The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mountains, Cold, Regulations, and Fieldwork

So, in the last week, I have been out in the field, in an isolated location, twice,been to a mini-con in Oakland, and just generally been everywhere except next to a computer.  Hence my lack of posts.

Still, I am back now, at least for a little while, and the last week's work has got me thinking about some of the strange timelines that being a consultant rather than an academic forces on one.

See, we are contracted to do the archaeological work for a large utility company.  They have facilities, including some underground utilities, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at altitudes between 7,000 and 8,000 feet.  Changes to these utilities may damage near-by archaeological sites, so we have been tasked with determining the boundaries of the sites in order to figure out whether or not the work on the utilities will impact the sites.  Normally, this would be a pleasant, even fun, task.

However, it is December.  While much of the world thinks of California as a giant beach that is warm year-round, this is only slightly true of small parts of Southern California (and even there, it gets cool enough in December and January that you're more likely to wear a sweater than a bikini).  In the Sierra Nevada, it's fucking cold.  Okay, not Wisconsin-level cold, but we haven't even gotten hit by the full force of winter yet and tempuratures are dropping to 25 degrees below freezing at night.  The Sierra Nevada has glaciers for fuck's sake!  There are 497 glaciers in the Sierra Nevada.  Yeah, next time you think of California as nothing more than a giant beach filled with silicon-injected bimbos and meatheads lifting weights on the sand, look up how many glaciers your state has, and if it's less than 400 I don't want to hear you even try to describe my state.

This is a road in California.  Note the lack of beach.

But I digress.

The point I was getting at is that it is cold in the Sierra Nevadas in December.  Cold enough that the ground is frozen.  Cold enough that we broke shovels attempting to excavate sites.  Cold enough that we routinely mistook chunks of ice in the screen for pieces of quartz (a common stone used to make tools in the area).  Could enough that we would scoop the dirt that we had just broken up and taken out of a unit into a bucket, only to have it freeze to the bucket minutes later, requiring us to use the shovel to get it out of the bucket and into the screen.

Years back, a friend of mine told me that his grandmother had died in Maine in January, but that they waited until March to bury her.  I didn't comprehend why one would do such a thing at the time.  I get it now.

So, yes, if you're willing to be frustrated and actually have tools break under stress, you can excavate in the Sierra Nevadas in the winter.  It would, however, be better to wait until Spring, when the soils can be easily dug and screened, and when you don't have to bundle up like Ralphie's little brother in A Christmas Story in order to work.

Field tech Dave doing his Vasily Zaytsev impression.

But this isn't possible.

See, our client needs to actually begin working on the utilities in the Spring.  Because of the delays and details involved in getting a cultural resources report written and accepted, that means we have to do the work now.  We would have been able to start the work earlier, when the ground was not yet frozen, but the Forest Service, who is responsible for the land in question, has it's own consultation duties that must be carried out before they can issue us the permits to do the work.  The timing is bad, but it's really nobody's fault, it's just the way these things go.

So, there we are, bundled up and looking more like a cross between the Michelin Man and WWII-era Russian sniper than archaeologists, digging in the frozen earth, trying very hard to maintain feeling in our extremities.

But we got the job done, on-time and on-budget, dammit!

Quick note: all of the photos in this post were taken by me in the general vicinity of our project area, but none of them are of sites or client facilities in the project area.


Lynn said...

I grew up in Northern Minnesota, in the old days, when tires would freeze flat and thump-thump-thump on the way to town until they warmed up.

Sometimes we had to wait until June to bury people.

Anthroslug said... I should have said "It doesn't get Minnesota cold" rather than "it doesn't get Wisconsin cold", eh?

Lynn said...

LOL! It's all pretty much the same... too damn long & too damn cold.

BTW, I think that the Canadians have the "eh" patented.