Where in the hell am I?

July 26, 2013

Day of Archaeology 2013

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , — John @ 1:12 pm

Odds are, if you follow this blog, you’re already aware of the Day of Archaeology blog.

Here’s my contribution this year, which will get you a little bit up to speed with my new job!



There are a lot of great contributions there from around the world, and more will be coming in all day and likely even all weekend, so spend some time there reading about how various archaeologists spend their day.

February 7, 2013

More scattershot thoughts on graves

Filed under: archaeology, CRM — Tags: , , , , , — John @ 10:11 pm

The Richard III story is not the only reason I’ve been thinking about graves, cemeteries, and such recently. Bear with me.

I’ve been working on a survey report at work, and the people who did the survey identified two small family cemeteries and an isolated grave. It would be wrong to call them unknown cemeteries, as all had at least some markers and defined boundaries (the isolated grave even had a newer marker, as the grave itself is almost 150 years old). However, they had not been officially documented, and had pieces of stone that may indicate graves of unidentified people. Some background research indicated that other small, old cemeteries have bois d’arc stakes that serve as grave markers.

Many cemeteries (and I would assume most if not all “official cemeteries”) are depicted on topographic maps, even some on private property. When we do background research prior to starting the fieldwork on a project, one of the things we look for are cemeteries, and known cemeteries are included as a resource on the Texas Archeological Sites Atlas. There are also a lot of online resources with cemetery documentation, including transcriptions of headstone inscriptions.

My grandparents’ farm in Ohio is next to the local cemetery (they’re now buried there, RIP, along with many of my ancestors). But there was also a fenced off, grassy area in the corner of one of their fields that I wasn’t allowed to go into. It was a small cemetery. I don’t know how many graves are in there, I’d guess somewhere around 4-6. I remember being told that one of the people buried there was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and another was the first white girl born in Preble County (note: that’s my memory and I can’t promise I’m correct about the interments). My family kept the grass down, and maintained the fence, and I understand now that someone (perhaps a descendent, or just someone with an interest in old cemeteries and genealogy) keeps it up and has done some research.

In my almost 9 years working as an archaeologist, and with hundreds (if not thousands) of miles of survey under my boots, I’ve never found an unrecorded cemetery or grave. I did have a great experience a few years back getting a tour of a cemetery on private property (click here for the post, one of my favorite ever). It seems easy enough to record one, especially if it has clear boundaries and headstones.

Most projects just avoid “unknown” cemeteries. It’s possible to move graves, but complicated. I know of projects involving excavating and relocating whole cemeteries, when it’s cost-effective to do so. But generally, cemeteries are avoided. State law in Texas requires a 100-foot buffer for project impacts (if I recall correctly, I generally just cut-and-paste or have the reference handy), although mitigation measures can be taken if a smaller buffer is needed. This is because people used to occasionally buried outside of cemetery boundaries, particularly poor people who couldn’t afford a plot or a professional burial.

One thing that is done as mitigation, to locate possible unmarked graves, is “scraping” the areas between the known cemetery boundary and the project impact area. This involves having a backhoe (or similar heavy equipment) strip the upper few inches of soil from the ground, looking for soil anomalies that may indicate an unmarked grave. There are now far less intrusive (but more expensive) ways of searching for unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar. It’s not perfect, but it’s less damaging. I’ve seen this done relatively recently  (and that’s all I can say).

Sorry for the random nature of this post, and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!

February 5, 2013

Thoughts on the Richard III discovery

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , — John @ 8:40 pm

The world of archaeology made the front pages, or at least the headlines, this past weekend when British researchers confirmed that a skeleton found under a parking lot in Leicester is that of Richard III. I will admit right now to having been completely ignorant of the history of Richard III, besides knowing he was a king of England and there was a Shakespeare play. I’m from the US and have never been an Anglophile, outside of loving lots of British (and Irish and Scottish, to cover my bases) music.

The discovery and the science behind the identification is interesting enough. I’ll let you read what more qualified folks involved with bioarchaeology, like Katy Myers at Bones Don’t Lie and Dr. Kristina Killgrove at Powered by Osteons (although you’ll actually want to click THIS LINK to a Livescience article to read Dr. Killgrove’s thoughts), have to say about the science part. As far as the archaeology, one thing when working with historic sites (and personae) is that, well, there’s already a history (written records, etc.). One reason we do historical archaeology is because what is “known” frequently isn’t really what “was”. In this case, it seems like history did an accurate job of describing Richard III and documenting his death, as these elements of his life aided in the initial identification. Knowing the larger site as the location of the church where he was said to be buried also helped.

But, in general, the archaeology and science involved are really the stuff of many, many projects around the world. Forgotten cemeteries and unmarked graves (not the insidious kind) are remarkably common, even dating into the last century, particularly in the more recently Anglo-settled parts of the United States (my sphere of work).

The difference is, rarely do you have someone raising $250,000 to exhume and identify remains (much less do a facial reconstruction). This is too bad, because while it’s certainly cool that they found the lost grave of Richard III, who was in fact a hunchback and suffered a fatal head wound, it really only tells us about one person. The New York Times article (and the people who raised the funds) suggest that the find will lead to a new interest in and reappraisal of Richard III; such things certainly happen in the research and writing of history and is studied as historiography.

My question is: does it really matter? (Note: see my caveats in the opening paragraph) Does confirming the accuracy of the historical accounts regarding Richard III change the way we (as scholars and as people) understand that time period in England? Does it tell us anything about how most people lived and dies back then; does it give a history to someone who has no written account of their own? The find is significant in the sense of being related to an important person or event in the history of England, but I’m not sure it really adds any new or significant understanding to the archaeological or historical record.

Many of the British archaeologists I follow on Twitter (and the people they retweet) are excited about this new interest in heritage and archaeology, and see this as a golden opportunity to widen that interest and put more of the public in “public archaeology”. I agree, and I wish them luck!!! At the same time, I also see many tweets and retweets about budget slashing in museums and universities and wonder if that $250,000 could have been better spent. Of course, it likely could never have been raised.

It’s not just this project either, the news is full of searches for the graves and bones of famous people (Mona Lisa, anyone?), and who knows how many countless hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone to these projects. I suspect the same amount of money and enthusiasm would be difficult to obtain for a potter’s field of 15th century peasants.

January 25, 2012

Dusting off the cobwebs

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , , , , , — John @ 11:01 pm

2011, blogwise, started off with a bang and then just…kinda…stopped. The highpoint was definitely the Blogging Archaeology panel at the SAA meetings, and I left there very inspired. I just couldn’t maintain that enthusiasm in the face of professional discouragement and frustration. On the occasions when I’m in the field, I also generally have a lot of post-field paperwork to do and things to deal with, which eats into my mental energy and time.

I started another blog for a project, and had my friend use it in her classroom. Then, that project ended being almost a complete failure in terms of delivering interesting information, particularly for the elementary crowd, and I couldn’t think of a positive way to spin it.

With the notable exception of a recent tragedy, my personal life has been nothing but positive. I have a really great girlfriend, an amazing group of friends that seems to expand weekly, a social life often overflowing with possibilities. My softball team won the championship trophy and finally beat our archrivals on the way to that achievement. I visited Maine and New Hampshire for the first time, saw my little sister graduate from college, went camping and to the beach with friends.

The work highlight was the Fannin Battleground metal detector survey. We found a lot of really neat stuff related to the Texas Revolution. I got to work with some avocational archaeologists, learning things from them and hopefully teaching a few things as well. I even ran the project for a week and did a damn good job if I say so myself.

The work lowlight was more or less blowing my contributions to a couple of reports. This was especially rough as my writing is my strength and probably my most valuable contribution to my office. I also left someone I really respect and like working for in a bind, and I’m worried that he’s lost trust in me. The whole process leading to the failures was frustrating and somewhat exhausting. It’s hard to struggle all day at a desk, being disappointed in yourself and waiting for some light to shine or corner to be turned. It’s harder knowing that there are limited hours and budget, and not wanting to give up, and realizing in retrospect I probably should have. The biggest kick in the gut of it all was that I went against my instincts and went with something really boring and generic, when my boss wanted more what I decided not to do. The only thing I can do is learn lessons from it, and hope I get another chance.

So that’s that. As always, I have some ideas, but I know better than to predict that any of them will ever actually make it to the blog. I’ve found that the immediacy of Twitter has been more suited for me of late, and I do talk about my work and share photos there (through Instagram) somewhat regularly.

I do want to blog more often, make this a learning tool, make it a positive reading experience. Maybe putting my mind to that will put me in a better place regarding my work, as well.

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!


July 29, 2011

Day of Archaeology #dayofarch and Then Dig

While I have been remiss at updating my own blog lately, I have contributed to two archaeology group blogs this month.

One is for The Day of Archaeology. Today (July 29, 2011), over 400 archaeologists from around the world and many disciplines are blogging and tweeting about their day. My contribution, about taking a mental health day, is here. I recommend reading the entries on this blog for a great overview of how archaeologists spend their days.

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about my snake guards for the Then Dig group blog. This month’s theme was “tools”, and I detailed why I think snake guards are a very valuable tool. You can read it here.

I also wrote a few tweets on Wednesday when I actually spent (most) of a day in the field doing a survey.

Have a nice weekend and I’ll try and make things pick up here soon! Unfortunately, the Turkey trip fell through for this year, so I won’t have that to keep me interested/interesting.

July 8, 2011

Cold cases

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

Haven’t been blogging much, as I’ve been working in the office on reports since returning from the metal detector survey over a month ago. Was also putting a lot of spare time into getting things organized for the Turkey trip.

In terms of the office work, it’s been mostly working on the final draft reports for older excavations. Right now, I’m working on updating the burned rock feature information for our dig at the Siren site, which happened in the second half of 2005 and early 2006. We did an draft interim report in 2008, which I don’t think I worked on. Since then, we’ve acquired almost 50 additional radiocarbon dates as well as results from macrobotanical, pollen, and phytolith analysis on feature materials, and starch analysis on groundstone artifacts. I’m updating the tabular data for each of the features, then I’ll have to add to the text. Finally, I have to write a general overview of the different types of features at the site. This is to see if there are changes over time in the types and sizes of features used, as well as any other patterns that might emerge.

It’s not uninteresting, but the challenge is trying to gather the disparate analyses, forms, tables, and raw data that have accumulated over 6 years. The project director for the excavation, while still involved in a limited capacity, moved on to an academic job several years ago. Many of the other excavators and crew chiefs, and some of the earlier authors and analysts, have also moved on. So we have cold data and loss of knowledge sources, one of the big problems in archaeology. The kicker is that this wasn’t really my company’s fault, but a result of budget cutbacks that led to the client putting this on the shelf for several years. Looking back, I was working on the lithic analysis almost three years ago.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. Told ya you weren’t missing much :)

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 17, 2011

The Maender Archaeology Project microfunding

(sorry about the lack of updates lately. took a week off from work and then spent a week writing various things.)

I am one of the peripheral members of this project. Please follow the link, watch the video featuring my best friend and colleague Colleen, and consider chipping in a few bucks. If you’re familiar with the old concept of “patrons” who support the arts and sciences and always thought, “Wow, I wish I had one of those”, well now is your chance to BE one of those, for as little as $5. Every little bit helps, and you will be involved in shaping the future of archaeology. If you like reading archaeology blogs, this project is hoping to take that concept to new levels in terms of digital interaction and interplay. And, if the project is able to go forward, this blog might just be a part of it!

“The Maeander Project needs your help! We received a permit to survey in SW Turkey in the Dinar Basin, but funding is tight for new archaeological projects, especially in our current economic climate.
If you can spare a dollar or two to support continuing archaeological research, we would deeply appreciate your help in getting this project off the ground.
If you cannot spare a dollar, please do us the favor of spending a moment to forward this message on instead.

Thank you,
The Maeander Project Team

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.

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