported back to the main village; men accompanying the women could hunt in the nearby chaparral.

Figure III-3. Griffin Valley ca. 2000 B.C.

About 3000 years ago, a violent earthquake sealed up the spring, and the villagers had to move. Their new settlement was located at the foot of the pass through the Ford Ranch hills, on the bank of the Phillips River near the ecotone between grassland and chaparral communities. The oaks on the north slope of the hills were within easy reach, which was good since the people had recently developed techniques for leaching the tannic acid from acorns and making them edible. With this new source of food, and a moderating climate, the population increased rapidly and soon was in danger of exceeding the carrying capacity of the local environment. Fortunately, at this juncture, some of the people's trading partners to the south introduced them to maize, and soon they had learned to plant and grow this important crop along with beans, squash, and sunflowers. At first, crops were planted along the floodplain at the immediate margins of the river, but later gardens were extended farther across the plain to the south (Fig. III-4).

Figure III-4. Griffin Valley ca. 1700 A.D.

Population was now increasing elsewhere and strife inevitably followed as different groups sought to expand their territories. After being virtually wiped out twice by neighboring groups seeking their food supplies, the people of Griffin Valley reluctantly relocated their village to a less convenient but more defensible site: the crest of the ridge of hills east of the pass (Fig. III-4). Here they built a strong palisaded village. New fields were established along the north side of the hills and the small creek was diverted to irrigate them.

In these times of stress, a religion developed that centered on arduous male initiation rites. Such rites prepared 10 to 12 year old boys for the rigorous, dangerous lives they would lead as men. At one point in the ritual, each boy was required to run silently to the crest of the mountains to the south, where his tutor (usually his mother's brother) awaited him. The tutor helped the boy assume a difficult position under one of the many overhanging rocks that topped the mountains, bending far over backward with his nose a few inches from the top of the overhang. With a hammerstone, the boy was then required to peck a small, cup-shaped depression in the roof of the overhang. The work had to be done in silence, and without food; it typically took 2 to 3 days, during which time the boy's tutor instructed him in the history and ethics of the tribe, and discussed what it meant to be a man. By the time the ordeal was over the boy was usually hallucinating; he was given paints and encouraged to illustrate his visions on any rock of his choosing.

In 1710 A.D., a French trapper brought the people their first iron tools and glass beads. In 1778 they were attacked, and their village was burned by a group of Seneca fleeing the decimation of their own homes by Continental troops. In 1780 a smallpox epidemic swept the community, leaving many dead. By this time the great palisaded village was no longer needed, and after the Seneca attack it had never been effectively rebuilt. The people now took up residence near their irrigated fields at the north edge of the valley. In 1820 the first white settler arrived, built a cabin and established a small farm on the south bank of the river. By 1850 the white population in the area was substantial, and settlers began to worry about the threat posed by the Indians. They petitioned the U.S. Government to rid them of the Indian peril, whereupon the Government obliged by creating a reservation to which the various scattered tribes would be relocated. Because the refugee occupants of Griffin Valley did not want to go, they were removed by force. Although one group broke away and fortified an area in the rocky slope south of the valley, they were promptly and easily overwhelmed by a troop of irregulars from the nearby town, massacred, and interred in a common grave. Once again the valley lay uninhabited. The Indians had been removed and its one white settler had abandoned his farm and fled to town during the period of unrest. It became part of a large and poorly defined cattle ranch, and no one lived there for a number of years. In 1872, a wandering miner reported finding gold in the mountains north of the valley. More than 5,000 would-be millionaires descended upon the scene of the strike, only to discover after less than a month that the gold discovery had been a hoax to divert attention from a real strike about 100 miles away. The site was immediately abandoned and promptly forgotten (Fig. III-5). In 1890 B. J. Griffin established a cattle ranch in the valley, and in 1895 sold out to A. R. Ford, who in 1890 built the house and barns that remain the ranch center today.

Figure III-5. Historic sites.

Eleven thousand years of human history in Griffin Valley have thus created a rich mosaic of archeological remains, shown in Figure III-6. One of the basic responsibilities of the Indeterminate State Historic Preservation Officer, in completing the comprehensive statewide survey required by Section 102 of the National Historic Preservation Act, is the identification of all these remains, and those of all other areas of the State, and nomination of those that appear eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Should a Federal agency propose to undertake, assist, or permit an action that would modify the valley, it would be the agency's responsibility to identify such properties and determine their eligibility. What might these identifications involve?

Figure III-6. Archeological Sites, Griffin Valley.

First, we might imagine that the SHPO, like many of his or her counterparts, would try to accumulate all available data on known archeological sites in the vicinity. What data are available?

In 1932, hunters discovered elaborate polychrome paintings on certain protected overhangs in the rocky mountain south of the valley. In 1938, local enthusiasts persuaded Dr. Linford Beakey of Indeterminate University to view the pictographs. Dr. Beakey, at the direction of the locals, drove to the Ford Ranch and was warmly greeted. Mr. Ford showed Dr. Beakey the flint tools he had recovered from the field below the house. The party then walked down the hill, and Mr. Ford pointed out the spot from which the projectile points had come. Dr. Beakey noted the existence of an extensive Late Stoneland village site. Crossing the river at a low point slightly west of the site, the party crossed to the toe of the hills and began to climb. Although Dr. Beakey noticed a scatter of old glass and metal fragments at the foot of the hills, he did not make any record of this in his notebook; as a prehistorian, he had neither interest nor competence in the study of historic sites. At the crest of the ridge, Beakey photographed and sketched several polychrome panels, and pointed out to his associates that cup-shaped petroglyphs were also to be found on several overhangs; they had not noted these rather nondescript features, and were not especially impressed now. After an hour or so of inspecting the area, and eating an excellent picnic lunch, Dr. Beakey returned to the ranch house via the canyon east of the slope up which he had climbed. While so doing, with the sun's rays now slanting in low from the west, he noticed irregularities in the contours of the floodplain. These he thought might be field scars associated with the village site which had earlier attracted his attention. He made notes concerning this possibility, but could not see the ridges once he reached the flood plain. While looking for the field remnants, he failed to notice the bone fragments in the backdirt of gopher holes at the edge of the oak woods (Fig. III-7).

Figure III-7. Dr. Beakey's survey.

Returning to the university, Dr. Beakey typed a one-page site-survey form on the village site he had recorded, and another on the several examples of rock art. He placed these, together with his notes on the possible aboriginal field, in the university's archeological survey files. The files thus recorded that at least two prehistoric sites existed in Griffin Valley--a Late Stoneland village site and an unknown number of polychrome pictographs and cupule petroglyphs--and that there might be some ancient field-scars. The files did not, however, record the presence of the settler's cabin site, which Beakey had noticed but had not found interesting enough to record, nor did they record the mammoth kill site which he had failed to note while concentrating on something else. Nor did they indicate the portions of the valley that he had inspected and those that he had not. They did not indicate how he had inspected the area, and they did not indicate what he had been looking for. From the files alone, it would be impossible to determine whether Dr. Beakey had simply walked across the valley on a sunny day in the pleasant company of some local hunters and ranchers--as indeed he had--or whether he had spent a month crawling over it on his hands and knees.

In 1965, the Indeterminate Highway Department proposed construction of an expressway through the valley from southeast to northwest. The project was eventually abandoned after a prolonged lawsuit by aroused local landowners, but during the planning of the project an archeological survey was conducted. While the enlightened and progressive IHD was unusual among highway agencies of the day in that it was willing to pay for surveys, it placed restrictions on its survey parties; they were not permitted to range beyond the already selected highway right-of-way, and no funds were provided for either preliminary background research or post-survey analysis and report preparation.

Constrained by a modest $500 that had been alloted for the survey, only a brief surface inspection was possible. The Indeterminate University Anthropology Department detailed a young archeology graduate student, E. M. Loumington, to conduct the survey. Hiking down the southern mountains from the southeast, Loumington noted a peculiar, generally rectangular depression in the ground at the foot of the rocky slope. A very old, rusty and broken shovel blade was the only cultural evidence she noted in the vicinity of this depression. Concluding that it was a topsoil source used by the ranchers at some time, she proceeded with the survey without recording the discovery. Although she crossed the river east of the known Late Stoneland site and within clear view of it she disregarded the site because it was outside the highway right-of-way. Reaching the crest of the ridge she looked into the valley to see if Beakey's field scars were still visible. She discerned no evidence of cultivation because, in the light of the midday sun, telltale shadows did not reveal them. Continuing on, she crossed the north arm of the valley and climbed the northern mountains, noticing a light scatter of old tin cans and bottles but nothing of a prehistoric nature. Having been trained, like most North American archeologists, to equate archeology with prehistory, she ignored the historic trash, and recorded none of it (Fig. III-8).

Figure III-8. Loumington's survey.

Thus, Loumington's survey recorded nothing in Griffin Valley. Although she crossed the mass grave of the massacred Indians, she did not recognize it because, lacking background research, she did not know that such a thing might be expected. Restricted to the highway right-of-way, she passed close by the large palisded village without finding it. Because of the time of day, she was unable to see the field scars. Her training as a prehistorian biased her against recognizing the remains of the abortive 1872 gold rush. Her report to the Highway Department indicated that the right-of-way had been surveyed, with negative results; maps and field notes were filed with the Indeterminate University Archeological Survey.

This, then, is the information available to the Inderterminate SHPO or a Federal project planner: two surveys have been done in the vicinity; one revealed the existence of a single Late Stoneland village site and some rock-art; the other revealed nothing. This information is clearly insufficient as a basis for planning. It is worse than insufficient; it is patently misleading. It is, however, typical of the kind of "survey" information that is available for most portions of the country today. It is for this reason that making inventories based on available information in university, museum, organizational, or State files almost never provides a useful basis for planning.

Having concluded that Griffin Valley must be surveyed, the Indeterminate SHPO must now decide how to survey it. There are several common approaches which yield results of varying quality.

The Uncontrolled-Exclusive Survey

In an uncontrolled-exclusive survey, certain areas are excluded from inspection because it is believed that they will not contain archeological sites, and the decision to exclude such areas is made on the basis of uncontrolled--i.e., unverified--assumptions. One of the commonest uncontrolled assumptions used to structure archeological surveys is the assumption: "people always live near water." This is an intuitively attractive proposition, and it has led innumerable archeologists to walk carefully up and down stream-banks while excluding open plains, hilltops, mountainsides and other areas from consideration. There are three general problems with this assumption. First, it is not true; second, it is vague; and third, even if it were true it would not be directly translatable into the statement "archeological sites are always near water."

People do not always live near water. If defense is a major consideration, it may be worth the trouble to carry and store water at an easily defended position rather than expose oneself near a lake or stream. Furthermore, what does "near" mean? Were the Clovis hunters in Griffin Valley camping "near" water when they carefully located their camp within sight and walking distance of the lake but not directly on it in order to avoid discouraging game? The question: "how near is near" is clearly important if one is to use this assumption as the basis for structuring a survey. The locations of water sources change: witness Griffin Valley, where the lake has dried up and the spring has closed, but archeological sites exist that represent human activities that related to these extinct water sources. Most important of all, perhaps, is the fact that human beings do more than just reside in an area, so they produce sites that are not "living" sites and hence are not necessarily oriented toward water sources. In Griffin Valley people have engaged in initiation rituals on top of mountains far from water; they have also fought a battle, been buried, and searched for gold in such places. An uncontrolled-exclusive survey of Griffin Valley guided by the "near water" assumption would probably result in the identification of the first agricultural village, the historic refugee village, and the early seed-gathering camp; it might also result in the identification of the settler's cabin site if the surveyor were able to recognize and appreciate historic material. It would probably miss everything else.

The Controlled-Exclusive Survey

At the opposite end of the spectrum of survey efficiency is the controlled-exclusive survey. In such a survey, one has sufficient information on an area to make solid and defensible judgements about where archeological sites may and may not be. Taking Griffin Valley as an example:

l. If we knew there had been a pluvial lake, and could identify its shoreline elevation, and knew about hunter-gatherer hunting strategies, we would carefully search a band of territory around the shoreline, extending back into sheltered areas where camps might be located, and would probably find both the mammoth kill site and the Clovis camp.

2. If we knew the geological history of the area, and understood how to locate extinct springs and water sources, we might examine each such feature and find the early seed grinding village as well as the sites along the extant waterways.

3. If we knew that the area had experienced a period of population pressure and warfare in prehistory, and had data on the locations of other defensive sites of the period, we would explore the ridge tops and find the palisaded village.

4. If we knew about ethnographic accounts of initiation rituals, or had data on the distribution of rock-art sites from systematic sample surveys (see Chapter VII), we would realize the importance of checking the mountaintops.

5. If we had carefully studied the history of the area, we should at least have ideas about where the first settler's cabin, the Indian massacre, and the 1872 gold rush took place.

In each case, by knowing where sites are likely to be, we are able to direct our efforts to areas of high probability at the expense of those where such sites are not likely to occur. In order to do this with a reasonable assurance that we are not missing anything of substance, however, we must know our area very well and be able to demonstrate that our assumptions are correct. This requires a solid understanding of background data on local history, prehistory, and the natural environment, a good grounding in anthropological, historical and geographical theory, from which projections can be made about the behavior of social groups in the particular area of interest, and first-hand data on a representative sample of the area's land surface. The best way to generate supportable assumptions that can serve as the basis for controlled-exclusive surveys is through the conduct of regional predictive surveys as discussed in Chapter VII.

It is sometimes assumed that after working for a long time in an area, an archeologist has automatically gained enough understanding of the area's archeology to undertake controlled-exclusive surveys. This assumption is very risky in the absence of some way to independently test and verify the archeologist's beliefs about where sites will be found. Such beliefs, when not rigorously tested, often become self-fulfilling prophesies. To return to the "near water" assumption for a moment: if one always looks for sites along streams, and never looks elsewhere, one is obviously going to find sites only along streams. However many years one spends finding sites along streams and never looking for them anywhere else, one will never prove that sites occur only along streams. Not all archeologists are particularly interested in testing their assumptions, nor should they necessarily be. If one is interested in conducting research only in types of sites that always occur along streams, there is clearly no reason to look elsewhere; it does not matter that other sites, of types irrelevant to one's research, exist elsewhere. For management purposes one cannot adopt this narrow focus; one must be concerned with identifying all types of properties potentially eligible for inclusion in the National Register. The fact that the longest-resident or most emminent archeologist in the area is not interested in some classes of sites does not necessarily mean that they are unimportant and hence ineligible for the National Register.

Non-Exclusive Survey

In a non-exclusive survey, no portion of the study area is excluded from inspection; coverage is complete. Coverage may be complete at a number of different levels of intensity, however, and the level of intensity will naturally affect the probability of identifying all archeological sites.

The most obvious distinction among non-exclusive survey types is that between non-exclusive surface survey and non-exclusive survey with subsurface exploration. In conducting a non-exclusive surface survey one simply inspects the surface of the ground wherever this surface is visible, with no substantial attempt to clear brush, turf, deadfall, leaves, or other material that may cover the surface and with no attempt to look beneath the surface beyond the inspection of rodent burrows, cut banks and other exposures that one comes upon by accident.

A non-exclusive survey with subsurface exploration involves some definite effort to expose obscured surface conditions and/or to monitor subsurface conditions in a planned fashion. Various methods for subsurface exploration will be discussed in the following chapter. Subsurface exploration may or may not be necessary in any given area, or in particular portions of an area. In planning a survey, thought should be given to what sorts of subsurface exploration may be necessary. In evaluating the results of a completed survey it is essential to be able to identify the extent and nature of subsurface exploration and to consider whether a failure to probe beneath the surface, or to have an adequate distribution of subsurface tests, may have resulted in a major failure to identify archeological sites.

Another major distinction is between non-exclusive survey with background research and non-exclusive survey without background research. Background study of environmental data, historical sources and ethnographies will generally result in special attention being given to particular portions of the study area where special types of sites are expected to occur, and may result in the employment of special detection techniques in such portions of the area. In the absence of such research, one would presumably employ uniform inspection techniques throughout the study area insofar as possible.

A third distinction is between non-exclusive deployed survey and non-exclusive gang survey. In the former type, field crew members are deployed over the landscape in accordance with some kind of plan (discussed in Chapter IV), to ensure essentially total inspection of the land surface. In a survey with subsurface exploration, subsurface tests would be deployed. In a gang survey, the field crew moves through the area as a group or gang, spreading out informally in some places, bunching up in others, splitting and segmenting to check spots on either side.

Finally, we can distinguish between non-exclusive comprehensive survey and non-exclusive special-purpose survey. The former obviously means that one surveys in order to find all the types of archeological sites present in the study area; the latter means that one surveys in order to identify some particular class of sites.

It is easy to say that for planning purposes in the absence of sufficient data to conduct a controlled exclusive survey, one should always conduct a non--exclusive comprehensive deployed survey with background research and subsurface testing. As a general rule this is true. In particular circumstances, however, each of the types of survey described above may be appropriate or necessary. In many areas, particularly in the arid to semiarid West, the land surface is sufficiently well exposed, and soil formation is sufficiently slow, to permit the assumption that all identifiable archeological sites can be found through surface inspection alone. Some areas may be so completely lacking in relevant documentary data that attempts at background research become exercises in futility. Under some environmental conditions (e.g., in narrow canyons or very thick brush) it may be impossible, overly hazardous, or simply unncessary to deploy one's crew. If all the prehistoric sites in an area have already been identified, a comprehensive survey would clearly be wasteful and a special-purpose historic-site survey would be appropriate. Thus, the exact type of survey undertaken will vary with the nature of the study area, and the techniques to be employed may vary substantially from place to place within the study area. Non-exclusive comprehensive deployed survey with background research and subsurface exploration is an ideal; while it is perfectly expectable that this ideal sometimes cannot and need not be attained, it is important for the surveyor, and the surveyor's sponsor or client, to understand and fully report deviations from the ideal (see Chapter V).

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