A Day of Archaeology in Deep West Texas


Spirit Eye (41PS25) is a prehistorically occupied cave system located in Presidio County, Texas just north of the Chinati Mountains (Fig. 1). The cave system is situated on the lowest level of a North/South trending limestone cliff. Access is possible via two entrances, lower and upper entrances that lead to a central U-shaped main chamber that connects with a smaller internal horizontal and vertical shaft system. Extensive prehistoric use of the cave is evident on the well-developed cultural talus deposit laden with thousands of pieces of debitage, various ground and chipped stone tools, and a distinct black anthropogenic soil. There are also historic food and beverage containers on this talus slope, remnants of years of looting into the rich and well-preserved prehistoric deposits.

The deposits within Spirit Eye are not pristine. Evidence of looting is clear: outside both entrances mounds almost three meters tall of screened cave fill are the first indicators of the destruction. As you move into the internal chamber, the portion near the lower entrance resembles a mineshaft from untold looting exploits, and near the upper entrance from the back wall of the cave to the opening is a large stratified mound over a meter tall comprised of looted cave fill. The persons that mined Spirit Eye were all after the same thing–the unique perishable artifacts that this cave preserved (Fig. 2).

The artifact assemblage from Spirit Eye offers a unique and holistic view into technologies that made prehistoric adaptation to the Chihuahuan Desert possible. In an effort to salvage some of this valuable information, the Center for Big Bend Studies of Sul Ross State University began the first systematic excavations in the cave in early May of this year. In operationalizing the excavation, we knew it would be important to understand the periods of looting, and what has emerged is a complex and storied history. By the 1960s, artifact collectors at Spirit Eye conducted intense periods of excavation fueled by both black market values and personal curiosity. Understanding this history has enabled us to relocate and claim orphaned collections in curational facilities like TARL and private collections, all of which contain unrivaled artifact assemblages. These looted collections, including many artifacts and a mummified set of human remains recovered from a private collector in the 1990s and now housed at TARL, will be one aspect of our investigations.
Our goal is to understand how the years of unsystematic excavation progressed and to develop research methods that can be used to salvage data from this and other extensively looted archaeology sites. Although our work is still ongoing, we have already recovered thousands of artifacts discarded by collectors, most of them perishable. Not surprisingly, these include domestic artifacts like quids, human coprolites, cordage, various kinds of processed plant fiber, faunal artifacts, foodstuffs, and carved wooden artifacts (Fig. 3). The site, while severely impacted, holds far-reaching research potential that requires an unconventional research design. We are very much at the beginning stages of this research, but it is obvious that we can use Spirit Eye as a laboratory to push the possibilities of research in perishable artifact analysis.

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!



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 (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.

Professional, Avocational and Public Involvement in Archaeology in Arkansas

This year’s “Day of Archaeology” finds me attempting to reorder my life just following the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program.

The Arkansas Archeological Society (AAS) was formed in 1960. It is open to anyone—from any walk of life—who is interested in archaeology.  This year I dug alongside retired school teachers, firemen, administrative assistants, college students, engineers, electricians, high school students, retired mill workers, social workers, research foresters, park interpreters (and park superintendents)  and college English instructors.  Many of these so-called avocationals have been doing archaeology for more years than me (some longer than I’ve been alive).  Two of our long time volunteers this year were 86 years old.  Anna Parks has been coming to the AAS “Summer Dig” since the 1970s, and Van Schmutz shoveled all day long in the hot sun despite his age.  Our youngest was 9 years old— Andy Colman who came with her mom, Carolyn, from Chicago, Illinois to learn about archaeology.

The 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse is ever present during our work at Historic Washington State Park in Arkansas.

Way back in 1964, a series of weekend excavations began under the direction of University of Arkansas Museum archaeologists and AAS members.  In the late 1960s the AAS was instrumental in lobbying my organization—the Arkansas Archeological Survey—into existence.  Thus the Survey and Society began partnering on digs by 1967.  By 1972, what had begun as a series of weekend events had expanded into a 16-day training program with excavations at various sites across the state.  Some have claimed that it’s the oldest and best program of its type in the country.

For the second year in a row I had the honor of directing the AAS Summer Dig at Historic Washington State Park in the southwestern portion of the state of Arkansas in the southern United States.  Between June 9 and June 24, 2012 over 100 volunteers and staff helped me investigate the site of an 1830s commercial district on what would have then been the edge of western expansion of the United States (Washington was a border town with first Mexico and then the Republic of Texas until Texas was annexed in the late 1840s).

The AAS has been doing archaeology in Historic Washington State Park since 1980, but these last two years have focused on the merchant district for which we have very few historical documents.  There are no known photographs and only a single map from 1926—long after fires in the 1870s and 1880s put an end to this vibrant business area.  Over the last two field seasons we have recovered the remains of at least 6 different buildings,  4-6 cellars and/or trash pits and tens of thousands of artifacts that will help us tell the story of this once important regional hub on the edge of the “cotton frontier.”

The archaeology was great, but I am always amazed at the layers of public archaeology going on at these events.  On one level we are teaching

the volunteers how to be archaeologists—not only through digging but also through a series of half-day seminars taught in two sessions throughout the dig.  This year we offered Basic Excavation (for first time attendees), Basic Laboratory Procedures, Site Survey, Mapping, Human Osteology, Indians of Arkansas, and Establishing Time (a class that helps volunteers understand dating techniques used by archaeologists).

On a second level of public archaeology, the volunteers and professionals on site then educate the general public about the value and methods of archaeology.  As we were excavating in an Arkansas State Park this year this was done constantly as we has many curious visitors every day.  Although I was “running the show” I rarely had to stop my work to help explain things to visitors as one of my colleagues and/or volunteers would quickly rush in to take over (and even demonstrate) what we were doing.

Of course, although the dig ended on June 24, there is still much to do.  In these days following the 2012 Summer Training Program I (and Carl Carlson-Drexler, my Research Station Assistant) have been moving equipment, organizing paperwork and field notes…Today I’m captioning the hundreds of digital photographs taken during the dig.  The two years of digging in the merchant district in Historic Washington State Park has produced more than twice the amount of artifacts than I recovered during my dissertation research (and I poked at that site for almost a decade!)…so I now have my work cut out for me…

More pictures from the 2012 AAS Summer Training Program can be found here:


Pictures from last year’s dig (2011) can be found here:


Find out more about the Arkansas Archeological Society at their website: http://arkarch.org/


You can read more about the AAS work at Historic Washington State Park at my Farther Along blog:







Texas Hole Droppers

Welcome all to a day in CRM archaeology in Texas! Today the heat is West Texas has reached over 104°F. My crew is currently working on surveying a large 4,000 acre area where a potential reservoir will be located. Our day starts off in the cooler hours, with breakfast at 6:00 AM and to work by 7:00 AM. We began by laying out transects using a Trimble Unit within previously portioned off grid squares.

Then it is on to shovel testing, which as all those who have experience in this know that it is very hard work. Shovel test units in Texas are generally 30 CM X 30 CM and go to depths of 80 CM.

Around 9:30 AM we take a well deserved snack break, which today includes some yummy summer sausage (venison). Sadly, a few crew members were unable to partake in the break since they were attending to one of the many flat tires we have had so far in the seven weeks of work.

Of course, we do have time to take in the lovely West Texas scenery between shovel tests!

We generally end our work day around 2:00 PM due to the heat. Today we did not find any cultural materials but we are still in high spirits! At least we got to see a few wild hogs, wild turkeys and a lone coyote!

Of Discovery and Avoidance

Let me begin by saying that it is a pleasure contribute, and I am honored to be a part of this effort to celebrate and share archaeology through social media.  I first learned of this Day of Archaeology thanks to social media. Indeed, it would seem that archaeologists have taken to the Internet recently, especially since the launch of Google+ some weeks ago. It is exciting to think that the advent of new technologies has made archaeological study more cooperative, immediate and accessible.

Okay, so onto the matter at hand.

I am a Cultural Resource Management (CRM) archaeologist and consultant working for an environmental services company in Oklahoma. I work with an inter-disciplinary team of biologists and environmental scientists. Most of the clients we work with have interests that are related to energy development, oil and natural gas chief among them. Our charge is two-fold:

1. Discover, document and avoid natural or cultural resources that could be adversely affected by a given project.

2. Obtain permits from state and federal agencies so that a given project can proceed without running foul of the law.

These laws, or rather congressional acts, often  include compliance with the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). All this sound a bit like “alphabet soup” but, it is the essential legal basis that holds companies accountable and drives a large portion of CRM survey work in the US.  It also provides me with a pay check so that I can dutifully pay back my student-loans (coughs sarcastically).

My work alternates between survey in the field and reporting in the office. Over the course of a year it balances out to about 50%/50%. Unfortunately for you, the reader, today is a rather typical in the office. My team and I are gearing up for a week of field survey in Louisiana next week. That means  today we are gathering equipment, producing maps, updating our GPS data-loggers, booking hotel reservations and arguing over which Cajun restaurant has the best red beans and rice (for my money it’s the Blind Tiger in Shreveport).

In addition to sorting out the logistics for this upcoming project, I have a keep other projects simmering on the stove-top, so to speak. Today, I am performing “desktop-based” studies on proposed projects in Oklahoma, Montana and Texas. Basically, I am using GIS databases and archives to located any known archaeological sites or historic locations that may have been recorded within or near a given project area. When finished, I will compile the information into a report for our clients advising them of the potential for encountering these resources. I will also provide them suggestions for a path forward through the regulatory process. More often than not, these desktop studies will develop into actual field surveys. Occasionally, they will include deep testing regimes or partial excavations. The name of the game is avoidance. Unfortunately for me (read as: the recalcitrant academic), clients would rather go around a site than wait to excavate it.

My other duties today include: completion of archaeological site forms for two prehistoric Paleo-Indian Period sites (ca. 12,000 – 8,000 years ago) for submission to the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey (OAS) and the Texas Historical Commission (THC). I also have to purchase flagging and fencing in order to demarcate the boundaries of a historic homestead property (ca. 1898) in southeastern Oklahoma.

There you have it,  a snap-shot of my work on this Day of Archaeology. In the world of cultural resource management, it is not often that we get to delve deep into site analysis through testing and excavation. I am envious of my friends any colleagues who get to ask the “big” questions and are able to spend considerable time researching particular topics in ways that enlighten and inform us about our prehistoric past. However, unlike them,  I am able to travel often and encounter scores of  sites in order to document and protect them for other researchers to examine more closely in the future.  Most days, that is alright by me.

Keep Digging & Cheers,

R. Doyle Bowman