Where in the hell am I?

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 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 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.

June 1, 2011

Fannin Battle Ground Day 6

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

Block 5 is finished. A total of 161 hits were looked at, of which 16 had items collected. Two were actual musket balls, one was a possible button, and the remaining 13 are iron pieces that may be battle-related. So, 90% was modern trash or false readings.
Finishing that took almost all day, which was great because we were afraid it would take a lot longer (cue Booker T and the MGs or The Clash “Time is Tight”).
Still working on hits in the “hot spot”, although I think we’re down to 15 or so left. The dirt is ridiculously hard and dry right now, so that trying to dig 8-12 inches to find a musket ball is a serious endeavor! There are many sore arms and wrists right now, and I bruised my palm (near my index finger). At this point, the results are redundant, but this area is also slated for unknown renovation impacts.
Began the survey inside the memorial circle, as the outer half is not built up. This was done by another volunteer, who is actually one of the high-ups (if not the top guy) for cultural resources at Texas Parks and Wildlife, and an experienced detectorist. Another nice guy, who taught us a few tricks. We recovered another musket ball from one of his hits as well.
At this point, we’re still leaving the eastern block (#4) alone, because of the perception that it’s almost all modern trash, based on the concentrations near fences and picnic benches. The only concern there is that, apparently, that area wasn’t really surveyed back in 2001.
Days are long and hot, and I’m spending a lot of time after the field getting supplies (batteries, sunscreen, electrolyte drinks) and double checking paperwork. I’m sorry that my blog posts are not more thorough, with photos and links, but I’m just a little too busy and tired right now. Also, since I’m field director this week, I don’t really have time to live blog, although I have tweeted a couple of times (https://twitter.com/#!/archaeocore).

May 31, 2011

Fannin Battle Ground Day 5

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , , , , — John @ 5:09 pm

Just a quick update today since I’m really tired and going to get some food soon. Even on a travel day, the heat just sucks all the energy out of me.
We’re back for another week, and feeling a time crunch. The back part of the park, which has several picnic tables and may have once been a camping area, is now finished with the metal detector survey. Only 700 hits to investigate! That’s a solid two days of work for the entire crew at a good pace, and it’s almost all likely modern trash.
We also detected the northwest corner of the park, near the “hot spot.” Much lower density of hits there, only 215 across a 60 x 100 m area. Might be able to get that in a day. Also, hoping to find some more battle related items there.
Today we had a volunteer “detectorist” come out to help us. He is a Texas Revolution buff, and really knew a ton about the artifacts. He also had a very fancy detector and a lot of experience on Revolution battlefields, all legitimate volunteer work through archaeological societies and state agencies. He had a lot of respect for archaeology and context, and made it a point to try and uncover things in situ. He resurveyed the “hot spot” and found at least a couple dozen more things that we missed, including a very cool copper or brass button from a uniform.
Tomorrow, we’ll be excavating the hits in Block 5, the other high probability area. I think we’ll have another volunteer helping out.
Sorry I couldn’t be more descriptive about the day!

May 27, 2011

Fannin Battle Ground day 3 wrap and day 4

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , , , , , — John @ 10:38 am

The day 3 live blog was precluded by heat and exhaustion (but not heat exhaustion, fortunately). Plus, as expected, Block 2 proved to be a mix of modern trash and possible historic iron things. Our client, the Texas Historical Commission, is going to receive and analyze the artifacts. So we collected a lot of the large iron artifacts to let their experts sort it out.
There was one exciting find in Block 2. The other team (of course) found a large, old brass spoon with one hit, and then a lead shot about a foot away. There were jokes about someone getting shot while eating their dinner, and we were also calling it Fannin’s spoon.
Hmmm, maybe we should do a press release about that! jk
Today was a short day (mercifully) since we’re driving back to Austin. In fact, I’m currently on US 183 between Goliad and Cuero! The weather was cloudy and very muggy to start, and the grass was wet with dew. We dug around 40 more hits in block 2, with nothing really interesting recovered. We then shifted over to metal detecting Block 4 adjacent to Block 2 and on the opposite side of the park from
the “hot spot”. There are some picnic tables nearby, and I think it was once used as a camping area. We got 300 hits in a 24 m x 100 m area! I’ve got a $5 bounty next week if anyone finds anything battle related there. I suspect it’s a lot of pulltabs, bottle caps, and can scraps.
Speaking of next week, we’re definitely coming back, although it may not actually be next week. Our scope called for 200 hits, based on all the previous work and reports. We’ve already dug roughly 300, and have something like 400 more marked. AND, we still have half of the survey area left, including another very high prob area.
We’re all surprised, including the client. There’s certainly been a lot of modern trash and questionably historic iron, but we’ve also had at least 40 battle-related hits. We’re thinking of resurveying that area with a super-high intensity detector, as a double-check.
But first, Memorial Day weekend! Have fun, y’all!

May 26, 2011

Fannin Battle Ground Day 3 live blog

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , , , — John @ 9:10 am

Lunchtime update: Finished the “hot spot” for now, decent recovery but definitely not as prolific as Wednesday. Right now, we’re sitting on the porch of one of the park buildings. It’s a really great spot for a picnic, if you’re ever in the Fannin area!
The PA is on the phone with the guy who rented the metal detectors to us. We’re feeling less confident about our “hits” today, and having problems replicating them. Hope it gets worked out, although we’re shifting back to the first area. At least there’s a little shade there!
10:10 am CDT:
Added the WordPress app to my iPhone, gonna try updating in the field today!
It rained last night, but our paint held. One might hope the ground would soften, but if anything it’s made the substrate even harder! And the weather is still hot and humid.
Thus far, the amazing results from yesterday have slackened. Still an occasional musket ball, and at least one more iron pot scrap, but many more modern and false hits. As for myself, I’ve found one small lead slug, 2 bolts (collected just in case, but probably 20th century), and roughly a dozen modern or false hits.
Right now we’re taking a break in the shade, having gone at it for 2.5 hours.
We’re definitely not finishing this week!

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.

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