Southern Arkansas University

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.

 

Want to keep up with what we’re up to?

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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.
Books
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.
Technology
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.
Other/Miscellaneous
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…
References
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 (http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/about-the-project/, 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.