Archaeological discovery utilizes being both ‘on’ and ‘off’ the grid

  • Published
  • By Sue Casseau
  • USACE St. Louis District Public Affairs Office
People often talk about the need to be “off the grid,” a phrase with meanings as varied as the individuals who say it.

Archaeologists Amy Williams of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Dr. James Wilde of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center made important discoveries in March when they strayed off the grid – several grids, actually.

The two agencies had never worked together on this type of project before, which was a bit of a departure from their regular operations grid.  AFCEC is located world-wide, and Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections Branch of USACE St. Louis conducts and assists with international projects, including the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. This was the first time AFCEC and USACE St. Louis had worked on a field project together.

The assignment was in a remote area of the nation of Niger on the African continent with only pockets of internet service, which put them electronically off the grid.

To avoid the hottest part of the day, survey trips were planned based on travel time from the base camp, which meant hours off the communications grid.

And their discovery of hand axes from 750,000 to 1.25 million years ago only happened as they walked out of the survey area they had plotted as a grid.

When land is surveyed for any purpose, the most effective practice is to use a grid system. A grid system of transects was used for this particular cultural resource survey of over 1,000 acres of Nigerien desert.

During a visual inspection, Wilde observed a large cluster of stones in his transect and headed back to the truck for additional equipment.

Now, literally walking outside of the grid, something caught his eye. He called to Williams who joined in the exciting discovery.

There, on the surface, were two hand axes – then a third – possibly created by Homo erectus over a million years ago. The design and shape of the axes, as well as the type of stone used to make the objects, support the age determination.

Stone tool manufacturing with these distinctive oval and pear shapes are referred to as Acheulean tools, and were produced as far back as 1.76 million years ago in Africa and portions of the Asian continent.

The objects seemed “waiting to be discovered,” according to Williams and have generated a great deal of attention in the professional world of archaeology. Their existence speaks to the significance of this region’s prehistory, through its history as a caravan path and trade route, and onto its current development as an international airbase.

“Discoveries like this are for everyone to learn and enjoy,” says Williams, “these artifacts tell part of Niger’s rich history.”

Documenting this community’s evolution, the reason for the cultural survey, is to make notation of and bring awareness to scientific evidence in an area that will be adapted to a modern military compound.

These artifacts, however, will remain “off the grid.” AFCEC has instituted a ‘no collection’ policy at this site, so the artifacts will stay where they were found; probably swept to the current location in annual seasonal floods. The Nigerien government will have to decide when or if they will assemble and maintain a collection.

In the meantime, reports about this discovery are being prepared, and Nigerien officials will be able to use the information in the future.

The data and pictures from this discovery provide awareness of the effect humans have had on the planet. The rock used for the hand-axe was not from the immediate area, and was deliberately brought out of its native geography by a human. That human found or quarried the stone, fashioned it into a tool, and used it as part of the modern-day technology of a million years ago.

Williams describes the discovery as humbling and exciting. “I am based in the middle of the U.S.,” she says, “but I have been privileged to see objects from hundreds of millennia ago on the other side of the planet in Africa. You never know where your career is going to take you. It has been an honor to be able to capture this piece of it all.”

Ironically, it is today’s modern technology that brought the survey team to the discovery site.  AFCEC is preparing the site for its next incarnation as an international air base, and usually contracts with the U.S. Navy for cultural/archaeological survey work. Circumstances brought the Air Force's search for a working partner to the Corps of Engineers. As a Technical Center of Expertise in Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections, the St. Louis District was able to provide AFCEC with the professionals to survey the site that plans to be abundant with state-of-the-art technological tools.

Getting away from technology helped the team focus their other senses, but it’s the sharing of this exciting story that gets them back on the grid.