Day of Archaeology 2017

Public Archaeology and Cultural Resource Conservation in Colorado Springs

I wrote this blog to work towards a common goal all of us archaeologically-minded folk have- to help show the world why archaeology is vital to protect the past and inform our futures.

I am an archaeologist that graduated a little over a year ago from the University of Colorado with a Bachelors degree in Anthropology. I have worked in Southeastern Colorado as an archaeologist for over 5 years – working on campus archaeology in the lab, and the field while I was obtaining my degree. I have also volunteered with archaeological projects in Belize and South Africa. Currently, I work as an Interpretive Park Ranger for the City of Colorado Springs’ Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services Department. Among my many responsibilities, I am charged with monitoring the cultural resources of many of the city’s open spaces. These properties are parks of varied sizes that have retained much of their natural environment. As a result, they often  have cultural resources within them. My focus on these resources is two-fold in this job. On one hand, I look after these resources for any damage or disturbance.  On the other hand, I also act as an interpreter of these resources for park visitors. In doing so, I (hopefully) help park visitors learn more about these resources, which could lead to a meaningful connection for that individual with those park resources.

Understanding how we, the species Homo sapiens, got here requires that we understand where we have been and how we overcame the trials of life. What the discipline of archaeology offers all of us is the ability to uncover things we have lost to time. For example, how a species of bipedal apes that may have been nearly driven to the brink of extinction around 75,000 years ago were able to take refuge along the South African coast, ultimately propel themselves into the future, across the land and seas, and eventually into outer space by their amazing ability to innovate — to create new things, and solve new problems.

We are an amazing species. We harbor great power of creation and destruction. As we move forward in an uncertain future, it is vital that we remember how we got to where we are. We need to contextualize our place in history so we will be more informed on how to proceed into the future. Our cultures, our stories- they are how we retain and share our knowledge so we can continue to accumulate solutions to the problems facing us. As an Interpretive Park Ranger and archaeologist, my goal is to help people connect with those who came before us in hopes that they gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for those people, their cultures, and their stories.

Though, to really experience the beauty of our story, you have to look at each of the many parts that make up the whole. Human experience is as diverse as the physical expression of our genes. We have managed to inhabit nearly every conceivable environment on the planet, and not only survive there— but lead meaningful lives there. Lives enriched with art, music, and stories! There is a very good chance that it was our ability to imagine and innovate that allowed us to outcompete all of the other rather intelligent bipedal apes (e.g. the Neanderthals) that we once shared the planet with.

Archaeological work is also the sum of many parts, many projects, and many individuals. Under my management, on Friday, July 28th, my part was to make myself available to park visitors in the most visited park under my division’s management, Red Rock Canyon Open Space. I was there with reading material on the park’s cultural resources, and I answered many visitors’ questions about who visited, worked, and lived in the area that is now the park over the last 12,000 years. I also answered questions on what archaeologists really do (or don’t do). As I continue with this job, I will host more tabling days with the same goal in mind. I will also be performing an archaeological survey (which is a systematic and thorough search for cultural resources) of a park that has never been surveyed before. Initial results are showing that there are multiple archaeological sites at that park which have not been documented yet. We are in the process of documenting them now that we know they’re there. As an Interpretive Park Ranger/Archaeologist, I work to discover new cultural resources, protect known resources, and help park visitors learn about, and connect with, those resources.

 

David Stielow

Park Ranger

City of Colorado Springs

Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services

dstielow@springsgov.com

 

 

PhD(on’t you forget about me): Building a Thesis around the Lunatic Asylum and its Subaltern Lives

My name is Linnea Kuglitsch.

My day opens documentary research at an enviable nine o’clock in the morning. This timing is a far throw from my days in cultural resource management, where six-thirty meant sleeping in. This morning in Manchester, UK, there’s no sun in the sky and that makes it trickier than ever to get moving. That’s another change most Virginian mornings, where I’d lived for the better part of five years. Sun or none, I’m incredibly grateful to be where I am now; beginning the second year of my doctoral research at the University of Manchester, with a growing doctoral thesis that I have yet to loose passion for.

My research focuses on a historic demographic that continues to struggle to be heard, even in the present day; the mentally ill. My thesis will explore what archaeological assemblages can tell us about a series of asylum-based practices known as moral management. Moral management dominated American asylums for the better part of the nineteenth century, and lingered longer to some extent in the western states. It turned the built and material landscape into a mechanism of bodily and mental improvement and cure via an iconic physical landscape that balanced domesticity, occupational training, and diversion with other concerns like containment and control. Ultimately, professionals at these Victorian institutions hoped order, routine, prevention, and respect would rebuild the self-esteem and self-control of the insane, realigning them with rationality. Strained by fiscal limitations and overcrowding, these efforts ultimately fell short; however, the specialized architectural and artifactual record of these sites offers a rich and under-explored historical and cultural context for my analysis. Over the next two years, I will examine how curative encounters mediated by the material world resonated with cultural understandings of madness in the nineteenth century and test whether the attitudes and actions of the patient leave any discernible archaeological footprint.

An image of the iconic stairwell to the rooftop porches  of the Western Lunatic Asylum in Staunton, Virginia. This was taken during field research for an undergraduate thesis on the site, which led to my passion for researching institutional landscapes. Taking the air and viewing the rolling hills of the surrounding landscape was regarded as both a diversion and a way of improving individual health. Photo by author, 2014

I realize, as I type, that my thoughts have strayed to the tiny Virginian town of Staunton, where my interest in the institutional treatment of mental illness originated. To avoid falling too deeply into field nostalgia—which we as archaeologists can be very good at, I think, watching it begin to drizzle—I get down to business. In just a few weeks, I’ll be back in the United states, getting to work on the functional analysis of archaeological materials from two historic asylums that practiced moral management. For now, it’s time to lay the groundwork for my later analysis. I flip open my laptop and get to reading my primary sources. This morning, I continue a content-analysis of the scrapbooks of Dr. John Galt II, superintendent to the Eastern Lunatic Asylum from 1841 to 1862 There are four volumes of these scrapbooks. Each one is filled with newspaper articles carefully cut and pasted together. I run through these articles, with titles ranging “Suicide of a Communist” to “Atheists and Lunatics,” I begin to outline specific themes and categories that tie them together. Perhaps these themes reflect what appealed to and concerned Galt as the head of an asylum that needed to be brought into line with the more fashionable institutions springing up along the eastern spine of the United States. Whether these themes resonate with the physical remains of the Eastern Lunatic Asylum remains to be seen; in just a few months I will be analyzing archaeological collections and (physical) archives housed at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in hopes of connecting this rhetoric to evidence of actual, material practice. This research, coupled with data from a second case study from the pacific northwest, should provide a solid scaffolding for my doctoral thesis.

My mornings always feel unjustifiably luxurious and relaxed when I juxtapose them with my experience in cultural resource management, even as I struggle through primary sources—some fragments of these scrapbooks are next to illegible. Photo by author, 2017

Around twelve, I pack a lunch, grab an umbrella (predictably, it’s threatening to rain), and hop the bus down to the main University campus. Once arrived, I hunker down in the library and get to editing the first two chapters of my thesis. The main library is labyrinthine, but after two years of searching out books and quiet workspaces it doesn’t take me long to find a quiet corner and get to work.

I spend a little over an hour re-organizing a and editing section of my literature review before the highlight of my day arrives—lab time. In contrast to the time I spent in cultural resource management, where so much of the was down to processing and identifying artifacts recovered during systematic testing (from eighteenth-century cufflink gems to huge pieces of relatively modern toilet cisterns), lab work is a refreshing break from staring at a glaring laptop screen or a scrap of paper in the dimly lit archival work space. I pack up my things and head to Mansfield-Cooper, a sad-looking, linear building that houses the UoM Archaeology Department. In preparation for my doctoral fieldwork, Professor Eleanor Casella has been providing training in functional analysis for me, using finds from the most recent excavations. This level of one-on-one training is representative of the culture of the Archaeology Department at the University of Manchester. Despite being hugely understaffed—it’s the smallest department with top-ten ranking in UK archaeology—the lecturers are incredibly invested in their students and generous with their time. This department is characterized by one of the most friendly and supportive academic cultures I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience.

Photo by author, 2017.

We begin to process and catalogue materials from the 2015 season of the Kerry Lodge Archaeology Project, a community-oriented excavation that centers on convict-era features in northern Tasmania. I began attending KLAP in 2016, so the materials we’re processing are new to me—and despite my previous experience, I learn a great deal with every batch of finds. We sort through all sorts of sherds, shards, and other bits and pieces; shards of glass from square gin cases, the fragmented remains of ammunition and textured scraps of rubber. Artifacts from each context are sorted by fabric and cleaned. This primes these assemblages to be catalogued. Professor Casella and I weigh, measured and record the form, material, and specific function of each artifact. As we move into contexts of interest, I gain confidence in dealing with materials that I never encountered during my time in cultural resources management, from the thick, iridescent glass sherds of a panel mirror to an intact gunflint. As we set to inventorying each batch, the materials are cleaned and set out to dry overnight.

Ceramics and glass from one context, cleaned and waiting until next week. Photo by author, 2017.

Over the next week, the process will continue—and as I clean, catalogue, and photograph, I become increasingly confident in my capacity to gather my own data.  The history I hope to plumb is a delicate and dark one; however, I feel the benefits of my research outweigh its risks. Historical attitudes have shaped current narratives surrounding mental illness. If we can dredge up a bit more of the past, we can contextualize the difficulties, stigma, and challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals today. Perhaps one day I can transform this unique focus into an outreach project with its own therapeutic value. For now, I have to settle for  building the core research from which I may someday be able to build such a project–and really, that feels nothing like settling at all.

To learn more about my research on and interest in the nineteenth-century lunatic asylum and other historic institutions–from penitentiaries to boarding schools–join me on researchgate or twitter.


 

Unfortunately, the research I’ve outlined today—and many more projects like it, undertaken by aspiring and early career scholars, heritage-workers, and field-archaeologists—is currently struggling to survive. The University of Manchester Administration has recently proposed a massive cut to the to its senior faculty. Among the of 171 senior staff members slated for termination, professors from the archaeology department have been uniquely targeted. Come next July, we will lose four of our eight full-time lecturers, already down from a full twelve the last year. This action (justified under the unsubstantiated rhetoric of “improving the student experience”) cuts an already strained department in half, and will leave use well beyond functioning capacity. Several stakeholders have approached the University, which has now sworn to provide “no further answers” to concerns voiced in protestation of these unjustified cuts from within the institution. However, If you can spare just a moment, please sign on to this petition protesting these actions—if you have more time, the faculty and students would be very grateful if you would send an email or letter of support (or gentle admonishment) to Dame Nancy Rothwell, whose contact details I will list below.  You can learn more about our cause (and other ways to support it) here. If you’re interested in how this process is negatively affecting aspiring researchers, check out this post from another doctoral candidate in our department.

Contacts to Protest Cuts to University of Manchester Arts and Archaeology Staff

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester
M13 9PL
president@manchester.ac.uk

Professor Keith Brown
Dean of Humanities
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester
M13 9PL
Keith.brown@manchester.ac.uk

Mr Edward Astle
Chair of the Board of Governors
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester
M13 9PL
chair@manchester.ac.uk

Putting the Experimental Into Archaeology!

We are archaeology students from Cardiff University undertaking a month’s fieldwork placement at Butser Ancient Farm. The farm, situated not far from Portsmouth in Hampshire, is well known as a site for conducting experimental archaeology.
As part of the national Day of Archaeology, the site organised a ‘Try it Day’, where members of the public could participate in a variety of activities ranging from wattle fencing to stone baking bread. Our activity was to build and test a functional Roman style onager, rectifying the problems found in our first attempt.

The onager, named after its donkey-like kick when it fires, is a siege engine developed in ancient Greece and later adopted by the Romans, which sources its power entirely through torsion. The basic framework for the onager is constructed from 4”x4” timber around a 48” x 27” frame with a 46” arm. The site’s original onager, which measures an approximate 10ft in height, faced two key issues surrounding both its ease of use and capability. Firstly, as the rope bundle would not hold high torsion, the siege engine would not fire particularly far in proportion to its large size. Secondly, those who used the original onager faced tremendous trouble cocking it to fire effectively. To conquer the torsion issue, pins would need to be installed to secure the torsion rods in place and prevent the bundle slipping. Furthermore, to amend the struggle of cocking the firing arm, a ratchet system would be installed to crank back the firing arm which would then be fired using a pin on the end of a string.

Even though we faced a fair few bumps during the construction of the onager, we managed to construct it just in time to fire on Try it Day! The catapult was set up, we were all dressed up, and the rotten apples were just waiting to be fired. However, there was one problem we were unprepared for; the sheer popularity of the onager amongst the kids. The system worked, firing time and time again in succession, achieving a greater distance each time as the torsion was further racked up. Then disaster struck, in the form of a miscreant child cracking the dowel on the firing mechanism. Halted for two hours, we scrambled to find an alternative but safe firing mechanism which would still let the children participate. As the sky broke and heavens opened, we settled for cocking the arm by hand and pinning it through two eyes screwed into the frame of the onager. Regardless of the rain, the children kept in high spirits and carried on participating. Interestingly, the rain aided us in our efforts by lubricating the bundle and dowels, in turn allowing torsion to be again increased, flinging apples further and further until it reached the end of the paddock.

Overall, the project was a success and proved popular amongst kids of all ages, successfully introducing them to what you might term ‘experiential’ archaeology. Furthermore, once the dowel on the cocking mechanism is replaced, we aim to conduct some experimentation around the firing of the onager – testing different lengths of sling, and subsequently different firing arcs, to see which is deemed the most effective and efficient method of catapulting projectiles.

Hannah Rock and Lewis Beck

Diversity in Archaeological Work: One Archaeologist’s Journey

The mission of the Day of Archaeology project has been to show the diversity of work done by archaeologists around the world as a group, and what a success it has been!

In this post, I want to demonstrate that a single archaeologist can have diversity in work throughout their career too, and to emphasise that there is (paid) work to be found in this field. I started my career with a focus on the archaeology of the Byzantine and Islamic periods in the country of Jordan. While I am still on this chosen path of mine and continue to be active in both excavation and research, I spent the actual Day of Archaeology this year writing a conservation management plan for a cemetery founded at the end of the 19th century in Australia!

I write this post especially for those younger people who might be interested in pursuing their interest in archaeology as a career but who may be discouraged (either by themselves or through the warnings of elders and peers) by the myth that there is no work in archaeology. The skills one develops as an archaeologist are transferrable. I don’t necessarily mean to jobs in the mainstream, though that is also true (but you just might have to try extra hard to convince employers of that!) – I mean in the field itself, and in related fields. With hard work and effort, supported by flexibility, a dedication to networking, a little bit of entrepreneurship, and of course (as with anything else), luck, an archaeologist can find work across a range of interesting projects and disciplines while getting paid.

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Summer Break!

Hello Archaeology people! It’s Teddie’s owner here – the Humanities lecturer and Egyptologist-to-be – from Malaysia 🙂

So I’m on summer break – it’s odd to call it a ‘summer’ break when Malaysia only has rain and sun all year long. Nevertheless, one would assume I would be enjoying my days off like this….

But my morning really starts after I feed Teddie and myself some coffee – we were waiting for the water to boil.

And seeing as I have a conference presentation on ‘Archaeogaming and Reception Studies’  to prepare for, my view for the entire day looked more like this

It was a little upsetting that I didn’t spend my day basking in the sun which Malaysians generally don’t do – when we see the sun out, we usually run indoors for the air con – or Netflix-ing away. But I did finish watching a Civilization and Assassin’s Creed game play, each and started on my introduction for the conference, and in between all of that, I kept myself awake with more coffee and James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke accompanied by my own karaoke sessions.

To end the day, I’m writing this post and then a little Twitter read and retweets seeing as I live in a very different time zone to when all the archaeology, history, Egyptology-related news breaks. Then, it’s lights out before a weekend of gaming 🙂

 

-ArcEgyptologist-

 

 

The Council for British Archaeology’s Home Front Legacy Big Recording Month

This August see’s the first Home Front Legacy Big Recording Month swing into action, perfectly timed for those of you who are looking for something to do now the Festival of Archaeology is over for another year.

©-IWM-Art.IWM-PST-2735

For those of you who don’t know, Home Front Legacy is a Council for British Archaeology (CBA) project, funded by Historic England, that helps community groups, local societies and individuals record the legacy of the First World War in their area. Our recording app enables people to share new knowledge about buildings, places and events and make them accessible to all via a map of sites.

We’ve already had over 3,000 sites added to our map but we’d love to get even more so we decided to create the Big Recording Month to let people know just how easy it is to discover and record sites in your local area. Over the next four weeks we’ll be providing a step by step guide to give you all the tools you need to get involved. Our first blog went live on Monday and my colleague Chris Kolonko, Home Front Legacy Project Archaeologist, tells you everything you need to know about the project and the enormous impact the First World War had on the UK. We’ll be posting a new blog every Monday for the next three weeks with details on how to search for sites and how to record and upload your data to the app.

Alongside our blog posts we’ll be busy on social media providing inspiration and encouragement and highlighting some of the new sites recorded so make sure to follow us on Twitter @homefrontlegacy and Facebook /homefrontlegacy.

We’ve also come up with some great themes to get you inspired: local events; the role of women and food and rationing. From fundraising performances at the local cinema, to schools producing scarves and clothing for soldiers and sailors, recording the Home Front covers much more than the pillboxes and practice trenches that immediately spring to mind.

Today I’ve been busy finding out about sites in York that I can add to the map. A quick search of the internet and the list is already fairly long, including an internment camp at the Castle Museum that held both civilian and military prisoners; a chemist who offered cheap tooth removal so your rotten teeth didn’t prevent you from joining up; and the Yorkshire Herald Building where the war was announced to cheers and a hearty performance of the national anthem.

I’ve also been working on our plans for a series of First World War training events, a collaborative partnership between the Home Front Legacy and Living Legacies, one of the AHRC funded First World War Engagement Centres. These events will provide training on how to record First World War sites around the country and provide help and guidance to community groups and societies who would like to develop their own First World War projects. The first workshops will be held this October at IWM Duxford and Bristol. Follow the links if you’d like to find out more.

I hope you’ll join me and take part in the CBA’s Home Front Legacy Big Recording Month, and get your friends, family and local societies involved too! Lets see how many new sites we can add to the map over the next month and help preserve the stories and places of the First World War at home for future generations.

Commercial to Community Archaeology – A Day of Great Change

Hi, I’m Nina, an archaeologist working for Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service.

Until this Monday I spent most days out in a field, or on a building site digging things. On Tuesday it felt like a revolution occurred – I began my new job and was launched into the wonderfully eclectic world that is community archaeology. I would have liked to gain more digging experience before leaving the field, but due to various health issues (mostly exacerbated rather than caused by my job) being a commercial digger is not for me. I’m thrilled to be moving into community archaeology though, as that has always been my goal. There is something very special about being able to share the past with others – it is a great privilege.

So, I find myself sat here on Thursday morning in a warm and dry office with a desk of my own (a novelty after 18 months of scrounging for desk space during lulls in fieldwork!), with the immensely exciting task of sharing our archaeological and historical knowledge.

My day began at the civilised time of 9am (fieldwork usually runs 8am – 4pm). In my inbox was an email about a test pit dig of a WWII site that we are trying to arrange for the Worcestershire Young Archaeologists’ Club. As World War II is not my area of expertise, much googling followed.

Researching was cut short by a social media training session that ran until lunchtime. I need not tell you how important social media is for outreach work, as that would be preaching to the converted. Along with several other colleagues, I learnt more about creating a coherent plan for using our various social media channels and assessing the impact of what we do. All useful stuff and some interesting new ideas too.

After lunch I spent some time with our knowledgeable archive team, as my outreach role covers both archaeology and archives. My limited understanding of how archives work has now expanded – I even semi-understand the referencing system! I also got my first look in our archive strongrooms, which are kept carefully temperature and humidity controlled to aid preservation. Excitingly, I got to see Shakespeare’s marriage bond, which is just one of many historic documents held in Worcester!

WAAS archive strongroom with Shakespeare’s marriage bond in the right hand case (image taken by author)

A helpful handover and ideas chat with another outreach colleague, about school resource packs and upcoming events, led to a last minute flurry of emails before the end of the day. My diary is starting to fill up with site recces, events, project meetings and a first aid course. I think I am starting to feel more like a community archaeologist and less like a misplaced digger.

If you’d like to explore the archaeology of Worcester or know more about where I work (a.k.a. a shameless plug), you can find us here:

Explore the Past blog

WAAS Facebook page

@ExploreThePast

Digging With Sir Lancelot

My name is Przemysław Nocuń and I would like to call myself both archeologist and castellologist. For nine years now I have been privilaged to conduct archaeological excavations at one of the most important monuments of the Middle Ages in Poland.

Ducal tower of Siedlęcin, in Lower Silesia, Poland, displays one of the most complete and important sets of 14th century domestic wall paintings in Central Europe. The paintings are a rarity both for their mixture of secular, religious and didactic themes, and for their leading subject being the legend of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Today the tower is the only place in the world where the medieval wall paintings depicting Sir Lancelot of the Lake have been preserved in situ. The tower itself is one of the largest and best preserved medieval tower houses in this part of Europe. Initially crenelated, it stands 22 meters high (72 feet) and retains its original medieval configuration. The most siginificant alteration since the fourteenth century is the addition of a roof in the sixteenth century.

The tower’s Great Hall with the unique paintings depicting Sir Lancelot of the Lake and his legendary exploits. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Sometimes You Just Have to go Back

If you are an archaeologist working far from home, you try to plan everything to a T before heading to the field. You carefully excavate and collect samples for later analysis knowing that your final field season is your last chance to get the information you need for your research project. You later spend countless hours in the lab sorting and examining artifacts under a microscope, taking detailed photographs of important pieces, and documenting everything ad nauseam until finally, surely, you are ready for the write-up. Right? Wrong. Sometimes, the results of the specialized laboratory analyses you conduct later on, after the fieldwork and after the artifact analysis, motivate you to go back and collect more information.

On my way to find an aguada to the south of Ceibal Str. 79, known for its round shape.

I am a graduate student in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. I study ancient Maya urbanism at Ceibal, Guatemala by exploring whether or not neighborhoods were organized around temple complexes and water features in outlying areas of the city. (For more information on the Ceibal-Petexbatun Project, follow this link. For a peek at some of my findings, follow this link.) From 2012 to 2015, I excavated different areas of five temple groups at Ceibal, placing test pits in the temples, in some of the surrounding residential structures, and in nearby aguadas (man-made reservoirs). I also worked in the lab each summer from 2012 to 2016 to analyze the pottery artifacts from my excavations. The analysis of pottery allowed me to date constructions and other features, and in that way reconstruct the occupation histories of each group. I was also able to see if there were any differences in access to certain pottery types among the diverse groups of people living in outlying areas of Ceibal. Aguadas, like the ones I excavated, would have been important locations of face-to-face interactions for people residing around them, and crucial for agricultural production and human consumption. I wanted to analyze the pollen in the soils from the aguadas I excavated to verify if these features held water in antiquity, to learn about the quality of water they held (whether it would have been suitable for human consumption), and to see if agricultural plants were cultivated near these features.

Earlier this year, I sent a series of soil samples from the aguadas I excavated to a palynologist (pollen specialist), Dr. Susan Smith, for analysis. While Dr. Smith found that pollen preservation was poor in most of the samples, the soils collected from two of the aguadas provided some preliminary results that merited further investigation. Unfortunately, one of the samples was from an aguada that had filled up with water while we were excavating it, meaning we were not able to take samples from the most important layers at the bottom. The other sample came from an aguada excavated by my colleague, José Luis Ranchos, in 2016, which was not originally part of my project. I was in a hot spot, but I was determined to (quite literally) get to the bottom of water management systems at Ceibal. Shortly before my planned trip to the lab this year, I decided to travel back to Ceibal to collect more samples.

Excavation in an aguada (reservoir) in the Amoch Group of Ceibal, Guatemala. Notice the small pool of water collecting at the bottom. This was after repeated attempts to bucket out the water, which at one point was about 20 centimeters deep in the bottom of the pit.

On the 2017 Day of Archaeology, I had just returned to the lab after spending three days in the field collecting soil samples from the two promising aguadas identified in the pilot study. In antiquity, these features were dug out like ponds, and were probably 2-4 meters deep. Over centuries of erosion and other depositional processes, they have filled up with soil and now appear to be shallow depressions, a mere 20-50 centimeters below the surrounding surface. Whereas the upper layers are recent infills, the deepest layers—those just above bedrock or an original occupation surface—may correspond to ancient Maya occupation. For that reason, I wanted to take samples from the bottom. However, during the rainy season, these features fill as the water table rises. We had never attempted to excavate or otherwise document what happens to an aguada during the rainy season. As we dug, the excavation unit slowly filled from little water “veins,” or channels, that ran the water from deeper levels to upper ones. It was truly amazing, and reassuring, to see the water flowing into the depressions and imagine how these features must have filled in antiquity.

In three short days, with a lot of hard work and sweat, my team and I were able to get to the bottom of these two aguadas. We collected samples from each of the visible soil layers, and will send them to Dr. Smith for analysis. Just as we were leaving the site on the third day, a massive storm rolled in, causing two trees to fall and block the road on the way to the Sayaxché, the town in which we were staying. We had to run through the rain, hop over the trees, and grab a taxi to catch our flight out of Flores that evening. I arrived at the project lab house in Guatemala City at midnight on the dot on Friday, July 28. Later that day, while I was preparing for my trip back to Arizona, one of the excavators sent me a photo of what happened to the aguadas we had dug into. They had completely filled up, with standing water about ten centimeters above the surface. It appears we had gotten in and out of the field just in time.

An aguada excavation after a heavy storm. The entire excavation and surface was filled with water. Photo by Wilver Godoy.

When I left Ceibal in 2015, I did not know when I would return. But sometimes you just have to go back. Sometimes all the pieces fall into place just in the nick of time for the right amount of time to get all the information you need. Now I can say that I am finally, surely done with data collection… or at least until the results of the analysis tell me what steps to take next.

After the Dig: Working in an Archaeological Repository

Me and the lab vehicle, delivering artifacts to one of TARL’s storage areas.

There’s a certain glamour to being covered in dirt, in the middle of a jungle or desert, unearthing objects and structures unseen for centuries. Escaping the mundane realities of strip malls and daily commutes to go find evidence of long-ago lives carries with it a special magic—the magic of reaching across time, to come in contact with people whose names we’ll never know. That special experience is one that draws many people to archaeology, but often it’s hard to see how the appeal of archaeology can continue after the artifacts have been bagged and the trenches have been backfilled. For me, that’s only the beginning of the archaeological story.

I work at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL), an archaeological repository and research center affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin. TARL’s mission is to provide storage for archaeological collections and their associated records, while providing training and education for archaeology students and the general public. Our collections include millions of artifacts—probably upward of 50 million—in every material category you could imagine: pottery, stone tools, bone and shell, basketry, textiles, firearms, mummified lizards, painted pebbles, a pipe in the shape of President Zachary Taylor’s head. The collections span the entirety of human history: 2.5 million-year-old Oldowan tools from Tanzania to a 1922 penny. We also maintain the records of excavations at more than 80,000 archaeological sites across Texas, as well as a library of several thousand rare publications.

My job is to assist the Head of Collections, meaning I do a lot of the day-to-day work of maintaining the artifact collections. On a typical day, I might be found rehabilitating an old collection, accessioning a new collection, or assisting researchers who come to look at old artifacts with fresh eyes. This lab has collections from archaeological projects conducted as early as 1919, many of which are in need of new packaging and re-analysis. Artifact inventories from those early days—when they exist at all—virtually all need updating and digitization. New collections arrive regularly, mostly from various CRM companies working around Texas, and I check those collections against their inventories and process the artifacts for long-term storage. Every collection has to be easy to retrieve any time a researcher wants to analyze it, so I spend a good deal of time working in our database to update collection locations and add inventory details. Researchers may have me rounding up collections, digging through old excavation notes, or taking photos on any given day.

My workspace while doing artifact inventory!

 

What happens when you leave artifacts in low-grade plastic bags with no climate control for 60 years? A curator gets to clean them up one day!

Another major component of my work is teaching undergraduates. I’m not a university faculty member, but I get to supervise a good number of interns and student volunteers who come through the lab looking to gain hands-on experience and build their skills. It’s so much fun to work with these younger archaeologists and help them work toward their goals. I teach students how to classify and inventory artifacts, how to use inventory spreadsheets & databases, and proper curation practices. During their time in the lab, students typically help with rehabilitation or new accessions, so they really get to find out whether lab work, with all its tedium, is something they enjoy. They also learn about processing collections, which will help them be better field archaeologists—they will understand the importance of keeping everything well-organized!

Teaching students how to make scale drawings of artifacts.

 

Talking about archaeology at a local elementary school’s career day.

As the lab’s token Millennial (sigh), I also manage most of our digital communications and social media. I gather articles for our quarterly newsletter, which I also lay out and edit, and I write posts for our blog and Facebook page. I’m the lab’s point person for organizing our annual Texas Archeology Month Fair, which brings together representatives of many local archaeological groups and offers hands-on activities for kids and adults. I also organize several workshops for archaeology students and professionals each year. This work has gotten me involved with a group of other local archaeologists working to build a network for public outreach—something that is increasingly important as archaeologists fight against cuts to research funding and regulatory enforcement. Our goal with these public outreach efforts is to increase public awareness of the fact that archaeology is happening around them all the time, and to promote archaeology as an important part of environmental conservation and scientific research.

Overall, this job is wonderful, even though it isn’t what I originally envisioned myself doing when I first started studying archaeology. Working in a lab provides me with more stability than doing long stretches of fieldwork, and I get to get up close and personal with artifact collections from some of the most incredible archaeological sites in Texas and North America. My position also allows me to work on my own independent research with open access to these collections, records, and libraries. I miss doing fieldwork, but that’s certainly not something that’s closed off to me forever. I’ve got open invitations to visit many sites that are the subject of archaeological investigations, and I’m surrounded by experts who have been working in Texas archaeology for years.

Every time I open a box or a cabinet of artifacts, I’m confronted with the same magic you might feel uncovering an artifact for the first time. I have the opportunity to play another small part in the life of these priceless pieces of the human story. My colleagues and I take very seriously our role as stewards of this vast collection, which must be protected and cared for in perpetuity. These collections aren’t done telling their tales when the excavations are over and the crew hits the trail—they’ve only just begun.

Visit the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory online.

Find TARL on Facebook.

Visit the digital atlas of Texas archaeology, Texas Beyond History.