I'm an archaeologist with the Wildlife Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, a position I've had for a little more than a year. Prior to that, I spect 3 years with the State Parks Division of TPWD, and almost nine years as an archaeologist with the Austin office of a large private CRM firm. My professional experience had been largely limited to Texas and Oklahoma. My specialty is Texas prehistory; I'm also a lithic analyst and a keen promoter of public archaeology within my office. I received a Masters Degree from The University of Texas at Austin in Latin American Studies, with a focus on archaeology. My thesis work was at a small site in Belize. Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/archaeocore. Instagram: archaeocore

Surveying the Southern High Plains

This is my 6th time posting on the Day of Archaeology, and as with every other time, I’m not in the field. It’s going to be 104 degrees (40 c) in Austin today, can you blame me for wanting to be indoors? So, I’ll regale you with tales and photos from a survey I did in the Southern High Plains of the US, specifically Cochran, Co. Texas.

The High Plains is (very) flat grassy prairie with few trees.

In my 13 years of working as an archaeologist in Texas, I had only done a couple of days of work in the Texas Panhandle. That was one reason I was excited to do this project. I was also excited about the potential for megafauna and Paleoindian sites! Heck, I wasn’t all that far from the Clovis site (aka Blackwater Draw Locality 1), or Lubbock Lake! Sure, the area is very dry now, but all the draws were wet at the end of the Pleistocene, and playa lakes were (and are) waterholes for beast and human alike. I have visions of coming across something like the famous Folsom point embedded in bison ribs.

This area has seen little professional/scientific archaeology work (although I’m sure private collections abound), and there are only two recorded sites for the area (one recorded just a couple years back by my predecessor).The 250+ acres I was to survey would be the first large-scale area archaeology project in the county. I was also going to survey for a new entrance road that crossed a draw! Plus, the projects were to remove invasive vegetation and restore the area to the typical plains prairie setting prior to the introduction of Western livestock and the plow, which in turn would enhance the area as habitat for several species of bird, including the not-quite-threatened Lesser Prairie Chicken. One of the best parts of my job is that so much of my work relates to habitat enhancement and restoration.

As it happens, there were no fluted points to be found, no mammoth tusks, no pit houses, no Southwestern pottery sherds. I spent days walking back and forth across the slightly rolling prairie, digging a hole very so often, with very little variation in the soil. Without my Trimble GPS, transects would have been very hard, as you can see for miles and miles into the distance without a single thing to sight on! The relative monotony of my days could have been relaxing in some ways, very peaceful and quiet in the high country with no one within 2-3 miles. It would have been near perfect, but for one thing…

This snake is coiled to strike! (note: photo is extremely zoomed)

There were snakes. Big rattlesnakes. Well camouflaged in the grass, hiding under sotol, unnoticed until they made their presence felt with a blood-chilling rattle. For all the peace and quiet, it was hard to relax. I had to watch every step, keep my eyes and ears alert, have my shovel ready. Of course I was wearing snake guards, but these guys were big, and scary. Of the 6 days I surveyed, I encountered rattlers on 4 of them. One stretch of slightly lower ground became informally known as Snek Alley in my mind.

It wasn’t a total wash (pun intended). I did find a site:

Look, a site! See the rocks?

It was little, but it was a site. It had a scatter of possible burned rock (a mudstone of some sort), a broken biface, and a few pieces of debitage. This area is poor in chippable lithic raw material, so the debitage told a story of travel or interaction. Several of the pieces were chert similar to that found on the Edwards Plateau, the nearest portion of which was well over 150 miles to the southeast. One piece was Alibates agate/flint, a well-known lithic type originating from a source in the northern Texas panhandle, over 150 miles to the northeast.

I worked long, hard days and walked a lot of miles. I felt quite happy when I was done.

Field selfie with thumbs up for a job well done! I’m a High Plains Drifter!

So that was a very short summary oft my trip up into the Southern High Plains. And I’ll be back, as there are a couple thousand more acres slated for habitat enhancement! But next time, I’m hoping to work while the snakes are still hibernating!

And now, cheers to the Day of Archaeology and the staff as they ride off into the sunset…

The High Plains are good for spectacular sunsets (and sunrises, since I worked very early!)

A very special Day of Archaeology

Once again, by pure accident, I’m not actually working on the Day of Archaeology. There’s a very good reason for this, but first, let me talk about what I do when I am working.

This is me. I would say the Texas heat made me goofy, but in truth I’ve been goofy all my life.

The Texas heat can make you goofy

For the past 3 years, I was an archaeologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department State Parks Archaeology Survey Team (it’s government, lots of wordy names and acronyms). But in April 2016, I took over as the (sole) Archaeologist for the TPWD Wildlife Division. I’m responsible, in theory, for over 800,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas.

My job is to handle the cultural resources compliance, under the Texas Antiquities Code and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (since a majority of our funding is Federal grants and tax revenue). Basically, before a new building or utility is built, a new field (emphasis on new) cleared and disked for habitat restoration, a fenceline bulldozed for replacement, I have to make sure that no SIGNIFICANT cultural resources are impacted.

So I do background reviews on soils and geology and other sites in the area. I do intensive pedestrian survey, where I walk the area of potential effects and dig holes to search for, and evaluate, subsurface archaeological deposits. When I find something, I have to decide whether the site has the potential to yield significant information about prehistory or history, also known as Criterion D. I make recommendations about the project and impacts on archaeology, which can include avoiding impacts to a significant site (and since TPWD is a conservation agency, we take the avoidance recommendation very seriously, it’s in our Mission Statement) And then, I write a report for the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) and our federal review agency to read, and decide if they concur with my recommendations. The Federal agency also conducts Tribal Consultation with Native American tribal governments and their Tribal Historic Preservation Office (aka THPOs) to allow them the opportunity to comment on the project and the impacts, as there may be significant elements that are missed by a traditional archaeological survey.

It’s a good job, and very busy. Sometimes it can be pretty: Wildflower meadow

More often, though, it’s pretty rough (after all, I’m mainly looking in areas that are kept wild):

Lovely east Texas thicket

But wait, John, what’s so special about this?

Ah, right, why am I off work today, on this Very Special Day of Archaeology?

Because I’m getting married!!! (This is what is called “burying the lede”)(Also, this picture is a fake wedding at last year’s Great American Beer Fest)

Practice wedding with Saint Arnold

This lovely lady is understanding of me having to be gone for a week or more every month, coming home sweaty and stinky and covered in bug bites, with aching muscles and joints. She takes care of the house and the cats while I’m gone. She comforted and supported me as I struggled with stress and depression during some rough times at my previous position. Being a field archaeologist can be very difficult, and honestly I often feel guilty about asking someone to put up with it, but she understands. I’ve been very lucky with work and with life.

The 90 percent

Hi y’all! My name is John Lowe, and I am a member of the Archeology Survey Team for the State Parks division of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (really, it says so on my business card!). I’ve had this job for a little over a year now, before that I spent 9 years working for a private environmental consulting firm in Austin, Texas. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that I’ve been doing this for over 10 years!

Having fun on survey!

Having fun on survey!

On the official Day of Archaeology 2014, I was taking a day off of work so that I could travel for a memorial service. And really, I haven’t had much to write about compared to the exciting things that so many others here are doing.

It’s often said that for every day in the field, there are 6 days (or more) of office and lab work. Emphasis on the more. Since last year’s Day of Archaeology, I’ve spent roughly 7 weeks in the field, working at 3 different State Parks and (future) Natural Areas. Much of the remainder of the time has been spent working on reports, filling out forms and submitting them to the state repository,and doing field logistics for the surveys.

In September of last year, a new project popped up, as a new State Natural Area (SNA) in Central Texas moved to the top of the list for development and eventual opening to the public. Only a small part of this property will have actual facilities (such as RV and campsites, a visitors’ center, bathrooms, parking lots), and one of the things the Survey Team does is conduct archaeological investigations of these proposed development areas to see if significant cultural resources are impacted. As I mentioned last year, one of the really cool things about State Parks is that we actively strive to protect and conserve cultural resources. If we find something significant, we work with the park planners and regional Cultural Resources Coordinators to move the proposed facility, as well as making plans to manage the resource.

Anyway, my boss decided to let me be the lead for this new SNA. Last year, over 3 week-long sessions we surveyed around 300 acres of proposed development area. Twenty-two archaeological sites were identified, including several that were significant and required avoidance. I coordinated our results with the park planner and regional coordinator. The planner worked around these sensitive areas (mainly prehistoric open campsites) and has recently sent us updated facilities plans. These include 68 acres of new survey area.

Surveying along a powerline corridor

Surveying along a powerline corridor

And so next week will mark my 8th week in the field since last July, as we go out and look at the new areas and assess them for cultural resources. I’ve made a series of detailed field maps that depict the new survey areas on current aerial images, topographic maps, and 1938 aerial imagery (which is especially helpful when dealing with 20th century resources). I  made sure our GIS manager had all the files he needed for us to have our field GPS units prepared. I booked hotel rooms for us, and contacted the local park volunteer we’ve been getting great help from. I made sure that our field compasses were set to the proper declination, and checked our field boxes to make sure all the appropriate gear was ready. I set aside our shovels, screens, some large root cutters, and a couple of machetes. I printed out blank field forms and gathered a bunch of artifact bags (I’m dreaming big this time!). Today I emailed the regional coordinator and the SNA superintendent to make sure they remembered that we were coming next week, and to ask for any information about washed-out roads or impassable creek crossings since it’s been raining quite a bit lately.

Once we’re out there, in addition to having my own survey transect and assisting with shovel tests, as needed, I will be taking field notes that describe our basic activities and detailing the decisions I made and my reasoning. I’ll direct the recording of any sites, and probably be filling some of the paperwork out myself (I really like filling out site forms). When we’re done every day, I’ll go back to the hotel and send out emails to the regional coordinator and park planner with our progress and any potentially significant resources. The planner is hoping to have the basic footprint finalized soon and prepare for public meetings, so it’s important that I relay any issues right away.

Once that’s done, it’s back to the desk and the other 90 percent of the job for a while!

Surveying Texas parks, where life’s better outside!

“To manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” Texas Parks and Wildlife Mission Statement.

After almost 9 years working for a private environmental consulting firm, I recently joined the Archeology (that’s the official spelling here) Survey Team for the State Parks division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It’s a great career opportunity, a promotion and a raise, and involves less travel (and shorter stints), all of which were very appealing to me as I get older and want to settle down a bit.

John Lowe

Here I am, recording a rockshelter site for my new job!

But what I really like about my new job is encapsulated in our mission statement above: “manage and CONSERVE the…cultural resources of Texas.” After all, the “M” in CRM stands for “management”. I work for the people of Texas, as a steward of public lands, to help protect (manage) and conserve the archaeological record of this state.

The nuts and bolts of the job aren’t much different than private sector CRM. My coworkers and I conduct archaeological surveys of existing and proposed State Parks and State Natural Areas, where we identify and assess cultural resources (primarily, but not necessarily limited to, archaeological sites). We walk transects, we dig holes, we identify and sometimes collect artifacts, we note previous natural and artificial impacts to the sites, assess the integrity of the deposits and the potential research value. Often, this is project specific work; if a park wants to develop a new series of trails, or expand a campground, there’s a survey beforehand.

photo (6)

One of the many stark, beautiful views from the canyons of the Lower Pecos region of Texas

Recently, we have been surveying a new, not-yet-opened, property in the Lower Pecos. We are helping the park planners determine where campsites, roads, and trails can be placed to have minimal impacts on cultural resources, while also allowing our park guests the opportunity to experience and explore the area. This is also something we must consider in our work, as high visibility sites (such as rockshelters, structures, and large burned rock middens) will certainly draw attention and visits, even if they’re not in the immediate impact areas. In fact, one of the criteria we use in evaluating sites is potential for vandalism (a sad, unfortunate fact of life).

Our work doesn’t stop with the planning of the park. One of the things we do is develop a cultural resources management plan for the park rangers and superintendents. This may involve a regular visit to some of the sites (the time frames differ, depending on the significance and visibility), limiting access to extremely sensitive areas (a last resort), or doing nothing. We thoroughly document the sites with maps and photographs to assist with the monitoring.

We also help with interpretation. In our reports, we try and tell the “story” of the park. We are fortunate to have access to broad yet constrained areas for our studies, as opposed to the long, narrow, linear surveys so common these days in CRM. We also have the luxury of time to do background research and analyses that can help us in our understanding of the parks; after all the resources are being protected (although our budgets are certainly not unlimited). Finally, we (as an office, it’s not really part of my job) can develop interpretative displays and materials for the parks, so that the guests can also know the story of the park, and appreciate some of the resources. We are always learning and thinking of new ways to do this.

So that’s what I do, in general. What am I doing today, on the Day of Archaeology? I’m working on a report for a survey done at Bastrop State Park following the devastating wildfires of September 2011. Right now, I’m finishing chapters on the artifact analysis and the sites that were recorded. Eventually, I will be bringing in the information from all of the previous work done in the park to tell the story of the park. I’m not even sure what that is just yet, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

(note: the words, thoughts, and opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent the official words or policies of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, except where explicitly quoted)

Site recording and reporting

Another Day of Archaeology, and another year in which I’m not doing anything “sexy.” Well, last year I was on vacation, sitting in a baby pool on my back porch drinking beer, which may be sexy depending on your perspective…

It’s often said that for every day in the field, there’s 5/7/X+>1 days of post-field reporting and analysis (and pre-field too, but I don’t recall that being part of the truism). Which means that you pay a big price for a little fun (again, depending on your perspective)(also, I make a lot of parenthetical comments, so be advised).

Site recording, evaluation, and reporting is the most critical things that CRM archaeologists do. We are being paid by a client to look for cultural resources prior to construction of a project. If we find a site, we have to document it and determine what the significance of the site is. We then report this information to the client to help with their construction plans, and to permitting agencies to decide whether our evaluation is valid in their eyes. The recommendation could be (among others, but most common) no further work, avoidance, or additional archaeological investigation, ie: “digging”.

We also submit a site record and map to the designated repository/agency, which in Texas is the Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory, or TARL. Theoretically, every site recorded in Texas should have a site form and map submitted to TARL, which can be accessed by other archaeologists as needed. They also maintain an online Atlas to help with planning work (click here to see a public version with certain Historic Sites). The Atlas has maps with locations of every recorded site, and links to the site data (when submitted).

The information on the site form includes project information, locational data, natural setting data, observed components (ie 19th century, Late Paleoindian, unknown prehistoric), artifacts and features present at the site and their locations within the site, a description of the site, an assessment of the significance of the site, and a recommendation on the need for further work and eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places (or in Texas as a State Archeological Landmark). This information should be thorough, to aid future archaeologists who may be working around that site.

So…all that background is to explain why I did nothing today but sit at my desk, writing out information in little blanks with a pencil (which will then be entered into a computerized database for submission, which shows that we’re not quite 21st century here yet), peering at notes and maps on a screen, and then finding my “prehistoric not eligible” site write-up template to change a few words here and there for the report.

I’ve been doing this on and off for the last month for this project, and many, many times over the last 4-5 years. It’s pretty boring, but it’s an important part of the archaeological process that is often given short shrift.

If you’ve made it this far, your reward is some links to far more interesting days in my life as an archaeologist!

My recent Juneteenth post

Posts about metal detector survey at the Fannin Battleground State Historic Site

Two parter about the Naked Flag Lady

Possibly the best day ever

and Part 1 and Part 2 of my rattlesnake bite adventure.

Happy Day of Archaeology, y’all!



My day of archaeology = brain break

As a full-time CRM (contract/salvage/private sector) archaeologist, I’m fortunate enough to have benefits, including paid sick and vacation days. And today, on the Day of Archaeology, I’m taking a “mental health day.”
I’ve spent the better part of the last 3.5 months working in the office, writing reports. I’m one of the go-to people in our office for report writing, which I consider a great compliment (even if it hasn’t exactly come with a commensurate raise or promotion). I also like being in the office because I get to stay at home in Austin, where I can hang out with my friends, spend time with my girlfriend, take care of my house, and play softball. And when your summer has had almost 50 days of 100+ degree (F) temperatures, working in an air-conditioned office is a very nice set-up.
At the same time, as anyone who has written (or is writing) a thesis or dissertation or professional report knows, sometimes you just get burned out staring at a screen and thinking. Writers block happens, or you suffer a general lack of focus, or familiarity can breed contempt. This is a problem when your time is billable to a project, with a limited number of hours budgeted for your writing time.
Thus, the mental health day. I’m using the time to relax, decompress, and give my eyes and brain some rest. I figure I’m doing my work a favor, because I know they wouldn’t be getting an acceptable 8-hour day out of me. Come Monday, I’ll be refreshed and ready to hunker down and churn out some pages. I’m already working on some things in the back of my head, which shows that sometimes taking down-time can be more productive.
So, if you want to know how I spend my actual working days, I invite you to check out my blog:
or my Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/#!/archaeocore.
Meanwhile, this is how I plan on spending at least part of my day:

drinking Lone Star Beer and relaxing in my new back porch baby pool