Society for Historical Archaeology

Sometimes I Finish 6 Seemingly Impossible Tasks Before Lunch…

Hello Everybody! I am very excited to take part again in the Day of Archaeology! I enjoyed taking part last year and afterwards reading the posts from all over the world.

My name is Molly Swords and I am a historical archaeologist. I work for SWCA Environmental Consultants and teach the Applied Cultural Resource Management class at the University of Idaho. Currently, I have number of “irons in the fire” and multi-tasking is a necessity. As others have probably mentioned there are a number of days that you are not outside in the field. This happens to be one of those days.

Phinney Hall houses the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Idaho. I work mostly in the offices housed in this building.

I start my day off with patronizing one of the many coffee stands around Moscow. I know what a busy day it is going to be… so, this is my little moment of Zen. A 24oz vanilla coffee is going to see me through the first part of the day.
Upon arriving at work, I answer a number of different emails about various projects. The first email greeting me is a reply to an email I sent yesterday, including information that I gathered at the Washington State University Archives. I was able to venture over to WSU’s Special Collections and Archives to look over documents to help out some colleagues, Bob Weaver and Bruce Schneider, in another SWCA office. Part of the fascination of historical archaeology for me is getting to actually look through records to further explain the story.

Another email I received was from a University of Idaho student that I taught last semester. She had a few questions about field school, as she would be attending her first one soon. I quickly replied to her… conveying a little of my jealousy that she would soon be out at the Rosebud Battlefield Field School.

My desk at a relatively low level of chaos.

Since I am teaching a class in the fall for the University of Idaho, a small part of my day is doing some administrative things in preparation for that class, including ensuring all my paperwork is in order to get my new identity card (as mine expires on July 1st) and that I’ve made an appointment to get trained on the technology equipment for the room that I will teach in. I contemplate thinking of which books to assign… and then decide that today is the day not to go down that rabbit hole. Though preparation for the class can be tedious, I love engaging archaeology students in discussions of real-world archaeology.

I had a phone call with my SWCA PI (principal investigator), Jim Bard. We caught up on future opportunities and what is going on with the current project that we are working on Sandpoint, the main cultural resource project that I am involved with – a multi-year historical archaeology project in its final stages. I am compiling technical reports and editing versions coming back from the editors. With a collection of close to 600,000 artifacts this is no small feat.
In between all of these things going on, I am working on a proposal. My SWCA supervisor Mini Sharma Ogle and I email about setting up a time to chat on Monday about the logistics of writing a project proposal and budget to monitor a construction area for cultural resources.

Temporary housing and storage of the Sandpoint collection.

It is around this time that I realize that I have not had lunch… the coffee has worked its magic until after 2pm. So, I grab a quick lunch with the Sandpoint Lab Director, Amanda Haught. It just so happens that this day is her last day as Lab Director. So, our lunch is a working lunch during which we discuss where things are and what needs to be finished. When we return from lunch, we sit down again and go over things… while I take many notes. I will be stepping in and overseeing the remainder of deaccessioning of collections and be available for the staff for any questions that may arise.

It is around this time that Mark Warner makes his third appearance of the day in our office. Our cluster of offices are almost directly above his office so, it is a short commute for him to come visit. And as one of the PI’s of the Sandpoint Project, we see him at least once a day. Amanda and I quickly chat with him about progress of the collection and report.

Home Rule Irish pipe recovered from archaeological excavations of Willa Herman’s turn-of-the-century bordello in Sandpoint.

Coming home and decompressing on the porch, with a jack and coke, which led to drinks with my amazing neighbor, a National Park Service archivist, who is from Wisconsin and makes the best Old Fashions! She told me a popular joke among archivists, “Has Ken touched your collections?” (Ken Burns). Which made me laugh and laugh.

As we sit in her backyard and catch up on our professions, I can’t help but think about all the amazing archaeologists that I’ve had the pleasure of working with on the Sandpoint Project and that I have the best job in the world!

Whew… hope you enjoyed this snapshot of my whirlwind day. FYI- my title is a take on a quote from Alice in Wonderland.

Excavating an Archaeologist’s Desk

In honor of the Day of Archaeology, in which we endeavor to display the “wide variety of work our profession undertakes day-to-day across the globe” (Day of Archaeology 2012 [archaeologists cite things]), I’m throwing this together as an archaeologist who embraces three different roles within the profession, has worked across 10 states and 3 foreign countries (Mexico, Cuba, and the British Virgin Islands), and still hasn’t finished graduate school (much to the chagrin of many, including myself).
To convey this complex existence, I’m choosing an archaeological metaphor and excavating my desk. My workspace is, to no surprise, a reflection of the many things that occupy my time, pique my interest, and, I hope, lead to some insight into the pasts of the common people of history, a group that counts my ancestors, German and Welsh immigrants, among its numbers. I have imposed a classification system on the contents of my desk, by which I will unpack the contents and, in turn, my life as an archaeologist working in the SAU Research Station of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
Indiana Jones once told a student (while running from the KGB) “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you gotta get out of the library.” While I fully endorse this sentiment, you must realize that a lot of archaeological research involves bookwork. We read a lot about the work of our forebears as a way to help orient our own research, building on and modifying that which came before, and to avoid scientific dead-ends. The books on my desk include those oriented towards:
Dissertation: I am a doctoral candidate at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, the cradle of historical archaeology in the United States. I am trying to knock out a dissertation that will be the final step in my formalized education. This requires both books on epistemological issues relevant to the way I do research, such as Tim Murray’s Time and Archaeology or Anders Andrén’s Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective. Combining the clarity of thinking derived from such sources with the results of fieldwork are then combined with the insight derived from other books, such as D.W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America and Kenneth Lewis’s The American Frontier to produce a document that will add to the historiography of southwest Arkansas and the American West… and earn me a diploma (please please please).
Teaching: I just finished teaching two classes at Southern Arkansas University, one a survey of world archaeology and the other a criminal justice research methods class. The detritus from preparing the lectures, including Catherine Hakim’s Research Design and Henn et al’s A Critical Introduction to Social Research still haven’t left my desk. They’re actually checked out from the University of Arkansas (5 hours away), so the next time I get called up to the coordinating office in Fayetteville, I’ll drop them off.
Methods: We demonstrate our competence as archaeologists in the field, showing each other and the cosmos that we can dig properly (carefully and fast), map precisely, and document our findings appropriately. I’ve got Hester et al’s Field Methods in Archaeology on my book rack for reference, and the bookshelves surrounding my desk are full of books on aerial remote sensing and LiDAR research.
Conference preparation:  One of the high points of any archaeologist’s professional year is a conference. For me, that usually means the Society for Historical Archaeology meetings, though in my current position the Arkansas Archeological Society conference is important as well. I’d like to go to the Fields of Conflict conference this year, but Budapest is a bit out of the range of my wallet (my truck needs work…). This week, I’ve been pulling together a session for the SHA with colleagues and classmates at William & Mary, and I’ve been using the abstract books from past conferences and De Cunzo and Jameson’s Unlocking the Past to write abstracts and encourage the session to take form.
Fieldwork Papers
As mentioned above, proper note taking is an integral part of archaeology. Documentation of context is key. It separates us from looters, provides a basis for scientific work, and is a backstop for ideas and information that might otherwise get missed. If ideas were baseballs, an archaeological dig is like being a catcher behind home plate, facing a battalion of pitching machines. Even if you’re Johnny Bench, you can only hold so many of those baseballs at once. Paperwork is like having a canvas bag to put those ideaballs (I’m liking this metaphor less and less) in so you don’t lose them. On my desk may be found
–        A green 3-ring binder from Area B of the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society Training Dig, directed by my boss/friend/mentor Jamie Brandon. See his post here on the dig itself. The stack of papers inside is probably 2 inches thick. All of that came from two weeks in the field. It’s a lot of stuff to sift through, but every sweat-stained word is archaeological gold.
–        Field books. I see three, though there may be more buried in there somewhere. These nifty little books, usually with yellow covers, have waxed pages, making them resilient in rainy or sweaty conditions, and are the place where we jot our notes about the project we’re working on. My field book from the Society Dig contains the shot log for our surveyor’s total station, so we have a redundant copy of all that information. I also have my field book for site visits done on behalf of the Survey. The notes I take in the field can then be transposed into either a site form, which I submit by way of report to the Survey, or included in subsequent publications on that research. Writing notes, particularly under hot or busy conditions, is one of the disciplines that archaeologists must learn. As with so many other things, when it comes to notes, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. In some positions, such as federal jobs, field books are part of the paperwork associated with a project and subject to subpoena and other legal strictures, so don’t draw too many cartoons about gophers in them.
The final big section of research-related equipment can be classed as technology.  Technological advancements in computing, remote sensing (Johnson 2005), data sharing (Kansa 2012), and numerous other fronts in the past twenty years is revolutionizing archaeology. The very fact of this blog post, the internet, and personal computing is evidence of this. Hallmarks of this advancement are, of course, found on my desk.
–        Computer: Shocking, I know. Nowadays, computers are everywhere and used in most pursuits, but mine is special, consarnit! First, it’s a laptop on a dock, which is necessary given the high mobility of many archaeologists. Since you can’t bring sites to you, we have to go to the sites, often for extended periods of time. We just finished two weeks at Historic Washington State Park, and in the last year, I’ve spent weeks at Toltec Mounds, Wallace’s Ferry, and Prairie Grove, all in Arkansas, as well as making numerous trips to the Coordinating Office in Fayetteville. My Army job was just like that, as was my time with the NPS, just that in the federal gigs, the projects are usually spread over greater areas. Laptops are essential in taking our computing power along with. Crucial to that computing power is the software held on the machine, particularly, in my case…
–        Geographic information system (GIS) software. I do a lot of work with spatial documentation and analysis, so I need mapping software. Being able to document the location of sites and areas within sites is an important part of the documentation process.
–          Scanner: I scan lots of things, primarily to make back-ups (hard to lose all copies of a document) and to share them with colleagues. Information sharing is a big part of the research process, as those who share your interests and expertise are not likely under the same roof as you. This is partly why conferences are so important. Information exchange stimulates, as Poirot liked to call them, “the little grey cells” and advance the discipline. Scanners help make that possible.
–        Telephone: Again, rather mundane, but an important part of my job. The Arkansas Archeological Survey does a lot of public outreach work for people of all walks of life from across the state. My station covers 11 counties in southwest Arkansas, and I get calls to come out and look at sites or assist colleagues at museums and parks in the area with public outreach work (come to the Red River Heritage Symposium at Historic Washington State Park on the 28th of July). Much of that begins with a phone call.
As this all should indicate, I spend a LOT of time working, well more than 40 hours a week. As a result, I spend a lot of time in the office or in the field, and my desk contents reflect that.
–        Coffee mug and empty Coke/Diet Coke cans: I am a caffeine addict, plain and simple. I often get little more than 5 hours of sleep a night, and with as stacked of a to-do list as I have, it’s rather unavoidable. I can’t keep up with a friend, who runs on five cappuccinos a day, but there are times when I wonder how awesome that feels. I’m guessing “pretty.”
–        Mulerider Baseball cup: Our host institution and my erstwhile employer, Southern Arkansas University has a great baseball team, and the Muleriders just won the GAC Championship… again. Great job, guys! One of the ways I avoid having the pressures of all of these jobs and responsibilities burn me out is by having a mental outlet. For me, that’s baseball and hockey. We don’t get much of the latter down here. However, the baseball stadium is right across the parking lot from the office (really, I can see it from my desk), and those evening games are a nice break from the grind.
–        Yellow duct tape: Why yellow, you might ask? Because every station in the Survey system was allocated a color to mark their equipment with so that we could tell whose stuff is whose when we collaborate on projects. Our station’s color is yellow, Henderson State’s is orange, Toltec’s is blue, etc. etc. etc. Marking things as ours helps avoid confusion and trowel fights.
–        Field hat: I saved this for last because it’s one of my favorite things. For archaeologists, the attachments we form with crucial bits of equipment can be very strong. Many people still have their first trowels, and carefully guard them (think of a mitt for a baseball player). They’re things, but they’re things intimately tied up in the art of our discipline, and that makes them special. For me, there are three things that fall into this category. My trowel is the first, and I keep it distinct from all other trowels by wrapping the handle in hockey stick tape. The second is my Brunton pocket transit (think a compass on steroids with neon flames shooting down its hood), which is not only a very useful bit of equipment, it was also my father’s when he was doing his dissertation, and that carries great meaning to me. Finally, there is my field hat, a mid-crown cattleman with a 4” brim from Sunbody Hats in Houston, Texas. No matter how hot it gets, it’s always a little cooler under this thing, and it was a wedding gift from Jimmy Pryor, the owner of Sunbody and a childhood friend. It’s a link to home and my wife all at once, and it cheers me up when I’ve been out on a project for a couple of weeks and starting to get a little barn sour.
Now, having looked at these piles for a few hours while writing this, it may be time to do some cleaning…
Andrén, Anders
1997     Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective. New York: Plenum Press
Day of Archaeology
2012    About the Project. Electronic resource (, accessed 29 June 2012).
De Cunzo, Lu Ann and John H. Jameson, Jr.
2005     Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Hakim, Catherine
2000     Research Design: Successful Designs for Social and Economic Research. New York: Routledge.
Henn, Matt, Mark Weinstein, and Nick Foard
2006     A Critical Introduction to Social Research. Los Angeles: Sage.
Hester, Thomas R., Harry J. Shafer, and Kenneth L. Feder
2009     Field Methods in Archaeology. 7th edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Lewis, Kenneth
1984     The American Frontier: An Archaeological Study of Settlement Pattern and Process. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Meinig, D.W.
1988     The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Murray, Tim, editor
1999     Time and Archaeology. New York: Routledge.

A day: Professional Service, the Dissertation, and Happy Hour

What this archaeologist will not be doing today: digging.

A day in my life, as a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Michigan State University (but residing in the historical archaeology mecca of Williamsburg, Virginia), is often a a struggle between writing my dissertation and taking care of other archaeologically related business that seems to pop up throughout the day. For example, my morning today started with taking care of some professional service responsibilities. As a graduate student, I have been doing my part to make sure I can weasel my way into making an impact on how my discipline works professionally. Often, this is a difficult task for a grad student, but, I consider it important. This morning (after a bit of sleeping in because I was up late grading for my online introduction to archaeology course) I sat down to a number of emails and tasks relating to professional organizational business. I have managed to find a niche within my organization, the Society for Historical Archaeology: social media. Part of my responsibilities has been running the Facebook and Twitter pages for the upcoming conference in Baltimore. Additionally, I have been working closely with other members to develop an action plan to get the entire organization to use social media in a comprehensive and effective way. We are making solid progress.


My afternoon, however, will be much different. This afternoon, I write.  I swear. I will write and write and write. And not just any writing: dissertation writing. At 1 pm ET, I will sit in my chair, and work on my dissertation. This is probably the hardest part of being a graduate student, archaeology or otherwise, is writing every day. Today’s subject will be outlining a theory section, which makes it even more painful to think about. The subject of my dissertation are two slave quarters in Southern Maryland, one of which was occupied until the 1950s.The theory is a look at communities, agency, and social relations. It will be loads of fun…

The GreenLeafe: Local Archaeologist watering hole since....well, forever.

Fortunately, my day ends with every archaeologist’s favorite past time: Happy Hour (I am convinced that Day of Archaeology was scheduled on a Friday to ensure that there would be blog posts about beer). This evening is a special happy hour, in fact. Not only will I visit the local bar to share a beverage with my friends from the Colonial Williamsburg Digital History Center (the majority of whom are archaeologists, in fact), but this evening I will be saying goodbye to a fellow field tech from the James River Institute for Archaeology, a local CRM firm that I have been working part time for over the past few months (grad students need to pay the bills). He is heading off to graduate school, himself, and there is no better send-off then some beers with archaeologists at the GreenLeafe.

Happy Day of Archaeology everybody!