Water Screen

Water screening is absolutely essential on a wet site with its fragile artifacts coated in dark mud – without washing most things would go unrecognised and many would be ground to a pulp in the screen. When screening sediments were from these most delicate layers we would not even shake the screens, but would gently spread the contents of a bucket in the screen and wash the dirt away.

A water screen is the same screen that an archaeologist might use for any task. What distinguishes it is that water is used to wash the sediments placed in the screens. As is often the case in Northwest Coast archaeology, we used nested screens – the top one with a 6mm (1/4″) mesh, the lower one with 3mm (1/8th”) mesh. The top screen catches the larger stuff, and once picked through and completed, is lifted off and the lower screen is examined for very small things that might be missed when mixed with larger pieces like pebbles or whole shells. Sometimes there is concern that things of interest might be smaller than 3mm and in those instances we would sample the layers in the ground for fine screening in the lab.

This post is a continuation of a series about my time volunteering at the Kilgii Gwaay archaeological site. Click here for more background on the project and participants.

Washing the mud away from ancient beach deposits

Screening is a skilled job, especially when there is such variety of preserved materials that need to be examined and chosen for collection or discard. On many projects screening is considered a training ground, and least qualified staff are plunked at the screens while the main activity centers on the excavation. While screening is a good training ground for learning about materials identification and all the intricacies of how things might be made or broken and transformed in the ground, the relegation of screening to a secondary activity can be bad policy. In such circumstances there is a tendency to abandon the neophytes at the screen after cursory training. This diminishes the importance of the job, and the systematic, detailed examination of small bits of things for hours on end can soon feel like drudgery if not kept properly contextualized by an experienced trainer. Many a budding archaeological career has been abandoned at a dreary screen.

On the other hand, screens are often the center of social activity on a site. After all, people are standing together near to each other doing repetitive tasks that leave the mouth free for talking. The volume and range of such talk is wondrous – gossiping, joking, information sharing (often=gossip), teaching, learning, extolling, decrying, politicking, emoting are a tiny sample of the whole. Many a love has blossomed at the screen, and a few hatreds too. In these kinds of circumstances a novice passion for archaeology is often confirmed at the screens.

Dale instructing Goox

On Gwaii Haanas archaeological projects care is taken with the screening and training. Always there are experienced archaeologists on the screens. This year we had eminent American wetsite specialist Dr. Dale Croes with us – he had volunteered his expertise and abilities in happy exchange to experience the oldest wet site on the west coast and the Canadian coastal wilderness (though perhaps he was not quite expecting it to be so difficult of access). Dale has more than 40 years of experience working on wet sites, mostly in Washington State. Part of his knowledge was learned from elders of different Tribes who taught him to be an accomplished maker of baskets in different styles and traditions. This learning was a requirement when he started working on archaeological basketry; Makah elders did not want him to  study their basketry from the Ozette site if he did not know how to make it.

Dale was scheduled for shoulder surgery just after returning from this trip, so was kept from the heaviest aspects of excavation. Thus, he was almost always to be found at the screens working closely with Goox who was on her first archaeological project and usually on the screens. Dale worked to teach the rest of us too, even though experienced none of us are in Dale’s league when it comes to waterlogged materials. He assumed the lead for training Goox in waterlogged materials identification and screening methods and anything else that came up at the screens.

Dale and Goox examining some small thing

Goox, while new to archaeology, is a long time Haida Watchman at different sites and has a wide range of field skills that were very welcome; for instance she often took a lead role with the generator, pumps and water supply for the screen. She also is a basket maker and has worked a lot with spruce root weaving, including making of hats. Thus, while Dale was teaching her about screening and archaeological materials and sharing his knowledge and experiences and jokes from down south, she too was teaching him about spruce root basketry and Haida approaches to weaving and harvesting roots and bark and about Gwaii Haanas. Together they applied their expertise when examining the small fragments of split spruce root and splints of wood that are found at this site and they were turned to as resource people by the rest of us.

Dale was not the only experienced person at the screens, nor was Goox the only trainee. Everyone on the project was at the screens if there was dirt available and no other job for them at that moment. Gwaliga, the other Haida trainee, had worked on the project last year and gained enough experience to be excavating, so he spent a lot of time at the units digging or observing and being instructed in those skills. But he was often at the screens learning along with the rest of us. I too spent much of my time at the screen, as did Quentin. Daryl and Jenny were frequent visitors, keeping tabs on how things looked compared to when it came out of the ground, our systems and processes at the screen, and to help out if we got backlogged, or for a break from digging. Nicole, the few days she was at the site, spent most of her time at the screens too. It was common to have 100 years of experience working at the screens, more than half of it on wet sites. Sometimes it added up to more than 150 years. This really promotes confidence in the results of the screening – especially the decisions about what to keep, what to discard, the efforts made to keep dirt from different parts of the ground separated, the correct labels in bags and all the other minutiae of  screening that can have profound effects on subsequent analyses and ability to understand the site.

Cleaning wood brought up from unit for treatment

Another common activity at a wet screen is the careful excavation and/or cleaning of an object retrieved in a block of dirt from the site. This was usually a bit of wood that seemed to be fragmenting or might be joined with other pieces that needed hydraulic excavation techniques to be sure. Such pieces might also be carefully wrapped once cleaned up so as to be supported and protected for its long journey back to a lab at the University of Victoria. The screens are where a lot of the photography occurs as well – people are together and standing still suitable for portraits, and a lot of interesting things are found all fresh and clean and ready for pictures. Photography on wet sites is especially important because the waterlogged wood can still have its original colour when excavated, even after 10,700 years. But within just a few minutes after exposure to the air oxidation turns the wood dark brown or black. In some of my photos of wood I can see, during the course of a few photographs, the colour changing.

Nicole sprays down the screen

Today’s pictures are all taken at the screen. Since I have not asked Daryl, Quentin and Jenny if I can use pictures of them (nor can I as they are still in the field), I have confined myself to pictures of other people when faces are shown. Sadly, the project leaders are going to get short shrift in this series of posts since I will be pretty much done long before they are out of the field.

To open the gallery below click on any image, navigate with the arrows and press escape to return to this page. Note that the EXIF data in the gallery is not correct for any lens except the 50mm, all others are adapted to the Canon and do not register f-stops accurately.



This link catalogues my posts on the project. I was accompanied on this trip by one of the Quimper Hittys, Tansy (often found at the screen) is blogging about the trip from a doll’s view. You can find those posts here.

Canon 5Dii, Canon 50mm/f1.4 lens, SMC Takumar 100mm/f4 macro lens, Nikkor-N 24mm/f2.8 lens.




13 thoughts on “Water Screen

    • Thank you Stuart. You do have to love the work to do it for any length of time. For some people it would be full of hardship – the discomfort of cold, wet, irregular hours, no TV, no cell!!!, rocking boats, spray in the face, fog on the shore in the mornings, a walk on a mossy boardwalk to the outhouse, trees dripping with lichen and moisture, wind in the face and through the fleece, deer on the porch in the evenings, cleaning fresh caught fish. Its a hard life and some people just hate it.


  1. I am amused by this spam, so I kept it, without any of the links – it so wonderful how screening can inspire people. It would be interesting to know what language it was “translated” from (Ehpem) 🙂

    Yourself I’m as burning with excitement along accumulative concentrating. Alter ego was rather apocalyptic by the mated ethical self went up to. It is punk up to closed ego dispirited. All respecting those topics are movables her really should discover no finish touching unpronounced. Thanks so considerably!


  2. Pingback: Kilgii Gwaay Finds « burnt embers

  3. Fascinating process! I am working backwards through these posts. I am still unsure what type of site it is. Is it a 10,000 year old village? (Don’t answer, Mr E., if I’ll find out in the previous posts, which I hope to read tomorrow!)


    • Village is a strong word for it as it implies quite a large population, and fixed housing and so on. It is however some kind of residential site, probably a shorter term camp for various purposes, including woodworking, fishing, bird and bear hunting, and so on. I am about to write a post about that side of things as I come near the end of setting all the context up of the area, and of my time in the area. Some of my readers are probably wondering why I am taking so long to get there. The main reason is that the post needs more writing than I have time/energy for, so I have nibbled around the edges for a while now. Thanks for all your reading in this series – I swear my views just jumped by 50 or more thanks to your attentions 🙂


    • Thanks so much Karen. I am glad you find the words interesting too. This site is a dream to screen at since there is always so much in each screen that you never get bored. Some sites are very unproductive, or everything is collected during the digging leaving little for the screens. Then it can be pretty boring, unless the social side compensates adequately, and the project managers find ways of switching the duties around to keep people interested.


  4. Awesome series here! Once again, I’ve come away with a new perspective on these activities, and through the words you’ve chosen and shared here I come away with a much deeper understanding of what goes into such activities. I love your work in this area, this has and continues to be a real highlight of my day!


    • Toad, it is a pleasure to have you reading and appreciating my blog. You too have recently been photographing an archaeology project, including screening, so I know this comes home a bit closer than with many of my other readers.


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