Where in the hell am I?

June 30, 2011

Turkey is a go!

Well, almost. It would sure help if you could donate a few dollars to sponsor our project on Kickstarter! There may be matching funds involved, so it’s like during an NPR pledge drive when you wait until one of the businesses offers a dollar-for-dollar match! Also like NPR, you get nice thank you gifts.

I bought my ticket a few days ago, and I’ve been anxious and excited since. I’ve only traveled overseas once, and that was a little over 20 years ago (as in, I was actually semi-officially in East Germany as the final reunification was still a few days away). My non-US work was limited to 5 months in Belize, and even that was over seven years ago!

So this is my first major “adventure” in a long time, and my first chance to work in the Old World. Most of my last seven years involves seasonally mobile bands/tribes of hunter-gatherers/collector-foragers. Nothing I’ll find in my regular work would be more than roughly 15,000 years old. Honestly, the anticipation has made writing about an early twentieth century glass scatter even less thrilling than usual!

So yeah, anxious and excited. New people, new places, new cultures, new techniques and ideas. Plus, Colleen assures me that I’ll still be able to recognize a potsherd, or a flake, or a coin. Question is, will I be too busy looking at the ground to notice the ancient stone wall beside me?

We’ll find out in August! I’ll be in Turkey from August 2-17, and surveying for roughly 10 of those days. There will be blogging, and photos, both here and elsewhere for sure.


June 2, 2011

Fannin Battle Ground survey, day 7

My crew kicks ass!! Instead of resting on yesterday’s laurels, they went out today and did an even more impressive survey job. They surveyed all of the non-built-up portion of the monument circle at the park (click this link for an idea), scoring 249 hits as well as delineating a series of buried sprinkler lines. Then, they went and excavated 207 of them! Sure, it helped that only 13 artifacts were collected, of which only 4 are definitely battle-related (along with 3 early 20th century coins). All the same, let me remind my readers that the original scope anticipated only 200 hits TOTAL, and didn’t expect to find much of anything battle-related. I bought the crew a couple of six-packs of Lone Star tallboys as a thank you for their hard work.

Today also was great because the park groundskeeper came by and said that the local BBQ joint, McMillan’s BBQ in Fannin,  listed in Texas Monthly’s Top 50 Texas BBQ joints (also here’s Yelp and Yahoo), wanted to give us free lunch! We each got a two-meat plate with brisket and sausage, along with beans and potato salad. This was enough for lunch and dinner for most of us (and I got extras courtesy of my vegetarian friend and co-worker), and it was most welcome. Really good smoke, excellent sausage (juicy and savory), good potato salad. If I’m honest, I prefer my brisket moist and with sauce on the side (although the sauce is very tasty on the sweet range of sauces), but the one fatty piece I had was delicious and the drier pieces still had that good smoke flavor with a touch of spiciness! I feel like an ungrateful jerk because I forgot to swing by this afternoon and thank Mr. McMillan for the excellent lunch, but I will definitely do so tomorrow and pick up a chopped beef sandwich for the ride home on Saturday! Note also, I’m eating the last of the leftovers as I write this 🙂

The main task ahead of us is figuring out a plan of action for Block 4 and the remaining hits in Block 2. There’s roughly 700 of them, and based on patterns (outside of Block 3) 90% of them will be modern. Even at the rate of 9/hour/person that we had today, we don’t have enough time left to dig them all, not to mention the remaining hits in the circle and the hot spot (more important). The current strategy is to focus on those hits away from the fenceline and away from the picnic tables, since those areas have high concentrations that are surely related to modern (or at least non-battle-related) activities.

At the same time, we have found out that this area wasn’t really surveyed before. Furthermore, we’ve already established where the main battle area (aka the Texan Square) likely was, based on the concentration of artifacts recovered in the hot spot, along with the previous markings indicating that this was the main area. Now, learning more about the Mexican lines and the ourskirts of the battle are the challenge. Our survey of these more distant locations may have a much lower recovery, but each battle-related artifact we found here tells us more about the battle then yet another musket ball in the hot spot.

Such is the struggle of archaeology, where you often learn more from less.

May 25, 2011

Fannin Battle Ground day 1 & 2 results: SUCCESS

Musket ball

So, we left off yesterday with some background about the Fannin Battle Ground State Historic Site, including why I was skeptical of having significant results. This was influenced by results from day 1 of the survey, which I left out as the post was already getting tl;dr.
Day 1 started by laying out our survey grid. Basically, we have two teams of two people, each with a metal detector. Each survey transect is 3 m wide. Each surveyor can cover about 2 m with a metal detector sweep, so by staggering the people you can cover the full transect, with overlap in the center. There are different methods for marking the transects, often pin flags, which mainly are made of metal, creating a problem. In our case, we bought a bunch of marking/striping paint and used either 100 m long strings or ropes to help keep the lines straight. This takes a while, unfortunately, but it has to be done.
Anyway, the survey itself began along the longest fenceline, which is 200 m, but we broke it into 100 m blocks. We had 8 transects laid out paralleling the fenceline, ending near the road loop around the monument. Somewhere around 60 “hits” were marked with pin flags, and investigated after surveying the block. Several of these were false hits, as no artifacts were recovered and rescans of the vicinity did not encounter any hits. Most were along the fenceline, and were largely wire nails and pieces of fencing. Other areas also had nails, bolts, nuts, scrap, basically anything BUT battle-related artifacts. One possible exception was a large saddle buckle. The coolest find of the day was a 1902 quarter, found on the surface, without a metal detector, near the road. I think it’s safe to say that we were feeling a little discouraged, and wondering if all the “good stuff” had in fact been found. We maintained hope by remembering that the main cluster area from the original survey was yet to be done.
Day 2 started by surveying the other 100 m block paralleling the long fenceline, with even more hits along the fence itself (see the photo linked above, it’s actually from day 2). There were over 100 hits marked in the block. I don’t know that anyone was excited to start digging them up, expecting more of the same. Lucky for us, our Principal Investigator was along, and was anxious to see what was in the “hot spot”. He and the Project Archaeologist had laid out the grid there while we were surveying the other block. Once again, there was a large concentration of hits along the fenceline, thinning out as you got away from the fence or the loop (a photo of this will be up on Flickr soon, if not by the time you click this). It seemed we were in for another let down, and the first few hits away from the fenceline certainly added to the feeling.
And then the other team recovered a small lead shot from around 8 inches below the surface, in one of the hits near the fence! And then another at the next hit! My boss was very excited, and it gave us the hope we needed on a very hot day. More hits along the fenceline yielded a number of musket balls (like in the photo above) and one possible grape shot. Still, it was the other team finding everything, and my partner and I were a little dejected.
Then, Ali calls over to me and asks me to come check something out. When I get there, she’s holding a handful of dirt with little white balls and asks, “Are these what I think they are?” They were, alright, and in the end 65 musket balls came from that hit! We’re speculating that an ammo pouch was lost there. We also wonder how something like that was missed during the previous survey and collecting forays!
Finally, it was my turn. First, I found an iron pot or kettle piece 8 inches below surface. The next hit, roughly 8 feet away, yielded 6 more pieces, including three leg pieces and a handle, all at the same depth. A hit 2 feet away recovered yet another piece. And then, a fourth hit about 1 foot away from the main haul recovered another handle piece and a musket ball at 8 inches, and then a large iron shot (maybe a grape shot?) at 10 inches.
So, while there were many reasons to think that the survey might be fruitless, I was proven wrong, and I’ve never been happier to be wrong! There were so many hits (and deep, in hard dirt) that we still have 20-30 more to look at tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, after that we have to go back to block 2 and the modern trash.

May 6, 2011

Hooray for the weekend! Plus some links!

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, survey — Tags: , , , , , — John @ 5:01 pm

I’ve been tired all week. And pretty cranky most of the time. A lot of factors, including the heat and lack of sleep from early travel times. So I’m really looking forward to this weekend to rest and decompress, even though I have a big stack of archaeology reports and articles here beside me.

Most of my plans involve working on my yard and my garden, coping with the horrible drought here in central Texas. None of the seeds I planted took, and the tomato and pepper plants are hanging on, but certainly not thriving. My peach tree has a lot of peaches hanging on it, but with this dryness I doubt they’ll really grow big enough to eat. It’s a lot of work, being an environmentally conscious homeowner, that’s for sure!

And now, a couple of slightly related (to each  other, not to anything above) blog posts to check out sometime this weekend. Both cover topics I’ve been meaning to blog about, and both are by fellow CRM archs.

Lucy at The CRM Field Tech Newsletter (http://crmnews.org/), who came up and talked to me after the Blogging Archaeology panel (and may be one of the only people I actually gave a business card to) has some good advice for people considering entering the world of CRM. She also uses a photo of mine!

So You Want to Be an Archaeologist

ProcessArch, at Process:Opinions on Doing Archaeology, answers one of the FAQs of archaeology: How do you know where to dig? He does a very good job summarizing what is really a long, drawn-out, multi-faceted response that usually makes the questioner tune out (or at least if you’re a chatterbox like me!).

Knowing Where to Dig

That’s it, have a great weekend!

May 3, 2011

Whirlwind trip to Oklahoma

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, Oklahoma, survey — Tags: , , , , — John @ 5:20 pm

I suppose some might consider that title to be in moderately bad taste…

Friday, our office got a call from one of our big wind farm clients who needed us to survey a couple of last-minute, very small changes. The draft report is almost done, and they’re getting ready to go to construction as soon as the report is accepted; they have some important deadlines to meet in order to retain some grants (or something along those lines). The total survey area was less than a half-mile.

Fortunately, this client is also very flexible concerning travel arrangements. So myself and the lead archaeologist on the project boarded a plane at 7:50 am for Oklahoma City. We arrived around 11 am and picked up a rental vehicle. Rather than try and check shovels, we stopped at a home improvement store and bought the cheapest shovels they had (less than $10 each). One final stop to buy some water and we were in the field by 12:30 or so. About two hours and six shovel tests later (plus some notes and photos), we were finished, and back to Oklahoma City to stay in a hotel near the airport. 10 hours, including travel.

By flying up, we actually saved the client a couple thousand dollars. I explained before about billable rates , in a post about budget shortsightedness on the part of clients. In this case, the cost of the airplane tickets was substantially cheaper than the cost for myself and the lead archaeologist to drive 14+ hours round-trip, plus conduct the fieldwork, plus the cost of the fuel. Note that the rental vehicle, hotel, and per diem costs would have been the same either way. At the same time, they also recognized that trying to fly here and back on the same day would have been too demanding, and allowed for no flexibility in the field in case of a significant discovery.

On a side note: I’m working on a blog post commenting on the recent Careers in Archaeology issue of the SAA Record. At the moment, however, I’m too tired to give it the proper thought and attention. I’m not good after waking up at 5:30 am!

Second side note: I update my Twitter feed much more regularly than this blog. It’s archaeology about half the time, and random softball/music/politics/retweets the other half. I  try and retweet interesting US archaeological stories from the media, particularly when they’re CRM-related. So click here for my Twitter link, if you’re so inclined!

April 14, 2011

Uneventful week

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, survey, Texas — Tags: , , , , , — John @ 9:21 pm

I’m probably jinxing myself by posting this on Thursday, with a half-day of survey left here in the Junction area before heading back to Austin for a very busy weekend. But there just really hasn’t been a whole lot to blog about work-wise.

The weather has been beautiful: sunny and not too hot, although today did get up near 90. We’re covering a lot of ground and doing thorough work, even with stream-lined crews. Despite working in some really promising areas, there have been no significant sites or notable finds.

There were the usual highlights: seeing lots of goats (and almost getting to pet one), getting to walk across one of the most scenic parts of Texas, working on my tan and my upper body strength, the occasional sweet biface or projectile point fragment. Eating a chicken fried steak at Isaack Restaurant would have been more of a highlight if it were a little better, and if they actually sold Lone Star.

Also, the usual lowlights: angry landowner, poky Ashe juniper trees, long drives in circles, missing another softball game.

The only really special things I can say about this week are that I got to: work in a new county (Schleicher, and disregard the part about the first inhabitants in that link!), ride on a new portion of IH-10 (the 10 or so miles between the first Kerrville exit and where US 290 joins IH-10), see some expensive trophy bucks and a couple of exotic deer/antelope species while driving through some ranch.

It’s not always often exciting, but it pays the bills!

March 21, 2011

More on public archaeology

(stick with me, there’s a pretty nice little story at the end)

I wrote earlier about how this current survey project I’m on has added stress because it’s pretty controversial, with a lot of recalcitrant landowners and at least one major lawsuit. This is a particular challenge of public archaeology, which I don’t know that a lot of archaeologists have to deal with: pissed-off people. Actually, I think that having to deal with multiple landowners in general is more a product of cultural resources management (CRM aka salvage archaeology aka professional archaeology). Most (if not all) academic, grant-sponsored, or educational projects are conducted in cooperation with the landowners, often public entities. The goal of these projects is to enhance knowledge, train people, and educate; when the project is finished, the holes are usually filled in and life goes on.

Not so much for what I do. The end result of my archaeological work might be a road, a pipeline, a power line, a housing subdivision, or a wind turbine (among others). It almost always involves taking a portion of someone’s land, which they are usually receiving some sort of compensation for, and which they may have limited access to after. We’re not some prestigious scientific endeavour that they’re hosting, we’re just a part of the process that may or may not end in a way that they prefer.

This leads to interesting situations, which are of course influenced by the personality of the landowners involved. It’s also a bit self-selective, as the people most adamantly opposed won’t let you on their land to begin with (like the guy who sat on his porch with a shotgun on his lap whenever our truck was anywhere near his land). You’ll occasionally run into your naked flag ladys, but you’ll also get to ride around in a vintage WWII jeep with a retired rodeo cowboy (seriously, this was the best day in the field EVER that didn’t involve an amazing site).

So I’ve been a bit reluctant on this project to talk to the landowners, which is a definite demerit against me as a public archaeologist (although to be fair I’m not the crew leader). But for the most part, those we’ve encountered have been nice folks, even if they’re not excited about the project as a whole.

One gentleman on Saturday hung around us for quite a while and was very friendly, as well as provided some information about the history of the immediate area (useful for the architectural historians). He sat in his golf cart and we chatted while I was digging a shovel test. He thought I was digging a hole to test the soil for a tower location, which he was concerned about because that a tower in that spot would have blocked a really nice view from his house (and if it were up to me, I’d make sure there wasn’t a tower there). I explained how we conduct our surveys, inspecting the ground surface and digging shovel tests in a systematic fashion, so that the actual holes weren’t indicative of anything besides a location within the overall area of impacts. I talked about how only certain types of sites would be an issue for the project, and he joked that he could call some Indian friends of his to make that kind of site if it meant not having a tower blocking his view. He mentioned that his grandkids had picked up some arrowheads around the property, and that he had seen some other areas that just had some “chips” and “chunks”, and told us where they were. Sure enough, there was a nice surficial lithic procurement area in the spot with chips and chunks. He offered his opinion that it was probably just a hunting party area, because there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff and it was too far from water; he was pretty much right about everything except perhaps the hunting party.

He told us that he was originally from Port Lavaca, and had worked at the Alcoa factory there for 35 years,and retired and moved to the Hill Country a few years back. He had six kids, and had put five of them through college, including four at UT, and that his daughter still lived in Austin.

There’s one more element to the story, but I want to save it for a separate blog post that I hope will initiate some debate. I would, of course, love comments on this as well.

March 16, 2011

Front page news

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, survey, Texas — Tags: , , , , , , , — John @ 8:36 pm

Currently in Kerrville, surveying for a transmission line designed to bring the energy generated by windfarms in West Texas into the grids that serve the densely populated areas of Central and Eastern Texas. The project has been pretty controversial, largely because many of the landowners in the scenic Texas Hill Country don’t want another set of large transmission lines on the landscape. I have my opinions on the issue, but will have to hold my tongue unfortunately, for reasons set out in the Blogging Archaeology Week 2 response. I will allow that I am a City of Austin Utilities wind energy customer; however I also dream of owning a small goat farm in the Hill Country.

Anyway, my crew of four got here on Tuesday morning to start work on this segment of the larger project (broken into multiple segments, each roughly 35-miles long with a survey crew assigned). This morning we woke up to find an article on the front page of the local paper (click here, but note that only the two lead paragraphs are available on the webpage unless you pay). It doesn’t specifically mention that the survey work has started, but the timing is surely not total coincidence.

It’s stressful working on sensitive projects. You’re more likely to run into angry landowners. Planning is more difficult, because of multiple landowners denying access to survey. The risk of trespassing is elevated; you feel like people are watching whenever you’re working near a no-access property, hands near the phone or a gun. You start to worry about running into angry people in the town, and generally feel unwelcome.

It sounds mercenary, but my company’s main concern (besides safety) is doing an excellent job at the task we’re hired to do, which is assure that our client is in compliance with the relevant environmental and antiquities laws. We work for oil and gas companies as well as green energy companies. We worked for the company that, using government subsidies, installed fiber optic cables to some of the more rural portions of the Hill Country so that everyone could have better access to the internet.

As for myself, my main concern here is doing my job well, so that I can earn my paycheck and perhaps even advance my career. This means conducting an archaeological survey in a safe, efficient, and thorough manner. I’ll identify areas where there are no cultural resources. I will assess cultural resources when located, recommending some which do not merit preservation and others which need to be avoided so as to be preserved in place. I will not damage your property or disturb your livestock, and I will be respectful to you. I will leave immediately when asked.

And finally, I MOST DEFINITELY AM NOT OUT TO STEAL YOUR LAND! If I ever do have my Hill Country goat farm, it will be because I bought it with my own hard-earned money.

February 15, 2011

Back in the field, back in Oklahoma

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, Oklahoma, photos, survey — Tags: , , , , — John @ 10:15 pm

Well, I was anyway, in Minco. I was here for a few days last summer, helping out the biologists. We got to ride around on four-wheelers. Amazingly, that wind farm is now completely built and operational!

We’re finishing up a ten-day survey, a day early even. This is even more remarkable because we also had a snow day on Wednesday the 9th. The client was adamant that we drive up to do the survey, even knowing the weather would be bad. So the first day of survey it was 15 degrees, with a wind chill around 5, and snow on the ground ranging from a dusting to 2-3 foot drifts. Today, the last day, it was 73 degrees and the only snow left was in isolated shady pockets and drainages.

There are two main reasons the job went so quickly. First, a lot of this area has shallow basal clay. This is partly due to the hydrology and topography and geology, and partly due to the Dust Bowl. Of course, it seemed like an awful lot of my shovel tests dug through a meter of red sandy loam. The second reason is because there is very little archaeological potential in the project area. There are some historic farmsteads and trash scatters, to be sure. However, the project area is completely bereft of lithic raw material. Any prehistoric peoples traveling through the area would likely have stuck to the main drainages and left very little debris behind, primarily from resharpening the stone tools they carried with them. Thus, the archaeological footprint would be very small, and more likely situated along the Canadian River a few miles north.

There were a couple of semi-interesting historic farmstead sites, notable for some of the weird objects we found at them. Other than that, the only real highlights were surveying in the snow and doing some hardcore four-wheel drive on the muddy clay roads.

An album with photos from this project can be found by clicking here, or going to this link:


October 24, 2010

The Naked Flag Lady Story, part 2

(click here for part 1)

Note: in the original version of this post, I used a descriptor for the woman in this story that could be considered sexist and ageist (although not as bad as the outdated colloquialism that I thought that I had used). I have edited it out, as it was not appropriate terminology, irrelevant to the story, and I want this blog to be welcoming to all readers. I apologize for my poor choice of words in an attempt at “color”, and I thought it was important to acknowledge that this specific edit was made.

The idea of “The Naked Flag Lady” sounds like a fantasy from a 1980s teen sex comedy b-movie, but trust me, this was not the case. 

By this time, maybe 10-12 minutes had passed from the time we first noticed her. My boss had finally joined us, after being filled in by the field techs. He stepped between us and the Naked Flag Lady, and told her that he was who she should be talking to. Once again, she yelled “Who said you could be on this property?, to which Ken replied, “the right-of-way agent.”

She did not like this answer either, and she went off, yelling semi-coherently about “That sounds like a private company!” and “It sounds like you think you’re the government!” and “This is why people hate the government because they think they can just go where they want on people’s private property!”

Ken told her that we weren’t with the government, that we were working for a company building a pipeline, and that they had told us that we were clear to access this property.

Of course, she was way beyond reason at this point, so she turned her attention back to Suzanne and myself. She said, “These motherfuckers ignored me”, and we apologized again. Then she looked at me, “And this motherfucker was disrespectful,” for which I once again apologized.

She wasn’t done though. Next she glares at us and growls, “What are your names?”, to which Suzanne replied, “Suzanne.” Naked Flag Lady gets a new level of crazy in her eye and growls even more deeply, “Don’t fucking talk to me like I’m a fucking kindergarten teacher, I want your full name, motherfucker!”

We both complied, as did Ken, who then told her that he was the one in charge and to direct her questions to him. She turned her head and yelled, “Larry” back towards the house several time. Then she turned back to us and snarled, “Call 911!” I took out my phone and began to dial, but then Naked Flag Lady said, “Never mind.”

Note: this would have been my best chance to take a photo of her, and I was kicking myself later! At the time, of course, I was trying my hardest not to look at her and hoping she didn’t get so mad she lost hold of the flag…(edit: In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t, as this would be a clear violation of privacy).

She then ordered us to follow her back to the house. Ken told us to stay put. She repeated herself, and Ken told her clearly that he would be the only one going with her. So she told us to “Stay there!” and turned to walk back to the house with Ken.

It turns out that the poorly wrapped flag didn’t quite reach all the way around her! Her ass was almost totally hanging out. Worst of all, she kept looking back to make sure that we weren’t going anywhere, so we were afraid to look away!

We looked at our watches and realized that all of this had taken no more than 15 minutes. We waited at the fence for another 10 minutes, and finally saw Ken leaving the house (and breathed a sigh of relief!), so we finally were able to get off her property.

When Ken finally gets back to the truck, he fills us in on the rest of the story. Apparently, she was in the shower when the dogs started barking as we were leaving, so she grabbed the first thing she could find to put in, which was one of a number of flags drying in the living room. She went in to a bedroom to get dressed, and Larry started chatting with Ken. Naked Flag Lady  yelled through the door, “Larry, stop talking to him!”, after which Larry shut up with an apologetic look in his eyes.

When she came out, she pointed to a different flag, made of a sheer blue material, and said “I almost grabbed that one, then y’all would have gotten quite a show!”

As it turns out, we actually were trespassing! Her right-of-entry agreement included a 24-hour notification clause, and no one had called her. On top of that, we were the third crew for this project who had been out there in the past week or so, and she hadn’t been called at all!

So we were the straw that broke the camel’s back. But don’t feel too bad for her, she did try and sic her dogs on us several times when we were standing there cooperatively!

We would later find out from the wetlands survey crew that Naked Flag Lady had come out to yell at them earlier in the week, but then she calmed down and actually had them in for tea!

We would also find out that the client, who was the person who actually told us that we were good to go, had never even checked the form to see the 24-hour notice clause. So we couldn’t even yell at someone about it!

Well, that’s the Naked Flag Lady story. It was both a little funny and a lot scary at the time. And if you ever want me to tell you in person, just go ahead and ask!

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