Staking (or flagging) a claim

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Where people go, they leave their trash. Since the Turkana Basin has been home to people for millions of years, there’s a lot of trash for archaeologists to pick up. The classic image of archaeology is the studious excavator sweating with trowel in hand in a meter-by-meter square trying to figure out how a piece of broken crockery goes back together, long after the person who made it and used it tossed it into the trash heap. We’ll get there.

But before the squares can be marked off and the holes dug to find precious ancient junk, you need to know where to dig, and to figure out where to dig, you need to do a lot of walking. If you have a mining bent, this is called “prospecting” and if you have an archaeological bent, this is called “surveying.”

There’s a lot of ground to cover with bent backs and crooked necks. Welcome to survey.

In Ecology and Geology we were taught how to walk with our faces to the ground, searching for insects or cross-bedding. Now we’re looking for artifacts. After learning about the main stone tool industries from Dr. Alison Brooks: the basic flaking methods of the Oldowan with simple, ragged rock that got the job done for a million years, the massive, Acheulean with large flakes worked into large “tools” such as the hand ax (neither consistently the size of your hand nor an ax), the refined prepared cores of the Lavallois where blades and small flakes indicate more coordination and refined knapping techniques, and finally the modern tool kit with small flakes of obsidian and quartz “microliths” that were hafted to form complex, multibladed tools.

An Acheulean cleaver on the left and two handaxes to the right. Not the most ergonomic tools ever chipped, but they apparently worked just fine for a million years. If it ain't broke...

Natalie and Rachel exhibit their favorite find: a large reworked flake of chert, a type of rock not found very close to the site. Someone carried the material from a ways off and dropped it off on the ancient lake’s beach.

Of course, none of these technologies existed in a vacuum. A simple flake of basalt will never go out of fashion, especially when there’s a tasty meal to be butchered as we demonstrated with our goat roast. So, with the names and shapes of each technology in mind, and the approximate age of each type of tool making in our memories from lecture, we were let lose at Ainyangyang, the perennial locality for the field school to explore to try to sort out the archaeological story of a place we know has artifacts but doesn’t have a firm range of occupation dates.

For Ecology we visited Ainyangyang for the insects that call the occasionally lush, internally drained lake home. For Geology we visited Ainyangyang for the lake deposits and dunes as a microcosm for the lake sediments laid across the basin by the ancient fluctuations of Lake Turkana. Now we were back with Dr. Brooks to examine the leavings of thousands of generations of people who have found the occasionally filled lake a useful place to stop off for game and for their herds.

The Lorry: The only way to cruise the Turkana Basin and one of our most reliable tools through the archaeology module.

John and Cory gather around their favorite find of the day.

Armed with fistfuls of small survey flags, pairs of students moved out away from the truck, flagging artifacts along their survey path. Careful notes were taken as we took account of the types of artifacts we found and what they were made of. Beautiful, carefully worked blades of chert and obsidian suggested a more recent occupation of the area, while large flakes of basalt worked to a ragged point suggested the more ancient Lavallois.

Eve and Rosie mark their first find on their Ainyangyang archaeology transect. Find it. Flag it. Dig it? Maybe not for this little flake…

After walking their transects, the ground was peppered with flags, revealing most of the material seemed to be eroding from below sand dunes above the cracked silt and clay of the lake bed. If we were to set up with our trowels and squares, the hard sandstones would be the place to begin. There were people here making meticulous use of rare stones that hold a sharp edge and they were here a while.

Ana and Ashley found a cluster of artifacts and left a bouquet of flags to mark their discoveries.

Tim searches out the next piece of ancient garbage that has become modern archaeological gold.

Bailey and Holly show off the small, carefully crafted basalt point dropped by someone well versed in shaping rock into a useful form.

Natalie and Rachel report on the results of their transect across the Ainyangyang depression to Dr. Alison Brooks. There’s a lot of material across this lake bed…

Later in the week we took a step back in time to an Acheulean site near Napadet Hills where we went for a fun, exhausting hike our first weekend in the Turkana Basin. At the foot of the low, rolling hills are a series of gullies littered with stone flakes representing millions of years of technical and cultural innovation. The site was discovered by a Stony Brook archaeologist, but hasn’t been extensively surveyed. There’s so much rock to look at that a site known to have artifacts will go years without a good examination.

Leanna takes a moment to trace her steps and sort out where the material might be eroding form in the gravel-strewn outcrop.

Ana poses with a newly discovered bifacial hand ax. These artifacts are found from Africa to Asia. Some people see them as “swiss army knives,” tools that could be used to scrape, smash, cut, and grind. Others think they had some symbolic significance. Still others think they were used like boomarangs.

Along with the delicate little flakes, ostrich egg shell beads, and bladelets of the later stone age, we found older rocks with the calling card of the Acheulean: hand axes. The symmetrical, tear-drop shaped tools were nestled into rocks with large cleaver stones. Also at the site the teeth of pigs and antelope were eroding from the sandstone close to carefully worked fishing harpoons.

Dr. Meave Leakey zeroes in on a section of outcrop producing mammalian teeth and postcranial fragments, important data for sorting out the age of the site.

Ashley and Rob walk near Napadet Hills in search of the Acheulean technology that brought us to this spot.

Aaron found a large chunk of pottery indicating the people who scrapped it weren't moving across the landscape with the light packing list of hunters and gatherers. Pottery is a sure sign we've hit the more recent depositional layer.

Rob with the weathered remains of a fishing spear, an abundant artifact in a basin dominated by the only large lake for quite a ways in any distance.

The shallow gullies and low ridges near Napadet were sprinkled with a couple million years of human technological innovation from hand axes to sophisticated hafted points.

A lateral view of an Acheulean hand axe. The careful attention to symmetrical edges and thickness indicates an ever-evolving technical and aesthetic sophistication in our earliest Homo ancestors.

Again the outcrop was blanketed with little survey flags revealing the lower horizons that would likely produce the Pleistocene Acheulean material and the higher horizons recording the complex innovations of fully modern humans. With everyone’s eye trained to look for small glimmering flakes, large basalt cores, and pottery fragments, it was time to survey a site then actually set up our squares and see what might still be locked in the ground. It was time for us to turn our attention to Kangatotha…

Natalie holds a preview of coming attractions at Kangatothat. Hippo toes!

By | 2017-01-04T18:05:10+00:00 March 5th, 2013|Field Schools, General|Comments Off on Staking (or flagging) a claim

About the Author:

I am a graduate student in Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University and a Turkana Basin Fellow. I study the evolution of a group of extinct carnivorous mammals called creodonts, a group of mammals that once filled all the carnivorous niches of Africa before the continent was invaded by modern carnivores like dogs, cats, and hyenas. I was one of the teaching assistants for the Spring 2013 Field School. I'm originally from outside Cincinnati, Ohio and I did my undergraduate work at The Ohio State University where I studied Geology and Anthropology. I've done fieldwork in North Dakota, Utah, Madagascar, Egypt, Germany, Kenya and Oman.