Some of you are no doubt familiar with the Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute (ORARI), which I created in 2014 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It is my chosen venue for contributing to professional archaeological research; public archaeology; and advocacy for archaeology and historic preservation. Geographically, ORARI is focused primarily on Anderson County and the surrounding area. When venturing out to do archaeology, I use my 2007 Honda Odyssey van. About six months ago, a local sign company made two nice-looking magnetic signs for the front doors on my van. These signs exhibit the full ORARI name in logo format, our website address, and contact information. When I am running errands, people often see the signs and stop me to talk about their plans to major in anthropology or how a child of theirs is already doing so. That is always fun. I try to be helpful, be encouraging, and answer any questions they have about Tennessee archaeology. However, something a bit unusual and unexpected is happening to me now, most often in the parking lot at Kroger (of all places). I want to tell you about it, give you a couple of examples, and make some helpful educational clarifications for Tennessee citizens.
A few weeks ago in the parking lot at Kroger, a nice gentleman saw my van signs and assumed I was an expert who studies geological materials, how they move, and what such movement does to the foundations of buildings. Fortunately, for him at least, I had finished most of an undergraduate major in geology, so I stopped and listened carefully to what this gentleman needed to tell me. Afterwards, it was clear to me that geological materials were indeed moving around in very scary ways at his home—no doubt about it. I referred this gentleman to a friend of mine in Oak Ridge who owns a company that specializes in structural foundation engineering, repair, and stabilization.
Tonight my son and I had to run over to Kroger and buy some milk. When we returned to the van, a nice young man in a snazzy-red sports car called out from behind us and asked: “Found any good geodes lately!!!???” I nicely told him no—and mentioned that the area around Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, is famous for near-basketball-size geodes. I knew that because a relative of mine had once visited Red Boiling Springs when it was an early-middle 20th century resort town with mineral springs. He brought back a number of huge geodes to my grandmother’s house to line her flower beds.
Many members of the Tennessee public do not understand what professional archaeologists, geologists, or paleontologists do for a living—and how what one professional does is different from what the other two types of professionals do. I am going to address this issue by referring you to three excellent, safe web links that should clear this matter up for you. Just click on the blue links below and do a little reading and video watching. The differences should come into focus for you. Here are the links:
Professional archaeologists in Tennessee do not analyze and repair building foundation problems for modern day homes, buildings, and structures. That is a unique specialization in the contract construction industry. Such tasks are performed by professional construction personnel in consultation with experts in civil engineering and geological engineering. You may read a little about that and watch some related videos at the following safe link:
However, some technical experts who work in the discipline of historic preservation do occasionally work with teams of architects, civil engineers, geologists, archaeologists, and foundation repair specialists to achieve the stabilization and repair of foundations that support ancient and historic-era buildings and structures that need to be preserved for future generations.
And no…the assorted artifacts (e.g. pottery sherds, projectile points, animal bones, etc.) found by archaeologists in American archaeological sites are not fossils. They are just human-influenced stuff like all those items in your kitchen drawer at home. The only difference is this. The stuff in your kitchen drawer at home is recent stuff, and the artifacts in archaeological sites are old stuff that once belonged to a person who is most likely deceased. Fossils are “the remains or traces of prehistoric life preserved in rocks of the Earth’s crust” (Wicander and Monroe 1989:558). Were ancient pottery sherds ever living things? No. Do American archaeologists find pottery sherds in the form of rock or embedded inside rock? No. Pottery sherds are usually found in soil and sediment deposits at archaeological sites or in stream beds. They are made of clay that ancient people dug out of the ground; shaped into various kinds of ceramic vessels; and baked at very high temperatures. When one of these vessels broke into pieces, pottery sherds were born.
There are occasional exceptions to just about every rule, and that is true of artifacts and fossils. Once in a great and rare while, some ancient Native American would find a 400 million-year-old living thing in rock form (like a fossilized segment of a crinoid stem) and say:
This thing is already perfectly round, and it has a round hole in the middle of it. It would be a great centerpiece for the necklace I am making. I’ll just abrade the edge a bit to make it smoother and use it in my necklace.
In that manner an ancient fossil became an artifact because the ancient Native American man viewed it as a raw material, modified it, and used it as an item of material culture.
Now, repeat after me: “Why!!! I didn’t know all that!!!” Now you do. Congratulations!!! You are one smart cookie.
Wicander, Reed and James S. Monroe 1989. Historical Geology: Evolution of the Earth and Life Through Time. New York: West Publishing.