A couple of days ago, I outlined a couple of issues that are at the root of my problems with Free Archaeology and Crowdsourcing Archaeology. In both cases, it can be boiled down to having a fun, “sexy” project that maintains a high level of interest for volunteers/contributors.
This led me to think about my thesis research in Belize, back in 2004. In some ways, isn’t field school somewhat of an example of both Free Archaeology (albeit done right, and more of the “apprentice” idea) and crowdsourced funding for a project? At the time, there were 6 field school students for the spring session, 4-6 junior staffers, 3 senior staffers (note: these numbers may not be exact, ppl came and went and it was a while ago), occasional volunteers, as well as some paid Belizean workers. We were starting work on some newly discovered plaza groups at a relatively unexplored site. Initially, most of us worked on test units in the plaza of one group, and we discovered some really interesting and unexpected things. Eventually, I was sent to start doing some off-plaza test units, to help understand the landscape and how it was modified. I was a little annoyed, as the people working in the plaza units were uncovering all sorts of cool things, and I was digging in dirt to bedrock with whatever artifacts washed in. Friday was lab day, which most of us found a bit tedious as well, we were there to dig!
When my professor came to me to talk about my thesis excavation, I didn’t really have any ideas, but he had one for me: excavate two depression features around the plaza to see if they had been modified to use for water retention. One of the pits had already been started, and had unexpectedly turned up a small, complete plainware/undecorated pot and some human bone at the edge of the depression (I had/have no explanation for this). It seemed like there was potential for some great finds, and I was excited as were the people who were sent to help me.
As time would go on, and the unit expanded, nothing exciting happened. There was no burial. There were artifacts, mostly eroded plainware sherds and flakes, along with the rare bifacial tool and the even more rare obsidian microblade fragment. The feature was not turning into anything besides a typical, natural karst depression feature. I could tell that some of the field school students were getting bored and restless. It certainly didn’t help that 20 meters away they could hear their fellow students celebrating another amazing discovery seemingly every hour.
Eventually we opened up another large unit on a different feature, and I had people working at both features. I eventually noticed that at least one of the students was looking resentful, and word got back to me that they were complaining about how much my dig sucked. Most of the other students were clearly relieved that they weren’t on my crew. I tried to encourage my people, and every day thanked them for helping me out, apologized for “getting stuck” in the off-plaza units, told them they were doing good work. I didn’t feel good about it though, hell I was a little frustrated that I wasn’t following plaster floors or exposing buried Late Preclassic architecture!
My work got done, mainly because I was able to get help from a number of my fellow grad students/junior staffers, who could sympathize with the need for good thesis research, as well as one student who didn’t really care where they dug and liked me personally. I also had a very dedicated helper in the girl that I was dating (and would later be married to for a while).
What we ultimately discovered was archaeologically important, in that we showed that neither of these so-called “water retention features” likely served as such. I don’t know what they were for sure (one was likely natural, one was most likely a quarry), but my conclusion was that one can’t simply go around labeling every depression around a plaza group or structure as an “aguada”, because you are assigning it a function by using that name.
Of course, the excavations in the plaza yielded a number of very cool artifacts, located at least one unknown, buried Late Preclassic structures, with a burial covered by a smashed plate in the center. I don’t even know what was found there during subsequent seasons, although I do know that the very large depression that was later investigated did in fact prove to be a water-retention feature and ALSO a quarry.
So, how does this relate to Free Archaeology and crowdsourcing project funding?
The first may be more clear, as I stated how much the field school students hated working on my project as opposed to the “cool” stuff going on in the plaza excavations. If they had been true volunteers, I couldn’t have made them work for me instead of the other spot. As it was, I relied heavily on my personal relationships with people (be they colleague or romantic). If my work had been the only work going on, I wonder how many people would even have signed up for the field school (had they known).
As for crowdsourcing, there are two ways. First is (again) my reliance on my personal network of colleagues and “friends” for support, because what I was doing wasn’t fun, appealing, interesting, “sexy”. The first step in any fundraising/crowdsourcing drive is hitting up your networks. Secondly, and related, how many people would fund an archaeologically interesting but generally mundane excavation project, as opposed to one right in the plaza where the cool stuff is? I can promise you that my excavation and artifact photos were not exciting, unless you like seeing LOTS of exposed limestone surrounded by piles of rock. I didn’t contribute anything to the history of the Maya or that site by magazine standards, although I probably should’ve done a journal article.
Funny thing is people often ask me if I want to go back, or if I ever would. Honestly, I’m kind of over the Maya at this point. However, I feel like my work is undone. The lithics from my excavation units were never analyzed. It would be interesting to see if I could isolate “quarrying” shatter in the assemblage, and examine the tools for crushing wear. But I can’t afford to travel down there right now, and honestly, would YOU pay for me to stare at a bunch of pieces of chert in a lab in the middle of the jungle for a couple of weeks, knowing that it may not prove anything?