Joe Ben Wheat's Excavations The Yellow Jacket Project Home

Excavation and Analysis Practices at the Yellow Jacket Sites

By Richard H. Wilshusen and Jeannette L. Mobley-Tanaka

Over the four decades that Joe Ben Wheat worked at Yellow Jacket his goals for the excavation evolved and his excavation methods, artifact recovery practices, and lab procedures necessarily changed also. He did not have an excavation manual or laboratory manual until the mid-1980s, but some general practices in excavation and artifact cataloging are known from both the records and from conversations with Wheat in the 1980s.

Excavation Practices

Joe Ben Wheat's approach to excavations was to expose as much area on a site as possible, including extramural areas as well as structures. He attempted to excavate all areas, not just to floor level, but to natural soil horizons. All structures and much of the space surrounding them were excavated, and test trenches were placed through many midden areas. This approach had the advantage of exposing a much broader area than can usually be investigated on archaeological sites. In addition, a wide variety of exterior features were found and complex sequences of construction and remodeling were documented. His attention to stratigraphic relationships and strategy of broad exposure allow for extensive reconstruction of site histories. Because all rooms were excavated, the sites offer a substantial data set for a variety of research questions that rely on the comparison of households or diachronic studies of a Mesa Verde community.

What Wheat sacrificed in order to expose so much area, was a comprehensive recovery of artifacts. In the early excavations at 5MT1, excavator judgement determined what materials were kept and the collections, especially in the Stevenson area are somewhat limited. In later years in the Porter area of 5MT1 and at 5MT3, the lithic flakes, animal bone, and all types of artifacts that were seen by the excavators, except for smaller than thumbnail sized sherds, were collected. One only needs to examine the ceramic sherd counts from proveniences excavated in the 1950s with those excavated in the 1980s to realize that more and more care was taken in artifact recovery at Yellow Jacket over time.

Room and pitstructure fill typically was not screened. There was judgmental screening of floor fill, features with cultural fill (such as hearths), and burials, but screened assemblages are rare for the three sites. Site 5MT2 probably has the largest screened sample of the three. In excavations prior to the mid-1960s, artifacts were usually not point-plotted. Large ground stone artifacts were usually drawn and described in the field and not collected for all the years of excavation. These omissions were typical for Southwestern excavations when the Yellow Jacket investigations began in the 1950s, but necessarily have to be taken into consideration by researchers today in utilizing the collections or in making comparisons to other sites where site-wide screening has been the standard.

More detailed descriptions of specific excavation methods and considerations of how excavation practices changed over time at Yellow Jacket are given in each of the site reports.

Artifact Sorting and Analysis

Among Wheat's central purposes at Yellow Jacket was to provide learning opportunities students. Wheat involved students in both fieldwork and subsequently in lab work, curation, and research. Although there are several notable studies which have been done using the Yellow Jacket collections (e.g., Karhu 2000Karhu, Sandy
2000 Mortuary Practices and Population Health at Two Yellow Jacket Hamlets, 5MT1 and 5MT3. On file at the University of Colorado Museum, Boulder, Colorado and the Colorado Historical Society, Denver, Colorado.
; Mobley-Tanaka 2005Mobley-Tanaka, Jeanette L.
2005 Community from Within: Intracommunity Interaction and the Social Formulation of the Yellow Jacket Community, Southwest Colorado, A.D. 1200-1300. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University, Tempe.
), the vast majority of the Yellow Jacket materials have not yet been systematically analyzed. The artifacts have been separated in a preliminary sort into different material types (i.e., ceramic, faunal, etc.) and in the cases of the higher input tools such as projectile points or worked bone, these tool categories have been noted and the items separated. However, the bulk of the potential information associated with this collection has yet to be developed.

The intent of the Yellow Jacket online report and database project is to extend Wheat's original commitment to offering learning opportunities through research use of the curated Yellow Jacket collections. The rehousing and inventory of the collections allows much more reasonable access to the collections for investigators than was the case in the past. The preliminary reports for the three archaeological sites have been written with the intent to offer sufficient information for researchers to consider how these collections might prove useful for future analyses.

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