Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas

A Year In a Day: My Life as an Arkansas Archeological Survey Archeologist

The logo of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.  Click here to find out more about us.

The logo of the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Click here to find out more about our organization.

My name is Jamie Brandon and I work for the Arkansas Archeological Survey (AAS). Last year, the 2012 Day of Archaeology caught me finishing up a large excavation I was directing at Historic Washington State Park.  This kind of thing (directing excavations) is what the public might expect an archaeologist to do.  This year, however, the 2013 Day of Archaeology is in July, and for me, July is all about winding up my fiscal year which runs from July 1 through June 30.  So, late every July you will find me writing a summary of my last year’s work—this will eventually find its way into an annual report which is a major document that we provide to the public and lawmakers to explain what it is the AAS does and why it is important to Arkansans.  This may seem on the surface to be bureaucratic and boring, but, in fact, it is an excellent opportunity to give you an idea not only what I do in a single day, but what my life as an archaeologist looks like throughout the year—the width and breath of what it is we do at the Arkansas Archeological Survey.  I call it “A Year in a Day.”

The Arkansas Archeological Survey is an organization whose mission is to “conserve and research the state’s heritage and communicate this information to the public.”  What this means is that I do quite a number of different things in the course of my job.  I teach, work with graduate students and conduct research (like most university-based, academic archaeologists), but I also am responsible for helping to manage archaeological resources in my assigned research territory (11 counties in southwest Arkansas), working with groups of volunteers and doing public outreach about what we do…that’s a lot of hats for one job.

Research, Fieldwork and Publications

Let’s start with the parts of my job that most people expect—doing archaeological research and fieldwork.  As I just finished up directing two field seasons at the aforementioned Historic Washington State Park, I tried to take this year easy…but as I sit down to write my annual report, I find that I was not very successful.

We conducted a series of “long weekend” digs in the fall at a site called Dooley’s Ferry, a Civil War-era community that was a major, early crossing on the Red River.  I say “we” as this project was actually the dissertation topic of my research assistant, Carl Drexler.  You can read Carl’s Day of Archaeology post (including a little bit about Dooley’s Ferry) here.  Our work at Dooley’s Ferry, however, points out two things.  First it indicates that even the categories that I use in this blog post are problematic—I could have easily placed this project under “Teaching and Working with Graduate Students.”  Second, it reminds me to mention the importance of volunteers in our work at the AAS.  Last year my Day of Archaeology post was about the Arkansas Archeological Society, the volunteer organization that helped lobby the AAS into existence in the late 1960s.  We work continually with the Society on projects all around the state and I would not truly be able to do my job without them.  Over 51 volunteers helped out in our Dooley’s Ferry work.  We worked with the landowners, retired mill workers, foresters, archivists, biology instructors, nurses at correctional facilities, software engineers and even folks who own a hardware store—folks from all walks of life…If these folks had not volunteered their time and effort, we would have not found out all that we did at the site.

Arkansas Archeological Society volunteers digging at Dooley's Ferry last fall.

Arkansas Archeological Society volunteers digging at Dooley’s Ferry last fall.

The second field project we were part of this year was also a graduate student project.  John Samuelsen, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, is working on collecting remote sensing data at Crenshaw, an important prehistoric Caddo Indian site in my research territory.  John, Carl and I—along with a number of our colleagues and volunteers—collected 387 twenty-meter-square grids of data during two field efforts at the site (one in July and one in the fall).  What is “remote sensing,” you ask?  Remote sensing means using a suite of high-tech methods (such as ground penetrating radar or magnetometery) to get a look at what might be under the ground before we dig…or on ceremonial sites, like Crenshaw, to get a look at what might be beneath the surface without disturbing sacred deposits.  Remote sensing is an increasingly important component of the technical and methodological tool set available in archaeological research, and I’m proud that, despite stereotypes about the state being backward, the University of Arkansas and the AAS are at the leading edge of these methods.

As far as publications go, I got two peer-review publications through major hoops and hurtling towards publication this year—one for a thematic volume of Historical Archaeology, the international journal of my sub-discipline…and the other a chapter in an edited volume on historical archaeology in Arkansas.  The former should be published by the end of the year, the latter has gotten through review and we hope to receive a book contract early this fall (*fingers crossed*).

Additionally, I also did two book reviews this year.  I reviewed Buying into a World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia by Ann Smart Martin for (of all places) Enterprise and Society: The International Journal of Business History and I reviewed Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past by Julia King for American Antiquity.  I personally think book reviews are underrated academically…not for resume padding (although some people do that)…but for my own professional development.  One of the things I miss about graduate school is the amount of reading and synthesizing of information that you do on a regular basis.  I find accepting book review projects as a good way to force myself to keep up with literature and really digest it (I have to write about something before I fully understand and integrate its content).

Teaching & Working with Graduate Students

The second most commonly thought of aspect in the life of an academic archaeologist is teaching.  As a part of my job I teach the anthropology curriculum at my host institution, Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia—this year that means that I taught General Anthropology (ANTH/SOC 1003) and Anthropology of North American Indians (ANTH/SOC/HIST 3143).  I teach anthropology and archaeology on a campus that does not have an anthropology major.  This means that, in all likelihood, my classes may be the only anthropology class a student ever has. The impression I give a student is the one that he or she is going to carry for a big hunk of their lives—I had better make anthropology relevant and interesting. In this situation I feel that it is not my job to get incredibly technical about my field (as I would do with majors), but simply to make sure that my students understand what anthropology is, what questions anthropology is interested in asking and how it goes about answering those questions. If students leave my class with an appreciation for the diversity of human culture (and they have improved their critical thinking skills), I have succeeded.

Teaching art students about prehistoric ceramics at Southern Arkansas University.

Teaching art students about prehistoric ceramics at Southern Arkansas University.

I get more technical (and philosophical) in my role working with graduate students from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and elsewhere—the future of our discipline.  I am proud that this year two of the graduate students I’ve been working with on projects in my research territory have completed their Ph.D. dissertations.  In April, Duncan McKinnon successfully defended his dissertation at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.  I’ve been working with Duncan on the Caddo site of Battle Mound in Lafayette County since 2007—his work combined new technologies (that remote sensing stuff again) and the reanalysis of old collections from the site.  His dissertation, entitled Battle Mound: Exploring Space, Place, and History of a Red River Caddo Community in Southwest Arkansas, is a major contribution to Caddo archaeology and the archaeological literature of southwestern Arkansas.

In May, my current research assistant, Carl Drexler (mentioned above) was successful in his defense of his Ph.D. dissertation at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA.  Carl’s dissertation, entitled Dooley’s Ferry: The Archaeology of a Civilian Community in Wartime, was based on 6 years’ worth of archaeology here in southwestern Arkansas using resources and staff from the Arkansas Archeological Survey and volunteers from the Arkansas Archeological Society.  Carl’s work reconstructed the footprint of Dooley’s Ferry and explored the ways that this community was impacted by the Civil War.

Public Outreach and Professional Service

This is where my job with the AAS departs from that of a typical academic archaeologist.  One of my favorite parts of my job is that doing public outreach is valued by my organization.  I gave 22 public talks this year on archaeology around the state—that averages to almost two every month.  This includes talks to chapters of our volunteer organization (I gave 5 of those) as well as community groups as diverse as Rotary clubs, genealogical and historical societies, museum groups, state parks and local chapters of the DAR…I even gave a talk about the archaeology of religion to the Hot Springs Freethinkers!

Giving public talks is the favorite part of my job as an AAS Research Station Archeologist.

Giving public talks is the favorite part of my job as an AAS Research Station Archeologist.

In addition to these formal talks, I also consulted with private landowners in four counties (Little River, Sevier, Union and Hempstead) about objects found on their property…and I provided advice and assistance to the South Arkansas Historical Foundation (about preservation efforts at Bethel Methodist Church in Mt. Holly, Union County), Historic Washington State Park (about preservation efforts at Pioneer Washington Cemetery, Hempstead County), Southern Arkansas University (Alumni concerns about the preservation of a Mosasaur fossil on display at SAU in Magnolia, Columbia County…yes, I KNOW archaeologists do NOT do dinosaurs…but what are you going to do?…), EAST Lab at Dierks High School (about cemetery preservation efforts in Dierks, Howard County), the Historic Arkansas Museum (Funerary art for the Arkansas Made Project), and several consultations with the Mapping the Legacy of African American History, LLC (about a West Ninth Street mapping project in Little Rock, Pulaski County).

Most academics spend some amount of time on professional service—serving on conference committees and whatnot.  I spend quite a bit of time in this arena…why?  Because I feel that in this part of my job I can make “things happen”…I can help shape public policy, help put on a conference, help research get published and, thus, get shared with the community at large, or help save a historic place…On the state-level, I serve on the boards of the Arkansas Historical Association (AHA) and the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas (HPAA).  Positions like this afford us the opportunities to get tangible results from our work.  For instance, this year I was the conference chair for the AHA Conference in Helena, AR—making all the arrangements for a state-level conference in a town without a hotel, no major conference venue and only a single restaurant…talk about challenging.  It was a lot of time and energy, but in the end (thanks to the help of the Delta Cultural Center), it was incredibly rewarding to see the conference come off as a success.  Similarly, I served on the HPAA committee which names “Arkansas Most Endangered Historic Places”—a list that is meant to call public attention and, hopefully resources, to the sites that most need saving in the state.  Two of the seven properties that we listed this year (the Roundtop Filling Station and St. Joseph’s Orphanage) have made great strides toward stabilization, obtaining much needed support, and planning for future renovation/adaptive use.  That is gratifying work indeed.

I am also the Vice-Chairman of the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission and I serve on the State Review Board for Historic Preservation (the state body that recommends properties for listing on the National Register of Historic Places).  In these roles I feel that I really (or I should say, more directly) make a difference—helping constituents get their property listed on the National or Arkansas Register of Historic Places, helping local communities and organizations get grants for commemorative events, or historic markers, that tell that community’s local story…even consulting with and educating others in state government about policy issues…this, too, makes me feel like my job matters.

You’ll notice that all of the above mentioned service roles are not specifically archaeology-oriented…When I serve in these capacities I’m still doing an outreach of sorts…educating other professionals—historians, architects, planners, historic preservationists, and law makers—about what archaeologists do and why they should care.  But I also do service within my sub-disciple of historical archaeology.  I am an Associate Editor of Historical Archaeology (I shepherded three articles to publication this year) and the Chair of the Academic and Professional Training Committee of the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA).  In these roles I get to do things like help the SHA get into modern social media, coordinate workshop for professional development, and chair the SHA Student Paper Prize (which I have chaired for the last 6 years)…giving young, outstanding scholars in my field recognition (and over $1500 in books)…it doesn’t get more rewarding than that…

Conclusion

So there it is:  a year of what I do with the Arkansas Archeological Survey (well, actually, there is still more that I left out)…as seen through my annual report.  I think it gives you a bigger picture than the “day” snapshot that I normally blog about.

Ok…ok…ok…reading back over this blog post as I write, it seems way too self-promoting…that’s NOT what I’m trying to do…Likewise, I know that this blog post seems to ramble in various and sundry directions…but that IS the point, actually—my job as an archaeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey is not a simple job.  In truth, it is more like three jobs…1) that of a typical academic anthropology professor; 2) that of an public outreach coordinator for archaeology and; 3) that of a state agency official responsible for managing cultural resources in my territory.  This is challenging…But if I were to leave the AAS and become a more “typical” academic archaeologist I would miss these other aspects of my job, and I would probably still do some of them (such as public outreach)…the only difference is that they would not be specifically part of my job per se…or would at least not be as appreciated as they are with the AAS.  I appreciate that my organization lets me do all of these things in the name of archaeology…It’s a whole lot of a job…

..but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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