So I’ve had a few interesting experiences as an archaeologist over the years. Here’s one:
Sometime in the late 1990s, I was surveying an area that was to become the Georgia Club, a golf course located near Statham in Barrow County, Georgia. I was with Ryan, a great guy who I enjoyed working with that I’ve recently gotten back in touch with. We were staying in Athens, having a good time there at night of course. We used my Mazda 4×4 truck as the field truck, for which I got reimbursed for mileage. It was a good truck, never got it stuck.
The project area was nice in a few areas, either open pasture or open mature hardwoods. But there was also quite a bit of very thick nasty vegetation – briars, privet, and cane – that we were required to go through. (I must say I’ve seen worse – the Stuckey Tract – which is another story). But we did find a few interesting prehistoric sites for our efforts. Oh, and we had some good companions for much of the survey – the local barn/yard dogs, particularly one. I can’t remember her name (?Maggie?), but I bet Ryan would. They would follow us around for a while, playing, disappear for a while, and reappear from the opposite direction later. I’ve often wished I could be a dog now and then for a few days, with a good master, free to roam wherever whenever.
So one day we make our way on our transects through this thick floodplain/lower slope area out toward a paved road. I come out first, and a small truck passes by slowly and either backs up or turns around – can’t remember which – and pulls up next to me, as I am standing on the grassed right of way. The passenger – a big fat guy a not too much younger than me at the time (~28) – asked what I was doing, and I told him an archaeological survey but no other details. I could tell they were local (tag, I think). And that he was very suspicious of me, obvious by his hostile manner and questions. The driver was a relatively small guy from what I remember – but I do remember thinking I should contend with the big guy if it came to it, since Ryan was similar in size to the driver.
After I wouldn’t really give him much details (we are often obliged, and in many cases required, to keep the clients’ project details confidential) or engage him due to his aggressiveness, he said “that’s a fucked up job, ain’t it”? Wow! I replied something along the lines of “no more than any other job”, and I believe Ryan had come out by this time. I generally give people the benefit of doubt, and can get along with most anyone, but at that, I said to myself, fuck this asshole, no more of you, so into the woods we went, with me probably saying to them that we have to get back to work.
So we start on our way in and find a nice little ridge end spur to dig a shovel test, probably about 30 meters in from the right of way/treeline. The truck had left. We of course found some prehistoric artifacts – flakes I think – in the shovel test and were in the process of recording this site when we hear a couple of vehicles pull up. Doors open and shut, people start talking loudly to each other. Ryan and I immediately become quiet; you can’t quite see out, but you get glimpses of gleaming, dark movement against the bright sunlight along the roadside.
Someone yells “hey, come out of there!” or something similar a few times, perhaps a “we know you’re in there” – just things folks yell when they want to get someone to come out of somewhere. You could see a person come to the edge of the treeline, sticking his head into some slight opening among the briars, privet, shrubs, and trees, peering hard into this thick understory of the disturbed Georgia Piedmont. Me and Ryan were kneeling down by then, being still, watching them – I was pretty sure they couldn’t quite see us, but were by then whispering to each other that it was time to get the hell out of this place. Can’t speak for Ryan, but by this point, the movie Deliverance had crossed my mind.
We had parked the truck off a rutted old dirt road that had required me to use 4-wheel drive; the dirt road led to the paved road a little ways up from where the men were, out of eyesight from what I remember. I calculated the bearing that we would need to take to the truck, and we hightailed it through the briars and thickness straight there – don’t remember exactly how long it took us, but I think 10-15 minutes. We got in the truck, were backing up, and next thing I see as I looked through the back window was a human head emerging into view, attached to a person hanging on to the railing behind the cab of a flatbed truck coming up that washed-out red clay road, with two people in the front. Now this shit is way too much like Deliverance! I quickly chose the the flight option rather than the fight option, as I didn’t relish the thought of getting out to confront these crazy motherfuckers. So I stepped on the gas and went the opposite way from the paved road, as they blocked that path. I wasn’t familiar with the dirt road for very far as it went out of our project area. So these guys are right on my tail, and naturally I start going faster and faster, 35-40-45-50 along this little dirt road through the woods, and they stay on my tail, .
When we come to a fork, I yell “which way” to Ryan, and he yells right or left. We were moving pretty fast, while the truck was right behind us. I don’t remember how long we were driving, just a few minutes or so I think, when we came around a bend to see a huge fallen tree blocking the road. At that spot, the dirt road was cut probably 15-20 feet below the surrounding ground level, with the sides sloping down to the road at approximately 45 degrees or so. The tree extended from the top of the road cut on one side to several feet below the top of the cut on the other; the road itself was entirely blocked by branches of the tree, with no passage whatsoever. So, I tried to go up the bank and around the top of the tree. I did fairly well getting up, but there just wasn’t enough room to get around it and it may have been too steep anyway.
So we back/roll back down the slope to the road, where the truck is waiting for us. Of course, my mind was racing with thoughts about fighting, survival, and other dark things. I look around the truck cab for some sort of weapon, but have only my 1.5 liter aluminum Sigg water bottle, probably half full. That’ll do better than nothing, as it would probably knock someone out with a well-placed shot. I don’t quite remember what Ryan said, but I do know he was nervous like me. I may have said to him “ok, you ready?”. So we get out, and walk back towards their truck. I may have even opened the camper to get out a shovel, not sure.
However, a man gets out of the passenger side of the truck, and immediately I notice something shiny on his chest and that he is wearing a brown uniform – it’s a sheriff! Wow, what? I believe he asked if we have any weapons, and we say no. I don’t remember if he had drawn his gun, but I don’t think so. He then asked us what we were doing, and I told him. He was pretty dubious and not overly friendly. The two other guys who had confronted us at the road were by by then standing against their truck. I was in shock, and relieved, that this was a sheriff, but I was also pissed that those two idiots had instigated all of this. I think it was the fat one who then said that they had “a pretty good neighborhood watch around here”. They also said something about people growing marijuana, and that they thought that’s what we were up to. After this, they led us out as we followed them along some dirt roads to come up through the backyard of what seemed to be one of the guys house; from there we got to a paved road. Once on the road, we passed one or two sheriffs, one of them near the dirt road where we were originally parked.
For the next week or two, I seriously considered going to the sheriff’s office to file a formal complaint against this sheriff or writing a letter to the local newspaper detailing our experience with the county’s finest. When we were digging in the woods and they were at the road yelling in to us, not once did he ever state that he was a policeman or part of law enforcement. How were we to know that the two original idiots had come back with a cop? We both thought they had come back with some friends to increase their odds. I also wondered if they had something growing somewhere in these woods themselves, and thus the reaction. However, I had a very strong feeling that complaining to the good old boys about one of their good old boys would not do much good. And I really didn’t want to waste my time with it, as it could have truly been an honest mistake on his part. But sometimes I think I should have followed up on it. Regardless, it was quite an interesting experience.