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An Architectural Puzzle in a Soybean Field

The Marshalltown Ball Court Mystery


Fieldwalking: Using GPS before fieldwalking to mark out the area to be investigated

Fieldwalking: Using GPS before fieldwalking to mark out the area to be investigated

Wessex Archaeology (c) 2006

Before heading out into the field to perform archaeological survey, it is best, so they say, to gather as much background information about an area as is possible ahead of time. There are always surprises, yes, but doing your homework reduces the number of surprises to a manageable few. In most cases, doing your homework usually includes accessing local histories, researching plat maps, reading previous archaeological reports, and talking to landowners. But, no matter how thorough you are, there are always surprises—I guess that's why we love doing it.

Around 1988, I was assigned to investigate the property in the vicinity of a proposed highway project—the bypass of the town of Marshalltown, Iowa. If the name Marshalltown sounds familiar, it should; it is name of the manufacturing company that makes the famous Marshalltown trowel, your "friend in the field."

The Farm Town of Marshalltown, Iowa

Like many towns in the American Midwest, Marshalltown is a child of the railroad, but in the 20th century, the automobile—or to be more precise, the semi-tractor trailer—and U.S. 30 brought prosperity to this quiet farming community. By the early 1980s, truck traffic through town had increased the danger to the populace, and, as happens in growing towns all over the world, a highway bypass skirting the populated part of town was proposed by the Department of Transportation. In the United States, as in most of the developed world, federally-funded projects require archaeological inspection of the planned route prior to its construction. My firm (or should I say, the firm I worked for at the time) was hired to do that inspection.

The project was to include about 10 miles of new right-of-way, along the south side of Marshalltown. I did my homework, read all the published reports, talked to many landowners, hired my staff and headed out to begin the survey.

My crew consisted of Linda, a good friend with lots of experience in Maya archaeology as well as the Midwest; Lucy, our graphics artist who was tired of sitting at a desk all summer long; and the Tims, two newly minted BAs in Anthropology from the University of Iowa. One Tim, Tim the tall, had actually been born in Marshalltown, a bonus, it would seem.

The Field Survey Begins

Like many archaeologists, I suspect, I like to complete the pedestrian survey entire project corridor first, to identify any possible archaeological components and areas where surface visibility would require testing—that is, any areas where vegetation or soil deposition hides the original surface and could mask archaeological sites. We flag any archaeological sites we run across, in order to come back and subsurface test at a later date. (Today archaeologists use GPS equipment to mark the locations of their sites). In this case, we began our work at the east end of the project and walked westward along the proposed path.

We were lucky enough to begin the survey early in the summer, before the crops got big and leafy obscuring the ground surface. In the cultivated fields we recorded and collected a number of small lithic scatters, that is, small areas where a handful of stone chips were noted on the surface of the ground. These were plotted and labeled for further investigation. Because of the multiple site identifications, it took us the better part of a week to arrive at the western end of the project. As is usually the case, the crew fell to telling stories of our past archaeological digs. Linda spoke warmly of her experiences in Mexico, investigating Maya sites and visiting others.

"My favorite kind of site," she said, climbing over a barbed wire fence into a bean field, "is the Maya ball court."

"Ball court?" asked Tim the not tall. "What's that?"

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