Surveying the Landscape: Surface Surveys as an Archaeological Technique

By Caitlin Gulihur

Caitlin surveying her survey area

Caitlin surveying her survey area

While what happens during and after excavations of archaeological sites are popular subjects of previous PAST posts, this post deals with a different type of archaeological work – the survey. Surveys are useful for both finding unrecorded sites and to answer research questions about large-scale issues, such as landscape use. Survey work presents its own unique rewards and challenges, some of which I became familiar with during the course of gathering data for my Master’s thesis.

 

Views from outside and inside of rockshelter site 41BS1.

Views from outside and inside of rockshelter site 41BS1.

For my thesis, I am interested in settlement patterns (how sites are distributed on the landscape) of the Big Bend region of Texas. Given the large number of rockshelters in the region, I am particularly curious about how they affect where the open sites are located. Did the rockshelters act as ‘home bases’ with open sites scattered in the vicinity? Do larger rockshelters have more open sites located near them? In order to answer these questions I decided to conduct a six-week long survey on a ranch in eastern Brewster County. In this area, where soils tend to be shallow and any sites are not likely to be buried, we use a technique called surface survey. As the name suggests, this form of survey involves walking along and looking for anything of interest on the ground surface.

Lithic artifact found on survey

Lithic artifact found on survey

While this technique might not sound very scientific, it is slightly more complicated than finding a few people willing to endure 100 degree temperatures and having them wander around until they see something cool. First, you have to define your survey areas and decide on a sampling strategy. Is your area small enough that you can walk over all of it, or can you only cover half of it in the time that you have? Second, you have to choose your walking interval and pattern. The vegetation, the topography, and the research interests (are you only interested in finding sites or do you want to find every single artifact on the landscape) all determine how far apart the surveyors walk from each other. Third, you have to determine how you are going to walk. While surveying back and forth in a lawnmower-type pattern might work well in a flat area, you obviously don’t want to be constantly walking up and down hills.

Variation in the landscape of the survey area

Variation in the landscape of the survey area

During the course of my survey, I recorded 34 sites and visited 2 previously recorded sites. This included 16 rockshelters, 7 lithic quarry sites, and 10 open sites. While a formal analysis of the settlement patterns of the survey area is still forthcoming, preliminary observations suggest that open sites do tend to be located near rockshelters, and that areas with large or multiple rockshelters tend to have larger open sites in the surrounding area.

Projectile points found on survey. Left- Jora dart point. Right- Livermore arrow point

Projectile points found on survey. Left- Jora dart point. Right- Livermore arrow point

Whenever you walk over 20-40 acres per person per day as is common during surveys, you will encounter some challenges, many of them unique to the area you are working in. For my survey, duct tape was incredibly necessary for emergency shoe repairs – three separate pairs of boots met their demise. The ability to safely chase javelinas out of a rockshelter was also a good skill to possess. Speaking of rockshelters, they tend to make excellent places to have snack/lunch breaks, although a hilltop with a nice breeze and a view of the surrounding desert is a good second option.

Caitlin Gulihur is a graduate student at Texas State University and is a student worker at the Center for Archaeological Studies.