“Digging for Dummies”: Newbie Archaeology at the Kiah House

Next in our student series is Andrew Brocato blogging about his first experience with field archaeology. Andrew joined us for several days at the Kiah House.

“Digging for Dummies”: Newbie Archaeology at the Kiah House

I am currently taking Ms. Seifert’s Introduction to Archaeology course. She has partnered with Dr. Johnson-Simon from Savannah State University to begin excavating on the grounds of the Kiah House in downtown Savannah. The Kiah House was built in the early 1900’s and was at one point a public museum that catered to anyone who would go visit. I have no prior experience in any kind of excavations, and the first day I had arrived I was a bit nervous and had very wild expectations. I wore a t-shirt, pants, and boots with thick soles on the bottom for the first day. That was not the best choice of attire, and I can recommend that shorts would be much better since it is getting warmer now, and I also would recommend comfortable shoes instead of boots. The boots kept hurting the soles of my feet, and when I was on soft soil or using the sifter, it was hard to stay standing steady in my boots. On the first day, I began to assist in digging one of the two test units that we established. For the unit’s locations, we chose the backyard of the house and the side yard where it was elevated because these places are most likely to have artifacts since backyards are where people spend a lot of time and potentially bury or dump garbage or broken materials.


Andrew screens soil looking for artifacts next to the unit. (Photo credit: Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon)

The first thing I noticed was the meticulous setup before actually digging the test unit. We marked out the rectangular shape of the unit using spikes and string, and then began selecting the tools and setting up the sifter near the unit. I must admit I very much wanted to just begin digging to see what we could find. This urge to just keep digging without any care in the world was one that I had to keep fighting the entire time. We began to dig the initial layer of topsoil, and I was extremely pumped to finally begin digging around to see what was there. But I learned something about archeology that I had never learned from movies and other popular media, which was the agonizingly slow progress made in an actual archeological dig and the tedious paperwork. We only would dig a shallow 10 centimeter level at a time then do a set of paperwork for each level. Now it was not difficult work, but it was challenging to maintain a 10 centimeter level on an incline using large shovels. It was tedious and at times frustrating with all the roots that I and my fellows kept on running into. The easiest way I found was to dig very shallow and to just try to skim the ground when I was digging instead of trying to force the shovel too hard through the dirt.

We also had to periodically dump the soil into a sifter to look for artifacts. This took a long time on the first day because there were only three of us working at one unit. Due to the soil and the general types of artifacts we were finding, it usually took all three of us to properly sift through it. Later when there were more people, it became easier, and we found a lot of ceramic, brick, coal, and nails. This was not too surprising since I surmised our unit to be a trash pile of some kind, and the brick and nails are common artifacts found when excavating homes. A little deeper down we began finding some glass and bits of decorated pottery, which was very fascinating to me. While we were digging, we took periodic water breaks and some ate some food we had brought. Overall the excavation was fun, and I learned a lot about how to properly excavate a site. I learned the hard way at times and the constant urge to just keep digging until I found something was hard to fight back, but I had fun all the same.

For more information on the Kiah house, see the Friends of the Kiah House Museum website.

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