Where in the hell am I?

September 18, 2011

Temporary project blog started

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, Texas — Tags: , , , , , — John @ 8:35 pm

I’m going to be leading a survey next week. We’ll be doing some metal detecting near the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site. It’s similar to what I did a couple of months back at the Fannin Battleground State Historic site, only not within the park boundaries (actually, around a mile or so away).

A friend of mine, who teaches fourth grade in Austin, teaches about this battle. Having not grown up in Texas myself, I’ve never taken Texas history, but I assume (knowing my adopted home state) they teach about it often. She mentioned that her students would be interested in my work, and I (of course) said, “Well, I can blog about it!” Then, I realized that this blog isn’t always 100% safe for work, and probably not appropriate for younger readers, particularly in a classroom environment. I’d hate to get my friend in trouble for her students clicking back to the Naked Flag Lady!

So, I started a new blog about the project, for a general audience (no cussing, no attitude). The title is Surveying San Jacinto (click for the link) and it should be temporary. In addition to documenting the actual fieldwork, I’ll try and add information from previous surveys in the area and anything else I can find related to archaeology and the battle. I’ll mention the logistical work, and if I’m involved also the post-field lab and reporting work.

If you’ve stuck with this blog for a while, you know I sometimes make promises and don’t follow through very well. But this time, it’s for the kids!



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.

April 27, 2011

Making a Public Impression, part 2

Last time, I talked a bit about some of my challenges with making a public impression as a (for want of a better word) “punk” archaeologist, especially in a state like Texas steeped in cowboy mythology (I remember a Disney version of Pecos Bill as a kid) and culture.

Essentially, while my fashion choices in the field (which actually usually cover my tattoos, especially my Texas ones) are motivated by practical considerations, such as comfort and safety, I also have chosen to some extent to restrict my self-expression. My encounters with the public in rural and even mid-size urban Texas, particularly the ranchers, necessitate this. First, many of these encounters are potentially hostile, such as when a landowner isn’t aware that we’re on their land or is mad at the project. I really don’t want to give them a reason to be more agitated, and I would prefer that they see me as someone they can relate to. Tangentially, I often wear a safety vest on survey just to make it clear that I’m not trying to hide or be sneaky. Second, I am representing my company and our client, serving as a “public face” by default, and looking at least somewhat professional is an important part of that. Third, I want to be respected, to be acknowledged as a professional scientist doing scientific work. Of course, most people have an image as scientists as a little bit “different”, so that does allow for a little leeway.

The first and third are especially important to me, because I feel like my size and my personality are often detrimental in my interactions with the public, particularly in Texas. I’m actually completely average physically, 5’9″ and on the light side of average build, graying brown hair, no obvious physical defects. I’m also a bit of a people-pleaser, non-aggressive, some might say sensitive. None of these are bad things, of course! Still, I can see the difference in the way that many landowners, some contractors, and even some client representatives treat me (especially in person) from how they treat some of my bigger, taller co-workers. Honestly, it’s demeaning and humiliating to interact with someone in a professional capacity who decides to ignore you, or push you around, only to watch them change faces and be completely conciliatory to a co-worker with the same job title and responsibilities. It’s even worse when your future promotion depends on your ability to deal with clients, contractors, and crews.

I don’t know if there was much of a point to this, except to find a way to vent my frustration at feeling diminished, despite my attempts to mitigate prejudicial appearances. I’ve certainly compromised along the way to advance my professional career as an archaeologist, but I like who I am as a person, and I have leadership qualities and strengths which are just as valuable. And I’m certainly not going to get any taller.

April 21, 2011

Making a public impression, part 1

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, Texas — Tags: , , , , — John @ 7:50 pm

I just got a new Texas tattoo with my friend Dave. I tweeted about it, saying “getting another Texas tattoo today. hoping that this will make ranchers a little more comforable with me!”. This led to a back-and-forth with @processarch (link to his blog) about cowboy hats and boots, and I decided I would blog about projecting an image with field wear. Several days later, here it is.

My company has some basic dress requirements for the field, although there is some wiggle room: sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, and boots above the ankle. There are many suggestions of how to put this together, largely related to safety issues such as bugs, heat stroke, and poison ivy. Furthermore, some clients or projects will have more specific requirements, such as safety vests, steel-toed boots, or having (or not having) a visible company logo. But still, there’s a lot of freedom.

Working in Texas, you have the interesting situation of being in a state that combines the Wild West (and subsequent Western ruggedness) with the Deep South. Cowboy culture is strong here, even in parts of the state that didn’t have true cowboys. The stereotypical image of Texans are cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and a big belt buckle. I must admit that when I moved here in 1993 from “up North” I expected to see spurs.

Many landowners I’ve encountered during my years fit the stereotype to a certain extent. Cowboy boots are certainly ubiquitous, cowboy hats a little less so, and most are wearing Wranglers and a snap-button denim work shirt. Once, in East Texas, we had a ranch manager who was in full denim, cowboy boots, hat, big belt buckle, spurs, AND wearing a gunbelt with a pistol (note: the spurs were an accessory, he rode around in an ATV).

I, on the other hand, have never really been one for conforming or the mainstream, and fully embraced that when I found hardcore punk when I was almost 16. I’ve had at least one earring since I was 16, around the same time I first started spiking my hair (although it’s not that way right now). I got my first tattoo at 21, a week after I moved to Austin. I don’t dress overtly punk, but odds are good on any given day that I’m wearing a band t-shirt, Levis 501s, and checkered Vans (these old feet can’t handle Chuck Taylors as well). Of course, I also have a Lone Star belt buckle and also feature pearl-snap cowboy shirts as part of my wardrobe. Basically, I look an awful lot like I’m from Austin.

In the field, my look is different for reasons of comfort. I almost always wear rip-stop camouflage Army pants, and my t-shirts are all black or grey wicking material. I’m usually wearing a lightweight, long-sleeved fishing shirt (also wicking) as well, because of my sensitivity to poison ivy or being in heavy vegetation. I’m not trying to make any fashion statements, with the occasional exception of a skull bandana (and some people assume that’s because archaeologists are into bones). I wear a “gimme” farming-related baseball hat that belonged to my late Grampy, currently held together with duct tape.

I will not, however, wear a cowboy hat. There are several reasons, including that it would be inconvenient on survey through wooded areas, and that (I must confess) I just don’t look very good in a cowboy hat. But the main reason is that I feel like it would be perceived as trying too hard to fit in, when it’s obvious that it doesn’t suit me. There’s a saying that someone is “All hat and no cattle” (frequently used in reference to Dubya), meaning literally that the person is trying to be a cowboy but doesn’t actually have a herd, but more that someone is putting on airs, all talk, or a “poser.” Unless you can sing and play a guitar, ranchers and cowboys aren’t too fond of posers. One way they differ from punks, I suppose.

This is getting into tl; dr territory, so part 2 will talk some more about my experiences trying to make a public impression in the field, as well as archaeologists in general and public impressions.

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.

January 19, 2011

Dogs, poop, and archaeology in the news

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, Texas — Tags: , , , , , , — John @ 10:25 pm

Since I’ve blogged on here several times about the canine skeleton we recovered at Fort Hood last year, I thought I would share this link about the earliest evidence for dogs in the Americas.

The bone fragment was found in a coprolite from Hinds Cave, in Texas. According to the article, it was radiocarbon dated to 9,400 yrs BP, or roughly 7450 BC. DNA analysis confirmed it came from a dog, rather than another similar species such as coyote, wolf, or fox. And, since the fragment was found in a coprolite mound (aka a pile of poop), it shows that people not only had dogs back then but also ate them occasionally.

Since the actual research paper won’t be published until later this year (which prompted my boss to revive an old quote about “archaeology by press conference”), I can only say that I like forward to the full paper.

Some brief comments:

– the chunk of bone was 0.6 inches by ~0.35 inches (roughly 1.5 cm by 1 cm), or as the article says, around the size of a pinkie fingernail. I can’t imagine swallowing or passing a chunk of bone that size, although I do know that like many young children, I swallowed at least one penny in my toddler years.

– the bone is from where the skull meets the spinal column. This area has almost no meat and would be extremely low on the calories recovered/effort expended scale. I suppose that area of the skull could be fractured during butchering and mixed in with neck meat…speaking from no experience with butchering animals, or eating dog for that matter. Of course, the area isn’t exactly rich with food and there’s abundant coprolite evidence from Hinds Cave for being, “none-too-picky about what they ate” (see the Hinds Cave link above), including whole lizards and rodents and meat with fur still attached.

– I’m pretty happy about getting to blog about archaeology and poop 🙂

December 1, 2010

Catching up with JLowe

Filed under: archaeology, archeology, Texas — Tags: , , , , , , , , — John @ 10:20 pm

It’s been a month. It hasn’t seemed that long; I guess time has been flying. What with my 4-day birthday weekend (which included Fun Fun Fun Fest), hanging out with a new girl, and having my mom visit for the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s another case of living life getting in the way of writing about it.


– The monitoring project in San Antonio is on hiatus, for now, while they wait for the concrete to dry. I found out the day I left that the plan was to finish the hole on the north side of the creek, pour the concrete, wait 3-4 weeks for it to dry, backfill the hole, and THEN move to the other side (where the site is). I honestly don’t recall how many more days it took to finish the hole (5 or 6). Soon, we’re expecting a call telling us that work on the more important side will commence, and to send a monitor down. All I know is that it won’t be me.

– The final Fort Hood report has been published, and a copy is sitting on my coffee table! The draft came back with only minor edits, and a lot of compliments, and the final has also received a lot of praise from the client. This has made me quite proud, as I did a lot of the writing (and editing) for that report, and I’m listed as one of the 4 lead authors!

A particularly notable thing about this project is that it was only one year from initial permitting to final report completion. That included four weeks of excavation, artifact processing and analysis, sample processing and analysis, report production, and artifact curation. Contrast this to some of the other data recovery projects we’ve done (for a certain unnamed governmental agency), including one that was excavated in 2005 and still has outstanding analysis and an unfinished (really, mostly unstarted) report. Granted, the scale of the project was much larger, and there were major budgetary issues (i.e. a recession), but I still feel like this was particularly efficient. Military precision, I suppose. It was definitely a positive thing, because the data was still fresh and the collective memory of the excavators and supervisors was readily accessible.

– The survey from hell continues sporadically, and I haven’t had to be involved for a while! I will admit that I was a little disappointed to miss out on the last trip, which was focused on the area around the Sanders site, which is a major Caddo site along the Red River. But then I think of all the nonsense associated with that particular project and I feel better.

– I heard from a couple of the Wyoming people when they were back out on that project. It was a much smaller crew (only 4 people) and I didn’t catch exactly what part of the project they were working on. That was back at the beginning of November, so I’m sure they’re either done now or at least done for the winter.

– I’ll talk about what I’m currently working on in the next post which should be tomorrow. It’s something I meant to post two weeks ago, even though it feels like 2 days…

And finally, the video for Just Can’t Get Enough, on the early greatest hits album Catching Up With Depeche Mode


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