Geotimes
Highlights
Geoarcheaology
Vance T. Holliday

Archaeological geology, or geoarchaeology, is an inherently interdisciplinary field, integrating any number of geoscience subdisciplines with archaeology. This characteristic is well expressed in the two professional "homes" that most U.S. geoarchaeologists belong to: the Archaeological Geology Division (AGD) of the Geological Society of America, and the Geoarchaeology Interest Group (GIG) of the Society for American Archaeology.

During the 2002 Geological Society of America meetings in Denver, the AGD sponsored several sessions. One on groundwater effects dealt with crucial issues of site and artifact preservation. Two sessions focused on the sources and distribution of obsidian. These issues have become easier to address with new geochemical technologies and are important topics because they can tell us about trade. Another session focused on applications using GIS (geographic information systems). Interest in GIS is growing thanks to powerful software packages and high-capacity and high-speed computers now available.

During last year's meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, also in Denver, the GIG sponsored a session on the sources of artifact raw materials. Like obsidian sourcing, this topic has grown considerably with the advent of new methodologies for fingerprinting sources of stone and metal.

The best way to get a feel for the breadth of geoarchaeology in the past year or so is to look at the activities and accomplishments of several remarkable individuals. The AGD was founded in 1977, largely though the efforts of George R. "Rip" Rapp, recently retired from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Last year, Rip published the book Archaeomineralogy, the first single-author, systematic look at the mineral and rock materials used in the archaeological past. The Society for American Archaeology recognized Rapp's interdisciplinary ties by giving him its 2003 Roald Fryxell Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary archaeological research. During the Society's 2003 meetings in Milwaukee, the Fryxell Committee will sponsor a symposium built around Rapp's accomplishments in geoarchaeology.

Rapp also endowed a career award in the AGD. The recipients are invariably interdisciplinarians, and the 2002 award went to Paul Goldberg of the Archaeology Department at Boston University. Paul's most significant contribution to geoarchaeology, indeed to the broader field of archaeology, is his work on soil micromorphology as a tool in archaeological research. Micromorphology refers to what is essentially soil petrography — the examination of soils and unconsolidated sediments in thin section. In archaeological contexts, microscopic features of soils and sediments can be used to differentiate natural from anthropogenic inputs in soils, and to identify a wide array of human activities such as burning and farming. Goldberg is one of the world's leading experts on the subject, and is the most prolific and best known practitioner of micromorphology in archaeology. An example of this work is a book that is the standard reference for the topic, Soils and Micromorphology in Archaeology, published in 1989 by Cambridge University Press and currently under revision. Goldberg co-authored this book with his long-time collaborators Marie-Agnhs Courty and Richard Macphail.

One area of interdisciplinary archaeological research in the United States that has had long-standing input from the geosciences is the study of the peopling of the Americas, a subfield known as Paleoindian archaeology (spanning the late Pleistocene and early Holocene prior to 8,000 radiocarbon years before the present). This broad interest was reflected in a recent issue of the journal Geoarchaeology, which devoted a full number (January 2003, vol. 18, no. 1) to the topic. The AGD is also sponsoring a symposium on the peopling of the Americas at the 2003 Geological Society of America meetings in Seattle. Geoarchaeology is a significant component of the work because so much of the research focuses on reconstructing late Pleistocene environments and on predicting where the oldest Paleoindian sites might be located. Put another way, finding Paleoindian sites is based on finding Paleoindian landscapes. Geology, therefore, is the key.
Paleoindian geoarchaeology is undergoing profound changes in the United States, largely due to the remarkable generosity of two people: Joe and Ruth Cramer of Denver, Colo. They are not professional archaeologists, but Joe Cramer is a geologist, retired from many years in the oil patch. He long has had an interest in archaeology, particularly the contentious issue of when people first arrived in the Americas. He decided to actively address this question beginning in the early 1990s and, as a result of his successes in petroleum exploration, provided several research endowments specifically focused on Paleoindian studies. The Cramers established five archaeological research funds around the country, three set up in the past two years. The two initial endowments are directed by Paleoindian archaeologists: Ted Goebel at the University of Nevada-Reno, and David Meltzer at Southern Methodist University. The three recent endowments are expressly geoarchaeological programs and are directed by geoarchaeologists: Mike Waters at Texas A&M University; Vance Holliday at the University of Arizona and Rolfe Mandel at the University of Kansas. The earnings from the endowments are to be used specifically for field work focused on better understanding when the first Americans arrived and how they coped with the very different environments of the late Pleistocene. The executive directors of the research funds are charged with carrying out their work in specific geographic regions: Goebel in the Great Basin; Holliday in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico; Meltzer on the Great Plains; Waters in the southeast and eastern United States, and Mandel in the Midwest.

The Cramer endowments are the only long-term research programs in the United States focused exclusively on geoarchaeology or Paleoindian archaeology. The geoarchaeological components of the research are just getting underway, but such well-funded, dedicated research focusing on Paleoindian occupations and landscapes is sure to provide significant insights into the peopling of the New World, not to mention our understanding of terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene environments.

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Holliday is the chair of the Geological Society of America's Archaeological Geology Division, and is a professor of anthropology and geosciences at the University of Arizona.

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