Observatory Park

Activity areas are what archaeologists’ dreams are made of, so to speak. Activity areas are areas in which, obviously, an activity of some sort takes place. This can be any type of activity, ranging from the preparation of meals, to public speeches, even to sporting events of some kind. Such activity could have occurred as recently as a week ago, or it may have taken place a hundred years ago. Activity areas are usually full of evidence of the activity or activities that occurred there. If, for example, the area investigated was a cooking site, then the evidence found should support that conclusion. These activity areas can also often provide important facts about the specific culture that is being studied. Archaeologists create hypotheses about these activity areas, based upon the material culture left behind.

The activity area that I chose to investigate was a picnic area  inside Observatory Park, near the University of Denver. The area is approximately three hundred and twelve square feet, sixty feet by fifty-two feet. The ground, constructed of asphalt, is surrounded by green grass.  The site boundaries, as I chose to define them, extended to the edges of the asphalt ground. The perimeter of the asphalt seemed like a logical place to stop my investigation, since it was the activities that had occurred in the picnic area that held my primary interest. There were a number of trees around the site, and I used them as reference points on my map. Next, directly adjacent to the picnic area is an asphalt basketball court. During the site investigation, several kids played on the small court. To the northeast of the site is a good-sized playground. Like the basketball court, children occupied the playground. Six tall evergreen trees were within the boundaries of the area, and large concentrations of pine needles covered the ground. One tree, in the center of a group of picnic tables, was leafless and appeared dead.

The features of any given site are the objects that either are too large to move, or are not meant to be moved. Some examples of such features include hearths, walls, pits, trash heaps, or picnic tables. The features of the Observatory Park picnic area consisted of exactly eight picnic tables. I could, however, determine no meaningful pattern in the table distribution. Six of these picnic tables were built of solid concrete. The surfaces of the tables, as well as the attached bench seats, were painted a dark forest green, while the bases of the tables were a neutral white. It is possible that the tables were painted green to blend in more easily with their natural surroundings. The remaining two tables were constructed of sturdy aluminum planks. All of the eight tables had dimensions of eight feet long and approximately four feet, eight inches wide. These measurements included the benches on both sides of the tables. The concrete tables, however, were somewhat lower to the ground than the aluminum pair; they appeared almost squat in comparison. The fact that only two of the tables were aluminum  suggests that they were added to the picnic site at a more recent date than the concrete tables. Perhaps one reason for this is that the park officials in charge of Observatory Park decided that more seating was required. This suggests that the picnic area receives quite a bit of usage from the public, and, in fact, is an activity area worthy of investigation. All of these tables were free from artifacts. No items were present on either surfaces or seats. This lack of material culture on the tables is most likely due to the actions of the site’s occupants; the people who used the site very likely cleared off the tables and placed the debris in the nearby garbage cans. One other possible explanation is that artifacts were blown from the tables by wind.
What constitutes an activity area? Well, an activity area cannot be distinguished as such without the presence of artifacts. In fact, artifacts are what let archaeologists know of a site’s existence, whether it is the discovery of two artifacts in a certain location, or twenty. It is the artifacts that archaeologists study to create hypotheses about the past. There were, of course, a number of artifacts at my chosen site, the largest of which were four trashcans. The trashcans were located at Point A, Point B, Point H, and the fourth was located in the interior of the site. The dimensions of these trashcans were approximately three feet tall and two feet in diameter. All four were a shade of dark green  similar to that of the concrete picnic tables. In each trashcan was a large, black plastic bag; however, none of the bins were completely full. This suggests that the park is maintained regularly, to some degree at least, considering that there were still a number of items lying on the ground.
There were other artifacts present at the site besides the previously mentioned trashcans. The most common artifacts found were small, tan and white cylindrical objects: cigarette butts. Also found were crinkled up balls of thin, colored paper that proved to be fast food wrappers; several pieces of silver gum foil, and an assortment of other items. A number of cigarette butts were located at Point A, along with a broken plastic spoon. Point B found a small, clear, empty plastic cup containing chocolate pudding residue. It is reasonable to assume that the empty pudding cup was associated with the broken plastic spoon. Another item found was clear piece of plastic that appeared torn. The plastic appeared to have been a wrapper for some type of food, and a label was found that designated it to be a bread bag. In the area between Point B and Point C, no artifacts were found. The only objects found were pine needles, twigs, rocks, and other such ecofacts. Around Point D were small metal artifacts shaped like rings. Upon examination, these appeared to have come from the tops of aluminum soda or beer cans. Again, no artifacts were spotted around Point E. However, near the garbage can between Points E and F were another crumpled up fast food wrapper and a single birthday candle. Near one picnic table, to the northeast of the central tree, was found another piece of gum foil. Located around the Point G vicinity were found several more cigarette butts, a broken plastic soft drink lid, and a clear plastic straw that possibly came with it. Point H, which is in actuality a tree, contained several small scraps of white paper; no writing was evident on the paper, so I am unsure what, exactly, the scraps were used for. From Point H to Point A, the beginning point of the site, another balled-up, fast food wrapper was found in the grass. In the interior of the site, around the central picnic tables, a white napkin was found, as well as more cigarette butts.
So what do all of these artifacts mean? What happened here at this site? Did the wind blow all of these artifacts to their current positions? I don’t think that is the correct answer at all. For instance, there really was nowhere in the immediate vicinity from which all of these items could have been blown. Also, the neighborhood surrounding the park was relatively clean, and there were no fast food remnants, soda cans, or anything of the like that could have been blown into the park. Plus, the picnic area is at least fifty feet from the nearest street, and there was no evidence of such items on the plain grass field. Were the artifacts transported to the site by dogs, birds, or other types of animals? This is not very likely. One would think that stray dogs would only be interested in actual food remains. Therefore, if a dog had carried anything over, it would most likely be some type of unpackaged food, and there would most likely be some evidence of that at the site. Another question is how would dogs have been able to carry cigarette butts to the site, and why would they have? Surely dogs do not find tobacco to their liking. The same thing applies to birds, and other small animals, actually. Why would a bird or a squirrel be interested in a birthday candle, or a gum wrapper, and how could a such a small animal carry a fast food wrapper the size of a tennis ball? Another potential explanation for what occurred is that kids played there at the picnic site, but I believe this, while entirely possible, is very unlikely. The first, and largest, reason why I believe that this is unlikely is the presence of the large, attractive playground not twenty yards away. Another reason why I find this hypothesis doubtful is the absence of evidence that children were there. One would think that if children spent a good portion of time playing at the picnic site instead of the playground, there would be some signs of their activities. For example, one might find a piece of a broken toy, a colorful hair ribbon, or maybe a scrap of a childish drawing. Also, children often consume candy and other such sweet treats. However, there were no candy wrappers evident at the site, and there was only a single snack cup present. This is hardly what I would call strong evidence for this hypothesis. The final reason for why this explanation is unlikely brings me back to the playground. Why, really, would a child choose to play with picnic tables and garbage cans instead of a colorful play area designed just for them?
My chief hypothesis is that adults have in the past used this picnic area while they allowed their children, or perhaps children they were babysitting, to occupy themselves with the nearby playground. Evidence strongly suggests that these adults brought food with them to the park. Whether the food was brought for the consumption of just the adults or for both the adults and the children remains undetermined. It is known for sure that some of these adults smoked cigarettes. Most children that play on playgrounds are of a young age, and it is incredibly unlikely that these cigarettes belong to them.  Also interesting is the fact that most of the cigarettes were found on the eastern side of the site, while only a few were found in the center. Most were located near the picnic tables. It is very believable that the adults sat at those tables while they smoked. Either several people gathered together in a group, or perhaps different individuals who happened to sit in the same area over a period of time created the cigarette concentrations.
In conclusion, activity sites are very important in determining the archaeological record. The data retrieved from a site investigation can be invaluable in the study of culture. Of course, data in and unto itself is just that: facts. It is the archaeologists who then make assumptions with that data and create hypotheses about the people who left it behind in the forms of material culture. Usually archaeologists create what is called multiple working hypotheses when dealing with sites. A multiple working hypothesis is the creation of numerous possible explanations of what occurred at the site. The archaeologists then use the process of elimination to decide which hypothesis is the most likely one. My earlier unlikely explanations were in fact a prime example of this. How do I know that my hypothesis is the correct one? I don’t; I merely weeded through the other possible explanations and then decided on the one that appeared to make the most sense.



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