This Heat Wave and Remote Sensing

I hope you kind readers of the Archaeology in Tennessee blog are enjoying this rare wave of intense summer heat.  In the year 1970, the musical group Eric Burdon and War asked a famous question about war: “What is it good for?”  One might ask the same thing about these 107 º F days.  I am happy to report that this extremely hot weather is good for archaeologists in at least one way.

Recently, I have been doing some archaeological survey work in one of the elongate northeast-southwest valleys near the ecotone area formed by the Valley and Ridge and Cumberland Plateau physiographic provinces.  My first prehistoric site was encountered and documented at a really unusual location in a tiny mountain community. The site was fairly well surrounded by all sorts of 19th, 20th, and 21st century structures and activity areas. 

One of the structures was an old rural school that had been torn down in about 2003. According to a local informant, it had been a brick structure, and she pointed out approximately where it once stood.  Two short strips of concrete were visible on the ground surface in that area, apparently remnants left behind after demolition of the building.  Unfortunately, my informant was unable to tell me the size of the former school building, its shape, or its directional orientation on the site.  I was interested in all of those because another local informant reported that one of his friends had found a prehistoric projectile point/knife in the immediate area of the old school.  If I knew exactly where the school sat, how large it was, and what its orientation was, I might get a better idea as to whether this isolated find came from soil disturbed by construction of the school or from an undisturbed area.  In addition, I thought it would be nice to know a little more about the school itself.

During my initial visits to the area in May, rainfall had been fairly plentiful, and the field where the school had sat was covered with healthy grass subject to regular mowing.  It was a uniform carpet of green.  This made it impossible to tell anything about the floor plan of the former school.  Then the heat wave came.

A couple of days ago, I went back to the site.  What I encountered was truly amazing.  The intense heat and constant sunlight on the site had completely delineated the floor plan of the school.  Mind you.  This was not a delineation that had to be carefully read like ever so slight differences in soil color in a troweled 1-meter square.  This thing screamed.  It was as if some giant hand in the sky had acquired a red hot branding iron in the exact shape of the poured concrete footings for the school and had burned the image directly into the grass.  It was very nearly photographic in nature.  Apparently, best I could figure out on the ground surface, the crew that demolished the school had left the footings just a few inches under the ground and had covered them over with soil as a prerequisite for planting the field in grass.  About one week into the current heat wave, the grass directly above the buried footings was unable to extend its roots deeper to find water and pretty much died out, leaving a nearly perfect delineation of the old school, including some interior features of the building.

If you are a historical archaeologist in Tennessee and have always wondered where some old building once sat on a plot of land, especially if it had linear laid stone, brick, or concrete footings and is located in an area now exposed to direct sunlight most of the day, it would be a really good idea to go back to the site during this heat wave and see if the weather has given you some new archaeological information.  Eric Burdon may have discovered that war is good for “absolutely nothing,” but this heat wave is handing out some archaeological gifts to those willing to look for them.

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