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Archaeology Field School: An Interdisciplinary Exchange Between Anthropology and Landscape Architecture

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Tim Murtha and Chris Frey looking at data

Landscape Architecture faculty member Tim Murtha and fifth-year student Chris Frey recently shared their expertise with the Department of Anthropology’s archaeological field school, which concluded this week at Foster Farmstead, a 19th-century historic site located on the grounds of the Arboretum at Penn State. Under the direction of Claire Milner, curator of the Matson Museum of Anthropology, twelve field school participants excavated in and around the farmhouse foundations and gained knowledge and hands-on experience that will prepare them for contract archaeology employment and graduate school in anthropology.

Frey and Murtha, who is also an archaeologist, taught the field school participants about surveying and lidar data in order to demonstrate how to lay out grids and use a total station to map the site. The total station survey equipment measures angles and distances, which students could then convert to points on a map. Murtha and Frey explained to the students how to look through the scope, interpret the numbers, and then transfer them to paper—another layer to accompany the aerial photography and lidar data that they have already collected.

“I think learning how their dig sites are placed in the context of their surroundings was very important.  Finding artifacts is great, but being able to relate those finds into a bigger picture that might tell ‘why’ or ‘how’ those artifacts got there in the first place is another important piece of the puzzle,” said Frey.

“The great Carl Sagan said that we are all part of an embedded narrative, and I like to think of archaeology in that way,” said Murtha. “People weren’t thinking we would be here someday digging through the things they left behind, but here we are.”

Milner pointed out that when you dig a site, you destroy it. “That is why detailed notes and mapping are so important to this process. You have to keep a record of what you saw,” she explained.

Students continued digging away level by level in one-by-one or two-by-one meter units, finding everything from animal bone to ceramics, even medicine bottles. Murtha encouraged students to dig within the foundations of the house because people tend to leave behind evidence of their stay on the floors when they move.

“I tell the students, ‘The more dirt you see, the better!’” said Milner. “Broad experience and time in the field help make them better archaeologists. A lot of students can’t afford to go on international digs, but by doing something local they can stay on campus and get the experience they need.”

Milner stressed that the field school is an experience open to students in any major who want to earn credits while being outdoors. People who love history or the landscape and want to get involved can contribute to archaeology from a variety of angles, including socio-cultural studies, biology, and of course, landscape architecture.

This year’s archaeology field school will not only benefit the participants, but also the Arboretum and the Penn State community. The site will hopefully become a place along the trail where people will come to learn the history of Foster Farm and experience the site. Milner envisions possibly three more years at the site for the field school, with students continuing their research on the artifacts throughout the school year and exhibiting their findings at the Matson Museum. 

To view a photos from the Archaeology Field School, visit the gallery: