Sunday, December 28, 2014

Badlands (A.K.A. Truck Key Eaters)

As my previous post mentioned the badlands in Little Missouri State Park, I decided to actually do a little research and learn more about why the badlands are the way they are.

Because this is what I think of when I hear the word "desolate."
I'll get all scientificky in a minute.  Let me first describe the badlands in my own terms:

The badlands consist of hilltops that are constantly changing.  Rain and wind cause the hillsides to, quite literally, fall down in these huge chunky slices....line a cinnamon roll that is so gooey it won't stay rolled up.  If you stare at these chunks of hillside long enough, you can actually see how their stratigraphy lines up with the newly exposed sides of the hills.  As the land slides downward, it creates these steps along the hillside.  Kind of like this:

Isn't it nice of nature to give you steps for hiking?!
The soil in North Dakota's badlands is (in my experience) exactly like the all the other soil of the northern plains:  gumbo.  Given that these badlands are in the northern plains, I suppose my observation is simply the most astute observation ever.  You're welcome!

Anywho, the soil gets slippery and slimy with even the smallest amount of moisture.  

On that note, we'll move on to the actual science stuff I found online.  A brief list of badlands in the U.S. includes:  

1.  Makoshika State Park, Montana
2.  Badlands National Park, South Dakota
3.  Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota (this is where my truck key is!)
4.  Toadstool Geologic Park, Oglala National Grassland in northwestern Nebraska
5.  Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah
6.  Hell's Half-Acre, Natrona County, Wyoming......what a fantastic name!  
7.  El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

In each of these settings you get land formations that consist of:  
Soft sedimentary rock that has been extensibly eroded in a dry climate by water and wind, creating a typical scenery of sharp spires, gullies, and ridges (NPS 2014)
They aren't exaggerating when they describe it like that.....

Scenic overview of Roosevelt National Park.

To tie all this in with archaeology in general, places like the badlands in North Dakota, can be either incredibly rich in archaeological materials, or a complete waste of tax dollars.  My day in the field resulted in finding one fossil.  No human made stuff.  Just. One. Fossil.  I don't even really do fossils.  I mean, as the BLM's ND state archaeologists, we're responsible for identifying, recording, and preserving paleontological resources, but......I have no idea what these things are!  I mean, I can tell you that rock looks just like a bone, ergo fossil.  But I can't tell you anything else.  T-rex in all his little arm glory could be creeping out of the side of a hill at me and I probably wouldn't notice.

Rumor has it that even the Plains Indians called the badlands, "bad lands."  And the North Dakota State Parks and Recreation's website says that the badlands have been called "The Land God Forgot."  Wow.  So melodramatic.

Why is this all melodramatic?

What a fantastic question!  You see, the badlands are teeming with life.  First....trees.  Let's compare the following photos:

Little Missouri River State Park:
The North Unit of Roosevelt National Park....I'm on top of a hill already to give some perspective in scale.


Helllllooooooo out there!!!  *silence*


Second:  wildlife.

If you're expecting a photo of animals in the badlands, I apologize.  The only things alive I saw in the field were a crap ton of rodents...not sure what kind, either.  They were scurrying under the snow.  However, I do know that bats, white-tailed deer, antelope, mule deer, bison, birds, birds of prey, wolves, coyotes, rabbits.....ticks, get the point, right?  LOTS of life.

Imagine how easy it would be to hunt amongst all those hills!  All anyone/animal would have to do is get high up and go for the animals down between the hills.  I wouldn't be surprised one bit to find dozens, hundreds, thousands of buffalo kill sites in the badlands.  Bison stampede pretty awesomely.  Chase them off a cliff, or up a gully into a dead end and voila!  Easy pickings.

What the badlands aren't that great for, given the hill's tendencies to fall out from under you, is farming. So I guess there's that.

Oh, and hiking with vehicle keys in back pockets.  Just don't.  I promise you it isn't fun standing on an oil well pad access road waiting for help, whilst a large well is being drilled not 1,000 feet away from you.  And that may sound far, but with how massive the drills are, it may as well have been 100 feet.

So, there you have it.  I highly recommend visiting North Dakota to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  There is camping, horseback riding, a petrified forrest, bison, the Missouri River, and Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch (which also happens to be a registered Historic Place).

Friday, December 26, 2014

Holy life changes, Batman!

The title totally says it all, and is exactly why I haven't done a post in....oh.....6 months?  8 months?

Not much archaeology in this post, I'll save that for the next one.

But, in a nutshell:

Had a baby and three weeks after moved 2,000 some odd miles west to the Gateway to the I guess midwest.  But!  I like saying I live in the west; brings to mind all sorts of nefarious outlaws of olden times (thank you 9 year old daughter for that phrase!).

Road trips are so rough for a baby!
All that sleeping....
Anywhoosier....Our move from Virginia to North Dakota read like some sort of Country song (at least in my husband's case):  A guy in a truck with his two dogs.

As for me it was more like:  A mom, an almost-9-year-old-going-on-15-and-being-grounded-forever, and a 3 week old sleeping/screaming baby in a filled-so-much-I-can't-see-out-the-back-window SUV.

We stopped in nowheresville Ohio that first night.  Then Chicago....I LOVE CHICAGO!  Did you know that the Great Lakes are FRIGGIN' HUGINORMOUS!?!?!  I mean it looked like the ocean.  

It isn't Dodger Stadium, but it was pretty cool.

Mind is still blown.

Then we stayed in somewherestown Wisconsin.

And then there was this....

A freaking VIKING in MINNESOTA.  In Alexandria, Minnesota to be exact.
Because that is EXACTLY where America began.  'Merica!

We eventually made it to western North Dakota.  I absolutely LOVE it here!  I miss many friends in the DC area, but hot damn!  If I need to get across town it takes 5 minutes.  Seven minutes if it is lunch time and I get stuck at a light.  If I needed to get across town in Virginia, it would take me 30-40 minutes. Of course, if I want to go north out of town, I run the very real chance of an hour long drive taking more like 2 hours due to Bakken oil traffic, but I remedy that by rarely going north. When I do it is for work.  Easy peasy.

Speaking of work.  This shovel monkey is a shovel monkey no more!  The whole reason, if you haven't heard, for us moving from the megametropolis that is the DC area to the bustling town of Dickinson, North Dakota is that I got a permanent, big girl ties-her-own-shoes-and-everything job.  As an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management.  Yep, same organization I worked for in Montana.  I'm beginning to think my freakishly excitable enthusiasm for archaeology only works on interviewers from Montana and North Dakota.  But, I also think I was simply the only person who had northern plains work experience who was willing to move to a "small" town in North Dakota where prices for everything are so high that even Wal-Mart has starting pay of $15.00/hour.

Sadly, don't do much field work, but that's okay.  I gotta put my time in here, then I can move on to a position that let's me have all the field work I want!

Speaking of field work, I shall regale you with one story.  The BLM has around 50,000 acres of land in North Dakota.  One small tract of it lies at the Little Missouri River State Park.  Oil well pads and access roads are going up all over the place, and so the ND State parks and recreation peeps want to blaze a new hiking trail through the BLM lands.  So!  I'm like, "Sweet!!!  Field day!"  This is in December, mind you.  December 11, 2014.  Winter.  In North Dakota.

Basically, I'm an almost-idiot.  There was snow on the ground, but we were having a heat wave of above freezing temps, so we figured enough snow would be melted and all would be good.  Pfft!  HAHAHA!  Yep.  This is where we were:

Super beautiful!!!!!  And, as it is daytime, the flares from the oil pads aren't visible so you can actually pretend there's no humans!
Beautiful.  Can't say that enough.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is sort of what the badlands look like.  All chopped up hills....I love them.  I'm completely fascinated by the badlands, but that is for a future blog post.  For now, my story.

We went out there (see above) to survey the route for the new hiking trail.  The trail currently is non-existing.  Which means we get to walk it in all of the trail's natural glory.  ALONG THE SIDES OF THESE HILLS!  These hills, mind you, are made up of gumbo soils.  Gumbo is slimy, sticky, makes you grow as you walk, and can cause you to slip and slide everywhere.  Even down the side of the hills if you aren't careful.  I had to resort to the, always, super safe method of hiking that involved using my shovel as a walking stick.  Evolution hasn't weeded me out, yet!

We walked about 3-4 miles in that....and at about the halfway point (which was also the ending, turn around, point) I suddenly had the urge to find the vehicle key.  The government loaned vehicle, to which the key belonged.  Could I find it?  Of course not!

Long story short, I slipped and slid my way back as fast as I could (clearly I survived), to see if the key was locked in my truck.  Of course not.  We ended up waiting for help.  Once helped arrived, with the spare key, we bolted.  It gets dark up here early, say 4:30pm, and when that sun goes down, the temperatures drop fast.  It got cold quick.  As soon as I had the truck started we tried to leave.  But the badlands weren't done with me yet.  I had to turn around on a small farm land access road, and as soon as I put the truck in drive and took my foot off the brake, I heard the strangest sound of metal creaking.

Metal should NOT be creaking.

Turns out the ground decided to fall out from under the back right tire.  I didn't waste any time messing around.  Put the truck straight into 4-Low, and let that Chevy engine do what it does....

I may not do field work often, but when I do, I do it with style and excitement!

Here are some more pictures from our hike.  You know you're jealous.  I know I'm not going back out there until a few weeks after the spring thaw.  When the ground has dried.

There's a Chevy key out there somewhere.......

Friday, May 23, 2014

Science? Not even if you insist.

I have decided to completely abandon the whole "pregnant archaeology adventures" shtick.  Mainly due to the fact that this winter sucked horribly, and by the time field work came around again I was beyond wanting to challenge anyone who said I couldn't do field work during pregnancy.  Cuz now, nope, just no.  I don't want to.  I don't even want to sit in the lab and use the hole punch to put holes in all the artifact bags. Laziness level = 1,000% and rising, and I am perfectly okay with that.  I still go to the gym and workout twice a week, do prenatal yoga, clean the house, and walk the dogs.  Take that "Don't Do Anything During Pregnancy" people!  I am particularly fond of doing deadli...I mean squats, and the leg press at the gym (because really, imagine it.  Imagine how far back I have to be in that machine to get my knees around my belly.  Epic.).  

Anywho, back to archaeology.  I've been wanting to write about this for quite some time, but every time I started typing, I'd get off track and ramble about nothing.  But not this time.  Here goes:

Archaeology is, like, so not a real science. (please read that with your best California Valley girl accent).

There, I said it.  

There's this whole history, that is quite boring, behind archaeologists striving to get the field of archaeology to be accepted as a "for real" science.  Here's the not-sourced-but-from-memory super-simplified history that may or may not leave out large chunks of time periods regarding archaeology in North America:

This is straight out of a primitive "folk art" book.  I wonder if it is even 
authentic...whatever culture it belongs to.
First, we had the antiquarians who were more interested in finding awesome exotic examples of primitive man.  Think anything that can be sex-themed (venus figurines, anything phallic-shaped) and anything remotely resembling a "grotesque" figure, whatever that means.  These people loved to build themselves some cabinets of curiosities.  In one cabinet they could have Native American and African and Peruvian and Australian  and Chinese artifacts, all mishmashed together in a conglomerate of exoticness.  The rich collectors and their friends would then gather round for brandy and cigars and discuss how awesome they all were for traveling the world and finding all this primitive stuff.   "Primitive" stuff, mind you, that merely showed how the collectors were from "advanced" and "civilized" cultures.  These cabinets were also seen as proof of racial types and the whole race ladder of "superiority."  Racism.  Cabinets of racism based on "scientific proof" seen in the primitive material culture.  Hot damn, the people in the 18th and 19th centuries were so totally open-minded.*

Then!  In the mid to late nineteenth century some anthropologists started freaking out because the Native American cultures were fighting wars against armies and disease and were "disappearing."  As such it was a bum-rush of anthropologists to reservations and whatnot to record everything they could before all of the people died.**   They call this "Salvage Anthropology" because they were "salvaging" dying cultures.  (Note:  early archaeology was done under the guise of anthropology, until Mr. Franz Boas **insert cheers and celebratory music** broke anthropology down into the 4 components we still use today:  ethnography/cultural anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and biological anthropology.)

Moving forward all the way to the 1950s (there's that huge chunk of time I'm going to ignore) and you have the whole processual archaeology movement, in which some archaeologists sought to make archaeology a legit science by developing accurate and objective information about past peoples by using scientific methods.  With this came a lot of really boring, painful-to-read journal articles about how we cannot allow archaeology to be tainted by biases, and we should strive to develop overarching theories regarding culture and people and stuff that can be used to study other cultures and peoples and stuffs.

There have been other movements since, including theoretical models and ideologies that say "poo-poo" to processualism, which I will not discuss (post-processualism, Marxism, feminist archaeology (not joking)).  The point of this entire post, however, is that in my years of study and work experience, I've met more archaeologists than I can count, who honestly, truly believe that archaeology is a legit, for real science.  They believe this to the point that they won't even concede to archaeology being a "soft science."  

As I sat there in my windowless lab on a very hot day (I am in denial that pregnancy has brought on hot flashes), I suddenly wanted to slap all the "Archaeology is a science!!!" people.  I mean, I'm using a 3-hole punch to, what...scientifically place ventilation ducts in ULINE Reclosable 4 mil bags in an effort to prevent the growth of fungi of the milticellular filaments called hyphae type?  Thank you, Wikipedia for that definition of mold.  I don't even know if that is the type of mold that can grow on ceramics and other porous materials.  It just sounded all sorts of scientificky and smart and stuff.  What I do know, is that when artifacts have been washed and not allowed to dry thoroughly prior to being placed into sealed plastic bags, fuzzy, smelly stuff starts to grow.  I've seen it, I've battled it, and I've won.  I hope...those artifacts are no longer in our lab.  The point is, using my Swingline 3-hole puncher is not science.  I put the holes in the top of the bags because when the bags are sitting upright, the little degrading metal flakes won't fall out and get the bigger bags dirty.  

Shhh....Science is happening.
What's that you said about field work and GPS coordinates and tape measures and pace counts?  Oh, yes, well, about 7 steps for 5 meters is totally dependent on me counting correctly, walking the same way, and remembering my north from south.  It is also dependent on me using a tape measure on clear ground.  What do you do when you have brush and plants in the way?  You guestimate every so slightly.  Oh, and compasses?  We use those, too.  And with those I've experienced that awesome moment when two people are walking their transects (which are supposed to be parallel and between 5 and 15 meters apart) along a specific cardinal direction and then they crossed paths  (that's not supposed to happen!).

Legit science.  Deciphering one piece of burned tree bits from others.
Also, hard sciences are focused on experiments and procedures that can be duplicated.  You can't do that in archaeology.  Once we dig it out of the ground, no one will ever be able to duplicate that dig.  Oh, you can dig in the same vicinity and add to what was already recovered.  You can take the artifacts, the field notes, photos, measurements, and sketches and you can re-analyze those, but you can never replicate an archaeological excavation.  That alone tells you that archaeology can't be considered a hard science.  We kill our research subjects the moment we put a shovel in the ground.

My biggest point demonstrating how archaeology is a "science," is that archaeology is not completely objective.  It can't be.  And I don't just mean in the whole "don't bring your biases" into a study.  No, I mean 4 people can look at one artifact and give you 4 different classifications.  I have literally had a ceramic sherd that I said was pearlware, another person said whiteware, and a third person said refined earthenware.  Here's the kicker:  pearlware and whiteware are refined earthenwares.  The only difference is how refined and the glaze (whether or not it had cobalt added will give it a blue pooling and thus make it pearlware).  I've even had two different people say that a sherd was pearlware, then watched as another supervisor licked the paste and declared it whiteware due to the how "porous" the paste was.  I've seen two mendable pieces of ceramic that were cataloged as two different ceramic types.  Hmm....there's some science for you!

"Hey Bob!  Is this uranium or just some silver?"  
"Hmm....I'm not sure Jim.  Here, let me lick it!"

You see the problem in that, right?  

Here's another one:

Holy crappoli!  Aliens that look suspiciously like the aliens from War of the Worlds, came to the Mid-Atlantic in the late 1700s/early 1800s!  That guy with the hair from Ancient Astronauts NEEDS to see this!  Wait, what happens when I rotate the sherd 180 degrees?

Far less fun... and a hat.  Hhmmm....well, damn.  Cancel the Ancient Astronauts.  

In all seriousness, the first time I cleaned and really looked at this lovely creamware red transfer-printed colonial water scene ceramic, I saw aliens and a freaking UFO.  I walked around to everyone in the office and showed them.  At least one person stared at it with this completed baffled look on his face with his mouth slightly agape.  My argument was very compelling.  

As you can see, there are too many elements (primarily involving human perception) that play into archaeological analysis.  This is super duper important in that depending on how someone classifies artifacts, their analysis of the stratigraphy timeline, and ultimately their time frame for the site is affected.  Archaeologists even determine the socio-economic status of, say, a household, based off the types of artifacts you find.  Some were more elite than others.  If one person sees a silver spoon, another person may see pewter.  Pewter was a poor-man's "silver" in the 1800s, thus making it a lower socio-economic household.  So whether you see silver or pewter makes a difference in the outcome of the analysis.

Archaeology may strive to use scientific methods in an effort to make excavations and studies as consistent as possible, and that is okay.  In fact, I think it should be that way.  That way you do find some sort of consistency through the digging process (i.e. using stratigraphy, measurements, etc) thereby making it possible for subsequent digs at one location to produce information that makes sense.  My stratigraphy will match up with yours and so forth and so on.  

However, where archaeology is not a science is the human interpretation factor.  You can't be solely objective.  You have to bring in your life experiences at times to figure out what something might be.  For example, on our data recovery project, a particular artifact was recovered that sparked some debate in the lab.  The cataloger looked at it and said, "child's toy!  It just needs wheels."  I took one look at it and said, "That's not a toy.  That's a horse bit.  A curb bit to be exact."  Well, she didn't like that I had a different opinion and so she disregarded me outright.  Fast forward a few weeks and I stumble across two more horse bits.  All of these were clearly bit pieces to me, but I had to find photos of these from other archaeological contexts and argue my point.  My supervisors went with my analysis, as their only ideas were, "possible kitchen hook?" or just "unidentified."  They trusted my personal life experiences, in conjunction with the proof that the homeowners had horses at some point (as evidenced by the 6 horseshoes).  

Curb bit, because my life experiences say so.

So, there you have it.  My reasoning why archaeology is not a science.  I'll grant the profession that archaeology is a social science, and that we strive to utilize scientific methods for excavations, and even special analysis (such as faunal, archaeo-botanical, etc), but that's about it.  Get past those aspects and you stop being a science.  Licking stuff and declaring that it is blah-blah-blah is not science.  

*We cannot judge them too harshly, as they were products of their time.  I am sure future generations will look back and wonder what we were all thinking and why we were all such hateful people.  And here we are thinking we've come so far, so ya know.  Don't get too worked up over grandpa's racist comments.  You can't just snap your fingers and change a person's embedded cultural values and beliefs.  

**Sadly, many, many, many tribes throughout North America really did die off, and all we have left of some of them are memories from other tribes.  The California tribes were practically annihilated during the whole "$5 for one scalp" events of the 1800s.  Ishi is a good starting point (only that as there is so much more out there than just Ishi) for researching the California tribes.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Adventures, where are you?!

Winter is definitely not an archaeologist's friend.  I haven't been in the field since November, and I'm beginning to resemble a small planet......maybe a moon? (See my post two posts ago and you'll understand why)  The point is, I do believe my archaeological field adventures for the next year are officially on hold.  Though, I swear if given the chance to do a pedestrian survey or a Phase II or III, I would rock it.  The belly can hold up the screen while I search for artifacts, and hold my clipboard while I takes notes.  And any irrational pregnancy rage brought on by some stupid tree looking at me funny, can be taken out by vigorously hacking out those 10-cm levels in the oh-so-delicate way we CRM peeps do (See this lovely post from a while ago regarding the surprises of archaeology.).   I got this.

So, winter.  As many people know, winter is full of frozen days, maybe some snow...and with that (in the DC area) mass panic, school closings, and crazy drivers.  The grocery stores are raided like we've got the zombie apocalypse going on, only people seem to prefer to buy beer and frozen pizzas, cuz you know, those are necessities....?  

And yet the fresh fruits and vegetables area is deserted......

Anywho, back to archaeology and winter.  They don't oil and water.  Even if you shake, stir, scream at, they won't mix well.  Winter freezes the ground (especially in the more northern areas of the US), frozen ground breaks shovels and trowels.  And no archaeologist can refer to themselves as an archaeologist if they don't have a trowel.  Seriously, Indiana Jones without his fancy hat, whip, and Nazis to punch, isn't Indiana Jones.  He's just....Harrison Ford.  

Hhhmmm.....where is my trowel?

Oh, well.  It'll turn up eventually.  Clearly, I am not doing archaeology right now, unless you consider writing on artifacts and creating little paper tags for them to be archaeology.  Oh, and working all day curating a group of artifacts because West Virginia's curation guidelines say so, only to be told by the WV curation people that we, in fact, do NOT have to do that task.  The. Heck.  Test in patience?  Yes! 

Today's lesson:  dealing with a SHPO or curation people.

You see, the SHPO (pronounced SHIP-OH, the State Historic Preservation Office) is the office responsible for allowing us CRM people to do our jobs.  For example, we have to convince them that some particular archaeological site is actually of value to...someone...and that the pipeline/roadwork/parking lot/mall/what-have-you, will destroy a valuable part of the area's history.  These are the people you do not want to piss off.  You could find Noah's Ark buried in Pennsylvania, and they'll be like, "We don't believe you, we're just going to bury the site and build on top of it."  Also, and only in my experience so I could be wrong, SHPOs aren't archaeologists.  I don't know what they do, but they don't do archaeology.  They work in an office with twirly chairs.  Perhaps they have a degree in anthropology/archaeology?  I don't know.  The point is, whether or not they are being stupid, you have to smile and nod and take it.  

The same goes for the curators.  You need them to approve the work in curation that you've spent months doing, running out of funding, writing super small on an artifact a mere 1-square inch in size.  No joke.  If it is bigger than 1x1 inch you have to write on it.  And these labels consist of something like this*:


And it has to be legible.  And we generally use a calligraphy pen.  Legible.  So, my recent test in patience came with the curator who informed me that we did not have to curate and box separately any artifacts that were photographed for the report, and that it wasn't even stated in their guidelines.  Meanwhile, I'm staring at the paragraph that says exactly that.  Hm.  Okay.  

Gosh, I miss the field.  Give me frozen earth and broken shovels!  Much easier to understand than the ever-changing curation guidelines or SHPO moods.  
Well, that is about it for my current adventures.  And, as I don't really have anything else for's an awesome meme:

GET SOME!!!!!!  **note the trowel in the last image**

*  I totally made-up that site and specimen number, if it really exists....oops.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Epic Adventure Number 1

Epic Adventure Number 1:  Not raging at any one or any thing.

Go teamwork!!  (yelled enthusiastically with one's arms in the air)

.....or not, in my case.  To be honest, I enjoy teamwork.  It means less overall work placed only on my shoulders.  At the same time, it gives me someone to talk to and off of whom to bounce ideas.  And lately, I have had the wonderful pleasure of working with people I get along with.  Even the strangest and potentially annoying people are fun in the field.  They help the day go by with...interesting...discussions.  So, I enjoy it.

Now let me throw some legit science your way:  many pregnant women get emotional.  Just read these stories.  You see, there are all these crazy hormones coursing through the pregnant woman's body and it is like PMS times 5...I may be conservative with that number, but there you have it!  

My emotions seem to range between perfectly normal to raging beast, and there was this one evening at home when I bawled for an hour, at first for no apparent reason....then because I didn't know why I was crying.  But, normally I am perfectly normal.  

The archaeological epic adventures start when I find myself working outside in the frozen tundra of West Virginia and a breeze hits me.  Then I go from calm and fine to grumpy beast.  

Like so:

Life is great!

Then, someone harmlessly says, "wow, I'm tired," and I'm like:

You're tired?!  @#$$%@#$!!!!!!!!

In the lab, I may be happy and normal, but then the scanner doesn't want to scan, and/or I can't find a pretty corroded hand-wrought nail to scan,  and then the computer runs slow, or that stupid marble won't sit still.  No, it just wants to roll around like a marble.  Then my poor co-workers ask me how it is going.....

Stupid marble, why are you round?!?!

I know I am being irrational, but dammit I just want that marble to stop rolling.  I guess all that's left to say is, "Good luck, World!"

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Here's to the start of epic new adventures!

So, the past couple months have been the start of some new changes in my life.  Well, not entirely new, as I've done this before, but the next 7 months are definitely going to be epic...cuz there can't be much in the world more epic than a pregnant lady doing archaeology. 

This terrified me at first.  I mean, terrified.  For a couple of reasons that I will quickly outline below.

First, I was not going to be able to go back to Montana in the summer of 2014.  Though I think it would be freaking hilarious for me to be 8 months pregnant and hiking across the plains, I knew my husband would not approve.  Plus, you know, my doctors are here in Virginia, along with my husband and 8 year old maybe I should stay here.  Literally, the first thing I thought was "NOOO!!!! Now I can't go back to Montana!" when I realized the little stick showed positive.  I all but fell to my knees with my hands thrown up in the air.  It was all very dramatic.  But then I got nauseous (as I have been every day since) and the drama ended with me needing to lie down.

My second fear, and the one that really truly freaked me out, was the idea that my budding new career was going to be stopped dead the second my supervisors found out.  And then even after baby is born, I'm not going to want to go out to the field overnight for at least 6 months.  So, I was going to be out of the field for at least a year, and have I mentioned yet that I am nothing more than a temporary employee?  Technically they can let me go at any point, which was originally when the field project in November 2012 ended.  And the big thing with CRM as a temporary field/lab tech, is that they can just let you go.  And it can be very hard to get back in the field once you've been out for an extended period of time.  And finding that coveted permanent position depends on one having a crap ton of experience, and a lot of luck.

Now, even though my current employers have pretty much kept me working for the past year (excluding Montana), and even though they were calling me as I was driving back from Montana to see if I was available for work, I was still scared that the as soon as they found out I was pregnant they would not let me go to the field.  And this fear was based on events that happened with another girl (well, lady) at work who got pregnant, and well, she was moved over to another office within the company, and hasn't done archaeology in over a year.

Let's also not forget that in our society, pregnancy is very often looked at as a disability.  A pregnant lady can't freaking do anything normal without somebody telling her she's harming her baby.  Just take a gander at this story.  She's my hero.  And then there are all the fantastic mom's I've met who did things like compete in triathlons right up to the end of their pregnancy.  Or how about all the women of the past who worked on farms or ranches.  There are ethnographic accounts of women having babies, and within a few days, strapping them on their backs and continuing on with the gathering of food.  So, I'm going to throw a massive bullshit flag on the whole idea that pregnant women are fragile.

So there I was, the second and third week of December, dealing with exhaustion and morning sickness, freezing weather, and snow, and out in the field.  "Miserable" barely covers how horrible it was.  To top it off, our site was supposed to be from the late 1700s to the early 1800s, and yet we were finding modern trash.  It felt like the biggest waste of time, ever.  And in the middle of this big waste o' time, I kind of just blurted out to my supervisor, "yeah, so I'm pregnant."  He just kind of stood there and gaped.  But very quickly congratulated me, and then asked if I planned on continuing to work.  When I said yes, he said, "good!  Because we'll have work!"  Turns out, this was pretty much the same response I ended up getting from our office's head boss guy.  Then both of them decided to joke about how funny it would be for me to go out to the field 8 months pregnant, big ol' belly, digging holes and screening dirt....the belly could hold the screen for me.....those kinds of jokes.

The point is, my fears were unnecessary.  The people I currently work with are pretty awesome and are willing to let me work in the field for as long as I feel comfortable doing so.  I plan on working in the field for as long as I can.  I'm sure there will come a point where I probably will just give up.  Archaeology can involve some hard physical labor, and eventually I'm not going to be able to see my feet, let alone dig straight walls and flat floors.  So, here's to 7 months of potentially epic stories of me waddling through the woods!  Stay tuned! I didn't have any pictures to post this time, so here's the rest stop to visit just outside of Alliance, Nebraska:

Free WiFi?!  I'm there!

.....and now just watch.....there won't be any field work until mid spring when I suspect I won't want to go to the field.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The joys of archaeological lab work

I swear my archaeology professors were deliberately keeping secrets from us, because all I can think is "Oh, lab work, how you make me want to go back out into the field to wage war on the bugs and heat and sun while trying to dig holes or waltz around the prairie."   

The problem…well not “problem” per se, more like something else they don’t warn you about, is that when you’re in school studying archaeology, they go on and on about field work.  Lab work is mentioned indirectly (at least in my experience) when they talk about artifact analysis and article/report writing.  However!  They fail to mention just to what all that "artifact analysis" refers.

First, let me say that labs can be depressing.  Like, I don’t have windows, I don’t get to see the sun, kind of depressing.  There are no clocks outside of the one on my phone, so I can’t even tell how long I’ve been caged.  Kind of like casinos except without the flashing lights, slot machine noises, the losing of money, and the drinking of age appropriate drinks…maybe we should get a beer fridge…

At least in the lab I’m currently working in we get posters!!

Also, there is only one door.  We’re screwed if we ever need to evacuate the building and our door is blocked.  Crap.  Why did I just look at it from that perspective…

Anywho, aside from the windowless and escape-proof room there is the actual lab work.  You see, when you dig all those fun artifacts out of the ground, you shove them into bags,  without cleaning them off first. (Sidenote:  licking the artifacts to determine what they are doesn’t count as cleaning)  So, dirty (read:  dusty, muddy, moldy…or some combination therein) artifacts are shoved into plastic baggies.  Bio-hazard archaeology, anyone? 

Now, you can’t accurately analyze or identify dirty artifacts, so you have to clean them.  This is a super high-tech process involving high-tech equipment.  It involves taking a toothbrush and a bowl of water and brushing the dirt off.  Incredibly high-tech and fun when you realize you’re brushing a cow tooth with a human toothbrush.  This process can also be very time consuming depending on how many artifacts were recovered.  I worked on a Data Recovery project (which is a full-blown excavation where you get as much of the site excavated as possible because the WV DOH is going to put a road where your site is located), that produced over 8,000 artifacts.   One little house, so much stuff. 

After the cleaning comes the sorting and cataloging.  I honestly love sorting and cataloging.  You get to see all of the artifacts from the excavation, and this lets you get a better idea of what was happening at the site.  Also, thanks to the modern world of technology, all you have to do is create an Excel spreadsheet.  You record all of the provenience data (which was written on the bag in the field), and then you record how many pieces of the type of thing you have.  If you are any sort of OCD with organization, this job is totally for you!  You also weigh the artifacts and include all that information.  Then you re-bag the artifacts in their newly formed groupings and put all of those little bags into a bigger bag, keeping all the artifacts together that were found together.  So, bags within bags within bags. 

After you’ve gone and sorted them all, there is some analysis of the groupings and some writing.  Throughout this process you may realize stuff in the catalogue was messed up, so you fix it, and eventually you start saying “gah!  Whatever.”     

They spelled archaeology wrong.
Then there is the part that is new for me and is the primary reason for this post:  curation.  It sounds so awesomely amazing and like something people do in museums!  For those who want to get a full-time job as an archaeologist this is something that, I have found, is super great on a resume.  I thought it would be interesting.  It was supposed to be interesting.  Turns out, I was wrong. 

There I was, sitting in my windowless room, with naught but a door and some posters to disrupt the monotony, when I started wondering once again (thank you, archaeology) “What am I doing with my life?!”  With CRM, depending on the state to which the artifacts will be sent for storage, you have specific protocols to follow with curation.  There are rules (not guidelines, as they are not suggestions) to follow regarding how you bag, group, and label the artifacts.  They even include a list of artifacts they do not accept for storage.  Thank you archaeology for all those times you told me that “all artifacts are important!”  New Jersey couldn’t care any less about architectural items such as mortar, brick, or plaster, nor do they want any artifact that is corroding.  So, no nails, bolts, screws, or other ferrous artifacts.  Well, dammit.  So, tell me again why I even bothered to keep them so nicely bagged?  I kid, sort of.  They are important for the site analysis part and total artifact counts, but at this point no one will have them for future research, which is anathema to archaeological ethics.  My head hurts.

I'm sorry old oxidizing nails, but nobody wants you.
So, aside from them rejecting some of the fruits of hard labor, the rest of the curation process is just…odd.  I have no other word.  It is odd.  You have to first create tags for them, which is made mucho easier with computers.  Instead of handwriting hundreds of them, I type them.  Less finger cramps, more carpal tunnel. 

There comes a point when one is typing this up when one's fingers cease to remember how to move.

Then you cut all those little tags out.  This should be the simple part, but those tags get sized slightly differently because of the provenience data on each of them, so rather than chance slicing one in half using one of those nifty paper guillotines, I resorted to cutting out one sheet at a time with the much-less-exciting scissors. 


Once you have all the tags cut out, you take out all of the bags within bags within bags and once again identify what artifacts are what.  I really feel like this could be a much less redundant task, but oh well.  Also, you have to label each of the bags with the newly created curation number and put the tag in with the artifacts.  And all the while, you'll wonder why you can’t have just one small window to gaze out of...or why you can't be out in the field creating curation work for someone.

There's a lot of work with sharpies in archaeology.

Keep on tagging, keep on tagging....

After all the tags are placed in the bags, there is the task of writing the curation number onto some of the artifacts.  There are some weird guidelines with this, and it has to do with only labeling those artifacts that are of a certain size, and only so long as you don’t cover any of the special features of the artifact.  I haven’t gotten to that part yet, so I’m sure it is going to be exciting.  Exciting as in, “oh my gosh, this piece of ceramic is so freaking small and I don’t think I can write numbers that small, and, oh god I just wrote the completely wrong number.”  That is what I expect to happen.  It’ll be good times.

Let me tell you, I cannot wait until these artifacts go to New Jersey!  Then it is back to that Data Recovery project and 8,000+ artifacts to curate. I wonder if all my archaeology professors would sit there in their offices and rub their hands together, whilst giggling in a maniacal way, knowing that they weren't telling us the whole truth about doing archaeology?  

Those artifacts were so much more fun when I didn't have to continuously bag and re-bag them.