Where in the hell am I?

September 19, 2013

Thinking about #freearchaeology and #crowdsourcing #archaeology part 2: an example?

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?


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.

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 10, 2011

My SAA 2011 wrap-up

The annual Society for American Archaeology meetings took place this year in Sacramento, California. Colleen Morgan asked me to be a presenter on her symposium “Blogging Archaeology“, and I happily accepted. I had not presented at a conference since my senior year of undergrad (the 1993 National Conference on Undergraduate Research), so I was nervous and excited. I had attended one previous SAA meeting, in Austin, but my time there was spent mainly networking (aka drinking beer with friends and colleagues) and seeing papers by friends and co-workers.

Actually, my experience this year outside of my own symposium wasn’t all that different, in that I only saw a few papers and posters and spent a lot of time catching up with friends and meeting new people. Speaking of, I did a horrible job handing out and collecting business cards, and Saturday night I was well into my cups, so I would be happy if all those wonderful people I met and talked to would drop me a line at (idigholes at gmail dot com) or my work address on my card!!

The few papers I did see were mostly about public archaeology, since that’s where my interests are skewing. But first, I saw a couple of papers on Maya Water and Land Management, which brought about thesis flashbacks. It was nice to see one of my graduate school colleagues continuing with her research in her new role as a university professor (hell, it’s just nice to see that one of my grad school colleagues was actually able to get a full-time academic job!).

The first two public archaeology papers were part of the general session titled “Archaeological Education and Public Outreach in the Americas”. The first paper, by Rebecca Schwendler, was “Using Backyard Archaeology to Foster Cultural Resource Presevation”. This was about her excavation of a historic privy in her backyard in Lafayette, Colorado, and the outreach she conducted as a part of this personal project. Interestingly, although she wrote a series of blog posts about replacing her windows on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s webpage, there was no mention of blogging or any sort of internet-related outreach as part of the backyard project.

This was to be a theme for the public outreach papers I saw. Kristin Swanton’s “Public Archaeology and Landowner Support at the Battle of Mystic Fort” was interesting in breaking down the most effective forms of landowner communication while attempting to conduct an academic/public archaeology project. This is partly because I always figured that landowner issues were restricted to the road and utility projects that CRM firms are involved with. Again, no mention of using social media or blogging as a part of the outreach.

I managed to drag myself out of bed Saturday morning (after an afternoon and night of carousing with a bunch of the Berkeley grad students, among others) with a goal of catching Randy McGuire’s presentation on “Working Class Archaeology” and then eating a giant pancake (aka The Hubcap) at Jim Denny’s.  McGuire’s paper was thought-provoking, for sure, particularly in the definition of class as not just pertaining to income level. His discussion of outreach involving the United Mine Workers during his work on the Ludlow Massacre site during the Colorado Coal Field wars was very cool, and also contained some real food for thought. Again, however, no mention of the Internet whatsoever, even though there is a webpage for the project (another “virtual museum”) and a paper/presentation posted online as well. I also saw Jay Stottman’s “A Slow and Moving Target: The Reality of a Practice of an Activist Archaeology” but honestly I was still waking up and don’t remember much of it. I wish I had been able to see this full session…and have no one to blame but myself.

As for the Blogging Archaeology panel, other people, including Colleen Morgan, Michael Smith, and Kris Hirst (our amazing discussant) have done a better job of summarizing than I could, so I will happily link to them and defer. I did also have my very brief wrap-up here, with a link to my paper. I also encourage you to check out Shawn Graham’s paper here (which you can read or watch). I will say that I was inspired by the different perspectives, the post-session comments and the later beer discussions, the live-blogging via Twitter, and all the nice personal backpats I got from people. I was very pleased that people laughed at my laugh-lines, and I feel like I held my own with an impressive array of presenters. Also, having seen what the Campus Archaeology Program at Michigan State University and the Florida Public Archaeology Program (particularly the Northeast and Southeast regions) are doing, I’m more determined than ever to drag CRM (and hopefully, my firm) into the 21st century.

March 1, 2011

Blogging Archaeology Carnival, Week 1: What can my 2 cents do for archaeology


In anticipation of the Blogging Archaeology panel at the 2011 SAA meetings in Sacramento, the organizer (my best friend Colleen, also an amazing archaeology blogger and all around smartypants) has asked the participants (including myself) to participate in a blog carnival, wherein we answer a weekly question on our blogs. It might just be a way to goad slackers like myself into a weekly post, but I’m fortunate to be a part of this panel and up for the challenge.

This week’s question:

The emergence of the short form, or blog entry, is becoming a popular way to transmit a wide range of archaeological knowledge. What is the place of this conversation within academic, professional, and public discourse? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology?

I’m a little tempted to just link back to my abstract for the panel and leave it at that…but…I blog because my job as a CRM professional (aka non-academic archaeologist) is both interesting (usually) and misunderstood.

I interact broadly with the public, but under their radar, every time I do a job. My work exists because of federal, state, and local regulations, which reflect the public interest in identifying and protecting (as necessary) this nation’s cultural resources. Not only that, but part of my job is to help balance this public interest with other public interests, including cheap and/or greeen energy, new or better roads/bridges/waterlines/sewer lines, and places to shop, live, and play. Naturally, these interests can be contradictory, and the mediating function of my work should be understood by the public. Not to mention the fact that public funds often directly or indirectly fund my work.

Most of this work, while conducted right under your nose, is not seen by the public. This extends from something as mundane as the holes I dig (covered in such a way so they’re unnoticed), to the artifacts I find (either left in the field or stored at a curation facility, where they’re only available to researchers), to the reports generated (often only submitted to the client and the permitting agency, at best a couple of hundred copies are printed). I know that some of the large excavation reports we’ve done for TxDOT are required to have a number of copies available with the site location information redacted, for public distribution, but I couldn’t tell you what libraries have them or how to get one. By blogging about my work (and sharing photos through Flickr, along with Facebook updates and the occasional tweet) I can shed some light on the process and the results, hopefully so the public can understand what I do, why it’s done, and why it matters.

This doesn’t exactly answer the question, so let me try a simple, direct approach (which builds on the above discussion):

The place of blogging in the discourse between professionals and the public discourse is two-fold.

First, it is one of the best ways of direct engagement between professional archaeologists and the public, outside of face-to-face encounters (which usually are rushed because I’m on the clock and have a lot to do and am tired and sweaty and may not have anything cool to show you). Despite the obvious public interest aspects of professional archaeology, the amount of interaction and information is pretty sparse, one-sided, and tends only to happen at the end of a project (and only large projects at that).

Secondly, blogging helps demystify the work of archaeologists. Like most jobs, it’s often mundane, boring, and repetitive. Archaeology is more about hoping to find cool sites than it is about actually finding them; we deal a lot more with “negative data”, which as the saying goes “is still data” (and yes, I know “data” is plural) . CRM archaeology isn’t really like National Geographic or Discovery Channel digs, and while CRM finds do occasionally make the national media, those types of finds are extremely rare. But while our sites aren’t as stunning or rich as the huge civilizations spotlighted on television, the information we recover can be just as significant to archaeology and to local history. If the public can understand this, they can better appreciate why cultural resources management practices are important and necessary, and might also encourage stewardship.

September 24, 2010

Sage aka Wyoming Day 2

2.1 sagebrush

Originally uploaded by texasrobo

One of the constants thus far on this survey is sagebrush. It’s pretty much everywhere, in different sizes and concentrations. The smell is always faint in the air and on the wind, getting stronger when you bust through a big plant or step on a small one.
It’s kind of like a day-long aromatherapy session. While I believe in many natural remedies and herbal supplements (such as the daily ginseng pill I take and the “sleep aid” herbal tea on top of the fridge), I’m not much for aromatherapy. At the same time, I know that sage is used in some Native American rituals, particularly smudging and smoking. This is to cleanse a place, purify it, remove evil spirits and negative energies. A related use for sage oil is to deal with depression and anxiety.
This is all pretty meaningful to me right now. My life has been something of a stressful, confusing, manic mess for quite a while. A long, deep, sad, serious talk with a friend recently was a major wake-up call. Since then, I’ve really been digging deep, identifying changes that I’ve been too lazy or scared to make, realizing that there is a deep unhappy that I try to mask with superficial, short lived pleasures.
In a way, these daily walks through the sagebrush are cleansing, getting rid of the negative energy. I sometimes rub my fingers against the leaves to bring the smell out.
Yeah, I don’t get serious or personal on here often, but this is what was on my mind all day today. Sorry…

As for the survey itself, we got a lot done again. Must’ve walked 6-7 miles. I didn’t find anything personally, but we did record another rock cairn site. This one was an isolated feature, with no associated artifacts.
Other than that, it was just the sun, the wind, and some interesting rock formations.

September 13, 2010

Back in the field…

Logs, creek, etc.

Originally uploaded by texasrobo

…and it feels surprisingly good!

I forgot how good it feels physically to dig. My muscle memory came back quickly, and it just felt right. I’m tired and sore in the best way. I’m excited to dig a lot more tomorrow.

I forgot how good it feels to just sweat your ass off doing hard work. I was only surveying for 2.5 hours today, and I sweated completely through my clothes. I could almost wring sweat out of my canvas belt. Being in Texas during the summer, you pretty much sweat just living. Just standing around in the day, I can sweat through a shirt. That’s gross. This sweat was almost cleansing.

I forgot just how good it feels to lose your mind in the work. All I had to think about was where I was going to dig my next hole, taking a few photos, and the actual task of digging and screening. It wasn’t like zoning out. It was using just enough of my mind to feel engaged, while the rest just stayed in the background, noticing the sounds and smells, not dwelling on anything or calling up all the troubled thoughts. It was almost Zen, and definitely not a normal state of mind for me.

Given my choices, I would rather not be back in East Texas, and especially not staying in Woodville. And yet, this seems like exactly the right thing to be doing at this time. I didn’t realize how much I missed this, how much I needed this.

July 20, 2009

Food for thought

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — John @ 5:41 pm

“Hell, you were going to suffer in this life anyway you might as well do it doing something you love.”

Kwana Jackson, referring to a lesson learned from Frank McCourt.

I sometimes come across perspective in the least expected places.

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