Saturday, July 6, 2013

The things they don't warn you about

The TARDIS.  Just cuz.
When I first started going back to school post-Army days, I had every intention of studying anthropology.  I swayed back and forth between doing biological anthropology (focusing on forensics) and archaeology.  But, sometime around my 2nd semester at George Mason University I got caught up in studying artifacts in museums.

Forgery, in that he wasn't made 2,000 years ago...
more like 113 years ago.*
So, at GMU I took a lot of classes focusing on archaeological theory and methods, archaeology in the museum, and pre-Columbian studies.  I definitely have a firmer grasp on Mesoamerican timelines than I do of American history.  That, however, is neither here nor there.  The point is, I got all sorts of wrapped up in looking at Zapotec funerary urns at the National Museum of the American Indian.  This followed me to graduate school at George Washington University, and was even the focus of my thesis....all 150 pages of it.  Except, the urns I studied were fakes, and therefore technically not really archaeological, but I love them nonetheless.  Anyways, I still focused on the museum aspect of archaeology.  You see I wanted to work with archaeological artifacts in a museum, not the field.

Know why that was stupid of me?  I wanted to work in a museum, but I didn't have the experience to actually work in a museum.  So, a year after graduate school, my darling husband said, "I will pay for you to go get experience.  Sign up for a field school."  So, I did.  And I went.  And it has been the best decision I've ever been prodded into making.  Not only do I love archaeology (which is what I had originally planned to do), but I have been lucking out and getting work.  I went to my field school a year ago, got my first big-girl archaeology job last November, and I have been doing that ever since.  

During the last year, I have discovered that there are a few....discrepancies....between what you learn in school and what actually happens in the field.  I know, I know....the same is probably true for all jobs.  College courses teach the ideal of the field of study.  These courses are designed by professors to force you to think outside your safe little bubble and to force you to try to come up with your own opinions....sort of.  I know I jumped on some archaeological college you're all like "Yeah!  Down with the man!!"  Kind of like when I joined the Army and I was all, "I'm going to go Airborne and Air Assault and be all badass!!"  And then I got through DLI for language training and San Angelo, Texas for job training, and I was like, "You want me to do what?!  Play real Army and go for a how long ruck march, carrying how much weight in my pack?  Pfft, you're crazy."  Even managed to make an infantry officer laugh out loud when I said something similar to "we have to play real Army?!"  I'm pretty sure he asked if we were Intel, we said yes, and he nodded with understanding.

Anyways, when you study archaeology in college courses here's some of what they teach you:
  • Archaeology does not study dinosaurs.
  • Excavations are very slow and exact.  You must be delicate and careful.
  • We should only excavate what we need to in order to understand the site, while leaving enough unexcavated for future excavations.
  • All artifacts must be carefully dealt with, because you don't want to cause any more damage or break them!
  • All excavated artifacts must be carefully monitored and cannot be lost, because every artifact counts.  And if you lose one you've done as much damage as looters, for shame!
  • You must be exact, because archaeology is a legit science.
  • Indiana Jones is not an archaeologist, nor did he do any real archaeology in the movies.
Then there are the rumors you hear:
  • Beer.
  • Don't know what it is?  Lick it.
Archaeology is hard sometimes.  Even when you lick it, 
you may get it wrong.  This was bark, not bone.  Oops.
My traveling companion.  Cuz archaeology is a profession that 
literally takes you places.

So, when I got to my field school, all of the above was pretty true.  But, that was also the nature of the site.  It was a very old and long-use Native American site.  We dug only as quickly as we felt safe doing, because the artifacts were mostly fragile (shell and pottery and mica....these things can crumble when you dig them out and the only thing holding them together was the soil you just removed).  As far as how much land was excavated, the field school had been going there every summer for several weeks for several years, and only a manageable amount of land was excavated each time.  However, they did not have their field season this summer because they had too much data to get through.  There was definitely a lot of archaeological science going on out there, what with measurements and soil colors and such.  And there was beer.  Every Thursday the field school gathered at the most awesome bar for food and fun.  So, beer.  .....I don't remember anyone licking anything....but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.

You'll find wild onions, name one "Oni" and then forget he's in your field 
pack....and then you wonder why everything smells like onions.....
But that was the field school.  And since it doubled as a field school, and a legit excavation run by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, it makes sense that they would be ideal.  Of course, I also know that a lot of archaeological excavations will fall under this ideal, as well.  Otherwise, they wouldn't teach those specific guidelines in college. The thing is, I clearly haven't worked on ideal excavations since my field school!  This is what I have learned through my archaeological work:
  • Coffee.....every single archaeologist I've met drinks a lot of coffee.  Every. Last. Person.
  • Sometimes, you just gotta plow through levels with pick-axes and shovels (and boy, do I love a good pick-axe).
  • Sometimes artifacts break, or you have a clumsy moment and drop it, and well.  Let's look on the bright side, now you have two pieces!  
  • There are artifacts that turn out to tell you absolutely nothing about the site.  Such as a random ass strip of metal.  Similarly, when you have hundreds of unidentifiable ceramic sherds, you also have a whole lot of nothing.  They are only useful when identifiable.
  • When the Department of Highways says it is going to plow through your site unless you find a pyramid in West Virginia, you excavate as freaking much of the site as your time frame and budget allows for....then you wave good-bye to what is left and pray you have enough to justify all the money spent.
  • When you have thousands of pieces of mortar or plaster, you take maybe 100 pieces and chuck the rest.  You're not going to learn crap from those thousands of pieces, and honestly, since they aren't diagnostic their numbers will only inflate the artifact count for the site.  So, no.  Not everything is important, trust me. 
  • As far as the "science" goes, sometimes you find yourself saying, "yeah, close enough."  
  • Sometimes you won't keep anything from the site.  You record and walk away, leaving the stuff where you found it.
  • Archaeologists know that Indiana Jones is totally not a real archaeologist, but still like to pretend that we'll one day get to punch Nazi's in the face and use a bull whip, and wear the fancy hat...actually, I've seen archaeologists with Indiana Jones hats.  So, yeah.
  • Sometimes you will look for dinosaur fossils......but you still know nothing about them.  :)

You also start playing "Which Bone Goes Where?"
and "I Wonder What Ate Him?"
Other things you may not know until you get out in the field is that:
  • You may or may not like working outside...all day long....and for days on end, at that!  There's no way around it, archaeology is done outside, or in caves....but still out in le natural world.  And if you know you don't like working outdoors, please don't show up to any archaeological work site, your complaints about nature are annoying.
  • Speaking of nature, the two of you will become infinitely closer.  Toilets are only available at fancy dig sites.  
  • Bugs.  There are always bugs.
  • Aside from your lunch and actual archeology stuff, your field pack will include: toilet paper, sunblock, bug spray, Tech-nu (for poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and skunk spray), Benadryl, and Caladryl (or Calamine or Cortizone 10, or some other anti-itch stuff), and baby-wipes if you wanna get crazy.
  • If you think you're a nerd/geek, just wait.  Someone on the field crew will put your nerdiness to shame.  
  • There will literally be blood, sweat, and tears.  Likely to occur because of one another.  For example, you get a splinter, you bleed, sweat gets in the wound, and you cry.  Or you may be digging in a 4 foot deep hole and some 6th sense kicks in and you suddenly sit upright only to find a bucket full of dirt where your head just was.  Dangers of the job!
  • You'll find that while you may barely be able to draw a stick figure in art class, you can suddenly sketch an artifact as if you're Monet.
At some point in the day you look out at this and think, "Wow, I really wish I hadn't had those 10 cups of coffee...."
We're pretty lax when it comes to fashion.  Dr. Who socks at work are completely normal.
You get happy about hand-wrought nails with spatula tips and rose-heads.  Especially fancy
ones like this.
Late 1700s - Early 1800s Flintlock.  As clean as it is gonna get.  Trust, me.  I tried.
So consider yourself sufficiently warned.....I think.  I'm sure some of my archaeology friends have stories crazier than mine....I find all of my crazy stories to be hilarious and not terrifying....except for the bucket incident.  Indiana Jones may have punched Nazi's in the face and returned an alien skull to the body, but I bet he never had to find a safe, yet private, spot on the prairie to pee.    

Carhenge.  Epic.

*  This Zapotec funerary urn lives at the National Museum of the American Indian, the photo was taken by me.  

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