The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Another Distraction

So, one part of the reason that my posts have been a bit sporadic as of late is that I have been int he field alot, and there were the holidays.  However, it looks like this sporadic posting may continue for a while because we have recently discovered that my partner, Kaylia, is pregnant (which we planned, so we're both pretty happy about this).  So, my attention is likely to be on other things more often from here on out.  I will continue to update, and I will try to get back to my old 3-times-a-week schedule, but we will see how it goes.

And, for anyone offended, the title of this post is intended as a joke. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

On The Eventual Loss of Field Work

I have come to realize recently that my days in the field are likely numbered.

This isn't a shock, or even a gloomy outlook.  quite the contrary, in fact.  The next step in my career will likely be one of project management, which means more time dealing with management-level stuff rather than the day-to-day issues of field work and logistics.  Now, this step is likely years off, and it is one that I could probably stall even longer if I wished to, but that comes to the fact that my partner and I are talking about having children, and I wish to spend more times with my nephews and nieces while they are still young enough to appreciate their eccentric uncle, which means a more stable weekly schedule, which, in turn, means less field work.  So, even though the next step may be a few years off, I have no desire to hold it off any longer than necessary, and may even be looking for ways to make it happen sooner. 

So, the loss of fieldwork is still a ways off, and I am not gloomy over the eventual loss of field work as a regular part of my life.  But, I will admit, I will be a little sad to see it go.

This was not always the case, however.  Back in early 2007, I had worked for companies that had large local clients, and therefore field work consisted of going out for the day, and coming back home at night.  I rarely had to stay overnight anywhere, and then never for more than a four-night stint.  I then went to work for a company based in Santa Cruz (the town in which I had wished, and still do wish now that I have left it, to settle).  This company had very little local work, and so we spent at least 30% of our time away from home (the rest of that time was spent writing reports, preparing for field work, doing lab work, and handling our few local projects).  And so I was thrust into the much more common world of the field archaeologist - travel and hotels. 

I didn't like it.  I have long been a creature of habit, and I had developed a life for myself where I had my daily and weekly routines in which I reveled.  I liked my weekly gaming group, my nightly walks, and the three to four nights a week that I walked down to the local coffee shop to either write or read (in fact, most of the blog entries on this site dating to before December 2008 were written in the Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley, CA).  I did not like having my habits interrupted, and being sent out for field work felt like an interruption.  I disliked being sent away, and the entire time I was out, I longed for my return home.

But then some things happened.

The first is that I began to realize that fieldwork, even at its most miserable, tended to provide fodder for great stories that I could tell later.  When my friends in the tech industry would talk about difficult situations at work, I could always contribute a story about nearly being stampeded by cattle, or driving on a road that appeared to be in danger of collapsing into a canyon, or having to learn how to stop a pack of dogs using nothing but chutzpah.  I found that I rather enjoyed being the "guy who has the best stories", never having to embellish the stories. 

I also began to get a bit into the spirit of adventure that was inherent in the work.  Archaeology is an infinitely more sedate field than movies would lead one to believe, but there is always the possibility that some strange thing will happen (as evidence by many of the stories on this blog), and even if it doesn't, you spend time going to enough different types of places that nobody else has quite the same breadth of experience as you do.  There are stretches of boredom, and even longer stretches of basic routine work, but these are punctuated by weird occurrences, funny events, and exciting discoveries.  I am not risking life and limb on a regular basis (provided that I follow my safety plan), but I still get to see and do some exciting things.

Later, my partner Kaylia and I moved in together.  I very much liked this, but co-existing with someone else meant everything was shared (space, money, time, etc.), which was a bit difficult for me as I had lived as a single man into my 30s, never having cohabitated.  In truth, Kaylia was encouraging of me maintaining my own hobbies, habits, etc., but it took me time to understand this, and so I found that fieldwork allowed me time and space of my own in which I could think, work out my own issues, and sometimes just engage in my own hobbies or habits without having to worry about upsetting someone else.  I would look forward to returning home at the end of the job, but I nonetheless enjoyed my time away as well.

And so, while I preferred being at home to being on the road, I did develop a bit of a taste for traveling to fieldwork.  In fact, when I hadn't gone out recently enough, I would sometimes begin to get a little stir crazy, waiting for the next expedition out of the office. 
At the same time, when I was out of the office, I usually counted the days until I returned home, as I did prefer home to the field, even when fieldwork was at its best.  What's more, even some of the events that provided me with great stories could become more grief than they were in any way worth - spending seven months of 2009 in Taft with a hostile and imbecilic client who expected me to work 16-hour days and who was sufficiently dim to not look up our contract to see what the actual amount allocated to our work actually was (hence she constantly claimed that I had gone "well over budget" when I wasn't even 25% of the way through our budget) was enough to make me seriously consider going back into the tech industry. 

And so, I find myself pondering a future in which my fieldwork will eventually start to become more limited, eventually vanishing.  It's not a bad future at all, the pay will eventually go up, my time at home will allow my relationship with Kaylia to improve (and it's already pretty good), if we have children, then I will no doubt want to spend more time with them. 

At the same time, there is a bit of melancholy in knowing that my wild and wacky adventuring days will eventually be over.  Still, it will be better if they are over when I still enjoy them than for them to continue into a future where I start to go a bit nuts, like some of the older field techs that I have worked with.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tools of the Trade: The Crude Tools

I have had a number of experiences lately in which the people with whom I'm speaking seem shocked at the tools that we use - the popular view of archaeology being that excavations are carried out with brushes, trowels, and dental picks.  There is, of course, some truth to this.  When you are excavating features (things such as hearths, old posts for holding up long-vanished buildings, etc.), then you want to use very fine tools to make sure that you don't lose something important.  Likewise, there are places where the archaeological materials that you may encounter are fragile enough to make very fine-controlled tools necessary. 

But, most of the time in North American archaeology, larger, more "crude" tools are actually perfectly appropriate for excavation.  When you are digging into a midden or a flake scatter, the goal is to get the materials out of the ground and into a screen where you can separate them from the surrounding soil and natural rock.  To do this, cruder tools than what is usually thought of work just fine.

So, to that end, here's the first part in a short series on the types of tools that we actually use, as opposed to those ones that people usually assume we use.  This first part is the blunt instruments or crude tools that we use on a regular basis.

The Shovel

Okay, no surprise here.  If you're digging holes, you need a shovel.  However, we need a few types of shovels.  First off, there are round-nose and square-nose shovels.  The type you use depends on whether you are digging a square or a round hole, and on how hard is the soil through which you are digging - hard-packed dirt is easier to dig with a round shovel, and if it's a square hole then you use the square shovel to clean it up before finishing your unit level. 

There are also different handle lengths.  A long-handled shovel works great when you are at the surface, digging a shallow hole, or digging a deep hole that it too small for you to enter.  However, when you are more than a meter down, maneuvering the long-handled shovel can become a bit of a pain, and the short-handled shovel is pretty useful.  The shorter handle shovel is also easier to control if you are having to exercise more caution than normal. 

The Breaker Bar

Okay, this one is probably the most shocking ot the non-archaeologist.  Hell, it surprised me the first time that I was asked to use one.  However, it is a very useful tool.

The breaker bar is a steel bar approximately six feet long (though some are shorter), with a chisel tip on one one, and (usually) a spike on the other end.  This is used to break up hardened soil (and occasionally to dig through pavement...which I can assure you is not fun). 

We don't like the breaker bar.  It is the definition of a crude instrument, looking more like a medeival weapon than the tool of a scholar.  You run the risk of breaking artifacts, and in some contexts creating false flakes that resemble the remains of making flaked stone tools.  However, when you are stuck with dense, hardened clay to dig through, there is no other practical way to do it.  You use the breaker bar, and be as careful as you can.

The Mattock, Pick, Chipping Hammer, etc.

So, these are similar to the breaker bar, but are not quite as crude.  Nonetheless, they are basically spikes, axes, or other blades mounted on wooden or fiberglass sticks of varying lengths, and they function in much the same way as the breaker bar: cutting through hard-packed soils.  The objection to using these is pretty much the same.

The Screen

The screen isn't really a crude instrument, but it is used in conjunction with the crude instruments.  It's basically a wooden box lacking a top, and with a bottom made out of wire mesh, usually 1/8 or  1/4 inch.  Basically, you put the dirt from your hole in here, shake it (and sometimes break up dirt clods), and then sort through the gravel and rocks left over to try to find artifacts.

Okay, so those are the most common crude tools.  A later post will desscribe the fine tools.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Permission Marketing, Math, and Annoyed Executives

Back in the late 90s, I worked for a large computer hardware manufacturer.  I worked in one of the marketing departments.  The management of the various marketing departments were obsessed with a "marketing guru*" named Seth Godin.  Ol' Godin was, at that time, pushing an idea called "permission marketing" (often credited to him, but existing much earlier).  The concept, in a nutshell, is that you identify people who might want your product or service, and you get them to agree to read or listen to messages that you send to them about your product or service.  The basic idea being that they will be receptive and appreciative to hear what you have to say, and you aren't annoying other people by interrupting what they are doing (watching television, reading a website, listening to the radio, etc.) and thereby generating illwill from potential future customers.  While the idea has its limits, it's basically a sound concept, and seems like something that should work.  I have seen some anecdotal evidence to indicate that it does work some of the time, but I have no idea how it works overall in practical situations - and to be honest, I really don't care.

Now, the way that my employer decided to apply the permission marketing concept to our way of doing business was to identify the different marketing segments, and ask companies within those segments to sign up for various programs where they would get a few different goodies, and would also receive regular emails from us trying to provide information that might persuade them to purchase our products.  This had been going one for a few months when I got brought on board, and the program to which I was assigned had approximately 12,000 members, which got whittled down to around 10,000 when you eliminated cases where two accounts existed for the same company (usually because two different people at that company had signed up).  It was at this point that the upper management wanted to prove that their new program was working.

Note, I say that the upper management wanted to prove that it was working, not look at it and see whether or not it was working.  This is an important distinction.

I was given access all of the data for the program - member data, email send dates, click-through data (we had a way of seeing if the emails were read - I can not remember at this point whether the email simply contained a link or if there was some way that we were able to track whether the email was opened, though the latter seems like it would be riddled with errors), and contents of all emails.  I discovered that the average email generated a total of five click-throughs, or roughly 0.04% to 0.05% (depending on whether you count duplicate accounts or not).  There were a few noteworthy exceptions - emails that demanded action be taken to maintain membership had click-throughs as high as 25%, and during periods when there was a very high number of new members, there would follow one to two emails with click-through rates as high as 15%, but the emails demanding action to maintain membership privileges were all clearly isolated incidents not to be included with the rest of the data.  The higher rates during periods of program expansion were noteworthy, as they seemed to come from new members interested by the novelty of the new emails, but the rates always settled back down to 0.04% to 0.05%, sometimes ranging as low as 0.01%, which seemed an abysmal range of rates for a program that was costing no small amount of money to implement.

So, I put all of this together, wrote a report, and handed it to my supervisor, who handed it to her supervisor, etc. up the chain of command up to one of the Vice Presidents in charge of marketing (there were a few of these guys, I don't recall which one ultimately received the report). 

I didn't hear any more about this for a few weeks.  And then I received an email, from the VP in question, addressed to my boss, but with me as a CC and not amonggst the (several) primary recipients (the tone of the email left me feeling that this was used as a way of letting someone lower on the foodchain know that they were to be "instructed" without ever directly addressing them - I always found it insufferable and insulting).  The email demanded, of my boss and not me, to know whether I had a degree in marketing, and then rather strongly implied that if I did not have a degree in marketing, everything that I might have to say on the subject was meaningless.  Being the sort of person that I am, I responded, stating that, no, I did not have a degree in marketing, but that I could do basic math and it was clear that a 5/10,000 response rate was pretty sad and not the sign of a healthy marketing program.  My boss was, again, informed that, as I did not have a degree in marketing and was therefore not ordained to the priesthood, and Mr. Godin had written this holy text that was to be followed, all analysis that I had done was to be disregarded**.

This has always struck me as an unaccountably odd position for a corporate executive to take.  Admittedly, there was always the possibility that there was some other principle at work here that, had I gone through school to get a marketing degree, I might be aware of which would explain why such a low response rate was not necessarily a bad thing.  I can not conclude absolutely that I was not missing some important concept or piece of information.  However, the tone of the emails (and my later interactions with this VP) couple with the fact that he never bothered to point out any such concept or information suggested that this was not the case.  Rather, there seemed to be two things at work: 1) there had been a good deal of time, effort, and money put into this particular marketing scheme, and in keeping with the sunk cost fallacy, comment that the program should be altered or dropped was not looked upon kindly; 2) within the business side of the tech industry at that time, whether or not this is still the case I cannot say, there was a definite pressure towards "group think" and those who were skeptical of the positions taken by the group (or, more often, paid lip service by the group by held by upper management) were often seen as not being team players.

Regardless of the precise reason, I never did receive any sort of explanation from anybody regarding the distaste that the VP had for my analysis, which I had been asked to give, but it was made clear that he saw it as somehow offensive.  I was, however, assigned to other tasks and never asked to provide an analysis of anything again.  The program continued for the next year that I continued working for that company.  I haven't a clue as to whether it still exists.

One interesting side-note.  Some of the methods that I used for slicing up the data in looking for the effectiveness of the program, and looking to see if there were sub-sets of the clients who were more interested in the program than others, I later adapted for looking at the frequency of different types of artifacts in archaeological sites, and I was able to use them successfully in writing my Masters Thesis.  So, in the end, this assignment did work in my favor.

*"marketing gurus" came and went like sheets at a hotel.  They usually had a kernel of a good idea that was then packed about with all manner of pseudo-profound nonsense in order to turn what could have been a one-page instruction sheet into a book with accompanying seminars and DVD sets.  Occasionally, one would actually have a profusion of good ideas, but most were one-trick ponies who enjoyed their five minutes, and then were forgotten when, after a few months of trying to get the "new, game-changing idea" to work and discovering that it failed when tested against reality, it was abandoned by the marketing executives who had found a new guru to teach them what was sure to be the one true religion.

**Strangely, I was allowed to maintain access to the data sources until a year later, when I ran a series of statistical tests demonstrating that the individual sales people had little influence on product sold, but that changes in engineering and manufacturing had a huge impact, and therefore the engineering and produciton staff should be the ones getting the sale's team's rather large bonuses and other perks (such as, and I shit you not, safari trips to Africa, month-long tours of Italy, and so on).  I was laid off a few month later, admittedly for reasons unrelated to my oddball exercises in applied mathematics, but I have always wondered if management wasn't at least a bit happy to get rid of an irritant.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back to the Frozen Wastes

So, I'm sitting in my office, waiting for my crew. 

As the frequent readers know, I have been routinely getting sent up into the mountains to do boundary testing on sites near a linear project.  This project should have been done no later than the fall, when there was no snow on the ground and the ground itself wasn't frozen.  Now, it's difficult to get to the sites due to snow and ice covered roads, and the ground is frozen making digging difficult and screening soils very difficult - to the point of being occasionally impossible.  As a result, each time we have gone up, there has been at least one site that we have been unable to reach, and we have one left.  I had figured that it would wait until Spring, as there is no practical reason to go after it now - it will cost more than is necessary to get to it and to dig into it.

However, my client is a large corporation, and the archaeologist that works for my client is under pressure to get things done even when impractical.  And so, on Monday, I received instructions to go back into the mountains  to try to reach the last site, even though impractical.  It is very cold up there right now, so I am decked out in my cold weather clothes, and there is a fair chance that we won't be able to get to the site at all, so this trip might be a waste anyway. 

So, here I am, up earlier than normal, very tired, very grumpy, and possibly not even going to be able to get to the site to which we are headed. 


Monday, January 16, 2012

Flaked Glass and Date Designation

A short while back, I wrote about the problems associated with assuming that sites containing historic-era artifacts are necessarily related to Non-Native American use of a location.  While it is true that, as of the mid-19th up through the early 21st century, Native Americans were a distinct minority among the European, Asian, and African-descendant settlers who occupied California, they nonetheless remained a present and active community (or, rather, set of communities) within California (and the United States more broadly).  And, contrary to what a surprisingly large number of people seem to think, Native American communities have historically been very open to adopting new technologies and practices from other cultures - this is, in fact, a common human trait - and as such, after urbanization began in the American west, it becomes much more difficult to differentiate a Native American home from a non-Native American Home. 

In an area such as the southern Sierra Nevadas, where I currently do much of my work, it becomes a bit more difficult to differentiate Native and non-Native sites.  Many of the towns in this area have large Native American populations, many descended directly from the people who occupied the same locations a century or more ago.  And European settlement was slower in this area than in other parts of California, resulting in the Native peoples of the area being better able to adapt to a slow creep of Euro-American settlement rather than the sudden rush brought on by the Gold Rush and, earlier, by the establishment of a local Spanish mission.  Moreover, the culture of the settlers had changed over the course of the 19th century, so while the Native peoples of this region still had numerous problems with the settlers - some of them quite horrific in their own right - they were not quite the same as the trauma experienced by those in the central Sierras and also along the coast. 

As a result, it is not unheard of to find Native American village sites that were known to be occupied as late as 1914 and with histories stretching back centuries, in the hills and mountains of this region.  What this means is that the people of the area were making use of tools and goods that are typically associated with non-Native settlements, creating sites that are a mix of artifacts typically thought of as historic, as well as those typically thought of as prehistoric.  The problem is that for most archaeologists, and I have to confess that I have been one such myself, we tend to assume that the presence of metal, glass, concrete, etc. are indicators of "historic" (that is, non-Native) settlement and land use, while the presence of flaked stone, ground stone, and similar materials is evidence of "prehistoric" (that is, Native) land use and settlement.  As a result, we tend to describe sites that have both "prehistoric" and "historic" traits as being "mixed component" - we assume that they were occupied at two different periods of time by two different sets of people - both Native and non-Native.

I had to reflect on this while I excavated a site this last week that had been recorded as a mixed-component site.  It contained bedrock milling features and flaked basalt and obsidian, and it also had metal and glass artifacts in fairly large numbers.  Although I am aware of the problems associated with assuming two different settlements of the area, I had nonetheless fallen back into the habit of thinking of these types of materials as representing just that...until one of the field techs walked up to me with a piece of amethyst glass (a distinct type of glass that usually dates to the late 19th and early 20th century) that had been bifacially flaked - that is, someone had taken the glass and very carefully knocked flakes of glass off of it in a distinct pattern to make the larger shard into a cutting and scraping tool.  This is not a behavior one sees from non-Native Californians, but Native Californians were masters of producing flaked stone/glass tools, and I have seen many examples of them being produced from bottles, porcelain, and thick old window panes.

Suddenly, this site looked different.  We now had pretty convincing evidence that Native Californians were living here and making tools during the late 19th and early 20th century, which was the same period during which the other historic artifacts had been deposited here.

Now, there is still some evidence from the distribution of artifacts to suggest that there was a dump of industrial materials here after the site was used by the Native Americans who made use of the milling stations and flaked the stone and the piece of amethyst glass.  But it was nonetheless a valuable lesson to be reminded that the Native Californians never left, and that we should be cautious in assuming that a site, or site component, doesn't belong to them simply because it has glass, metal, and porcelain.  In fact, when we make that assumption, we buy into and perpetuate the belief that Native Americans are of the past and not part of the modern world, though they very clearly are still here and still part of the world that you and I inhabit.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Phase 2

Most of the fieldwork that I have been doing for the past two years falls within the category of Phase 1 projects.  Today, however, I am going out for a Phase 2 project.

A Phase 1 project, at least in California CRM parlance, is a project geared towards identifying cultural resources (including archaeological sites, historic structures, traditional cultural properties, etc.) that may be impacted by a project.  Usually this means doing a records search at the appropriate repository/archive for archaeological and historic information, followed  by a pedestrian survey of the area in order to see if there are any resources present.  Sometimes, as has been my lot lately, you go to what is sometimes called an "extended" Phase 1 or boundary testing - you dig a few holes in order to see if the archaeological site in question has a sub-surface component of which you would otherwise be unaware, and to see whether that subsurface component (if it exists) extends into the area likely to be disturbed by a project.

Phase I projects are, by far, the most common type of project.  Often, once resources are identified, they can be avoided, and the project moves forward. 

When a resource can't be avoided, or the project proponent would prefer not to work around it, then it usually has to be evaluated for it's eligibility to the state or federal register of historic resources.  In the case of archaeological sites, this usually involves excavations that are more extensive than what is done for the extended Phase 2. 

The Phase 2 can be enjoyable because, while the excavation performed is limited, the goal is to determine what types of materials are present, and to get a rough idea of the quantities and variety of archaeological materials.  In other words, while the Phase 1 does generate data, and that data does have definite value outside of CRM and into research, the Phase 2 begins to more closely resemble research archaeology, and there is even the possibility of addressing some more advanced research questions with the data generated than is possible with the Phase 1. 

Of course, the main goal of this part of the project is still essentially regulatory in nature - we have to determine whether the site is eligible for the appropriate register.  However, most archaeological sites are determined eligible for the federal register under Criterion D (and in California, they are usually eligible for the state register under Criterion 4, which is almost identical to federal Criterion D) which states that a site is eligible if it has the potential to yield data important to the study of history or prehistory - in other words, that the site has research value.

So, this is a bit more of the type of archaeology that most people think of when they hear what I do for a living.  And while I enjoy pedestrian survey - getting paid to take a walk is excellent - I am looking forward to changing pace today.

If the resource is eligible for placement on the appropriate register, then further work may be required, but that is a story for another time...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Skull Art and Revulsion

This, a pinhole camera manufactured from the 150-year old skull of a 13-year old girl, got me thinking about human remains, or, rather, the treatment of human remains.  As I have been known to deal with human remains through my work, this type of musing has professional implications for me that it doesn't have for most people.

I do not subscribe to any supernatural views - I believe neither in souls nor gods nor spirits, and I do not buy the notion that the way in which one's remains are treated in any way impact the person to whom the body belonged*.  So, understand that I am aware that my thoughts here, steeped as they are in a sort of weird notion of what death and remains mean, are not particularly rational...and yet I suspect that they will be perfectly understandable to most people reading this.

But before we get into my own flavor of irrational, let's set the groundwork by stating what I think are perfectly reasonable views regarding the treatment of human remains. 

By and large, I feel that rules and regulations regarding the treatment of human remains should be designed to A) protect public health, and B) avoid reasonable and unnecessary upset to people still alive** - in that order.  So, if a coroner has to perform an autopsy against the wishes of a family in order to assess the likelihood of communicable disease, for example, then the prevention of disease should trump the family's wishes.  However, if a family member would like to prevent a body from being used for medical instruction or research, I think that they should have their wishes met. 

Going with these two principles (along with the ** below), you can take care of business.  People who wish to have their bodies donated for research or instruction can do so, but the families of those who don't wish that can be assured that unnecessary disturbance of their deceased will not occur.  And this is, more-or-less, what we usually have in our current society, and it seems to work pretty well.

But then you have cases such as this pinhole camera.  I have an automatic revulsion to this, and while I can explain why, I'm not entirely comfortable with my reasons. 

On the one hand, if I were to learn that some hipster twit was going to turn my cranium into an "art object" after my death I would be annoyed...on the other hand, by the time it happened, I would be too busy being dead to care.  I have disintered bones, taken them from the ground, catalogued them, and placed them within a box for transport and/or storage.  This doesn't bother me.  I have had human bones in boxes near my desk for months at a time, waiting for the MLD*** to take them for permanent curation or internment.  This doesn't bother me.  In short, I am not creeped out by being near and even handling human remains.  It's something that absolutely does not bother me.

But this pinhole camera skull creeps me out, and really bothers me. 

I think that part of it is that I am making some assumptions about the creator.  I have met many an "extreme artist" in the past, and found that while some are trying to do legitimate work, many often go for shock value, capitalizing on prurient impulses in order to get publicity, while claiming that they are challenging taboos when, in fact, they are simply getting a kick out of trying to upset people.  I have no idea if that is what this guy is doing or not, but I have to admit that, lacking any evidence one way or another, that is my working assumption...and it is an assumption.  I have no good reason for thinking that this is the case.

Another reason this bothers me, I think, is that I know a bit about how skulls were often obtained during the 19th century.  Exhibitions such as Body Worlds use the bodies of volunteers, people who willingly donate their bodies to be made into art objects.  It seems remarkably unlikely that a 13-year old girl would have agreed to such a thing back in the mid-19th century.  So, I have to wonder where and how the skull was obtained, not only by the artist, but by those from whom the artist obtained it, on down the line until it was on the shoulders of a living teenage girl.  During the 19th century, and even up into the second half of the 20th century, there was a trade in the bodies of people who had the misfortune to die in the wrong place or under the wrong circumstances.  Many of these bodies were from criminals, but many others were from those who were poor, or kidnapping victims.  The bodies were usually sold to educational institutions for anatomy courses, though some were sold to individual scientists, and a few likely even ended up in the hands of colectors (the number of disturbing things that the allegedly upright Victorians collected is truly mind-blowing).  And that doesn't get into skulls taken by soldiers sent to the colonies, settlers who stole the body parts of Native Americans killed during the conflicts that accompanied the western expansion of the U.S., as well as the less common ways in which someone might illegally gain body parts.  So, there is a fair chance that the skull became available for a 21st-century collector because the girl to whom it belonged died in a manner that while undramatic likely caused grief to her family, or was killed violently, and the removal of the remains would have compounded her family's grief. 

Again, though, I don't know any of this.  It simply seems likely given what I do know about the history of the body trade.

And, of course, another thing that is making my skin crawl here is the fact that this is a deep-seated taboo, a fact that the creator of the camera is probably counting on.  It's the "ick" factor.  Admittedly, this is culturally constructed to a degree, but taboos against poor treatment of corpses (at least those from the in-group) are universal, and destruction, damage, or mutilation of bodies is universally a sign of both disrespect and anger/hatred towards the one to whom it is being done.  This is, admittedly, not rational - again, what happens after death doesn't impact the person when they're alive and able to notice - but it is something that is wired into human societies across the board (though, admittedly, what is construed as respectful or disrespectful treatment of the dead varies greatly across cultures...but I'm pretty sure that making a pinhole camera out of the skull isn't considered normal anywhere).

But this brings me back to what I do for a living.  There are those who would consider my work to be disrespectful towards the dead, and therefore "icky" or disturbing.  Although I do not remove human remains unless they are in danger of being destroyed otherwise, and I work as much as possible with the descendants of the deceased to ensure that everything is on the up-and-up, that doesn't change the fact that what I do with the remains, and the sort of research that I have supported in the past and will likely continue to support, is often not viewed with pleasure by a significant portion of the Native American community. Even when I am clearly working to save an endangered skeleton, there are those who would rather that it be left alone by me, even if that means it getting smashed by a bulldozer.

I will make this argument: the work I do is done to prevent harm to remains, and I do work to have them taken care of in such a way as the living descendents are not unnecessarily bothered.  I don't view the remains as mine to do with as I please, but rather as remains that belong rightfully to the people who descended from the person being exhumed.  The information that I gather is not sold, when possible I see it published, when not possible it at least gets into the "gray literature."  This, I believe, puts me into another camp entirely from an artist who decides to turn a child's skull into a camera. 

But, I have to admit that I have my days when I wonder if I am as different as I would like to think that I am.

* Interesting to note that our cultural views regarding these things are so steeped in supernaturalism that even in describing this, while I know that the body WAS the person (after all, our minds are a function of our brains which are a part of our bodies), I still use the langaueg of mind/body dualism and talk about the body "belonging" to someone.

** I would make one exception to B - when remains are likely to be destroyed, I think that it is acceptable to remove them from their current location in order to prevent their destruction.  However, in such cases, the work should be done discreetly and professionaly so as to prevent grief to the living.

***Most likely descendant, the person designated by the coroner to take care of the human remains based on a relationship to the deceased.  The politics of how this often works out within a Native American context is complex and worthy of an entire book.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Field Work Hotel Wackiness Photos

Last week I wrote about the hotel in which I was staying for my recent fieldwork.  On the one hand, it was only the latest in a long line of very odd hotels that I have stayed in.  On the other hand, unlike some of those hotels, it was actually a pleasant place to stay, if odd.  So, here's a few photos of the place, to give you a taste of the sometimes pleasant oddities that can come with field work.

The place is called the Snowline Lodge, and is...well, "quirky" isn't quite the right word, but it's the closest that I can find.  We checked in here on Tuesday, not knowing anything about it other than that it was within the price range allowed for lodging by our client.  When we arrived, we saw the front, and noticed that the porch had all manner of odd objects on it, including a piano that did not appear to be in working order.

And then we noticed the hallway with graffiti in it from various visitors, further making us wary.

It wasn't until later that we realized that all of the graffiti were positive and from people who seemed to like the place.

A sheep (which I was unable to get a photo of) was running about the place, acting very much as if it were a playful domestic dog.  Indeed, had I not heard it "baaaa"-ing when I first saw it, I might have initially mistaken it for a weird looking dog until I got close.

A fellow missing all but one of his top teeth checked us in, and proceeded to, for reasons that weren't entirely clear to me, try to convince my crew and I to take a room with multiple beds rather than taking the three separate rooms that we had actually reserved.  He also tended to talk far more than necessary, and his wife yelled at home from another room most of the time that we were talking with him. He informed us that he and his wife lived in one of the many trailers that were parked around the hotel, though from what we could gather they had spent most of their time in various rooms of the hotel itself.

Suffice to say, we were nervous as the the quality of this establishment.  But, we need not have worried as it turned out to be nice, if odd.

The place was originally built as a bar, and later had rooms added on so that it might be used as a hunting lodge.  The bar area now functions as a lobby and common room - yes, a common room in very much the "Medieval inn" sense: it was a room that remained open 24-hours a day, which had tables, couches, and stools on which the patrons might relax.  There are drinks available, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, though this isn't really a bar or restaurant of any sort.  There is a piano, and atop the piano is a mannequin, as you can see:

Then, there's the nude photo of Marylin Monroe on one wall, accompanied by a portrait of John and Jackie Kennedy, a line of baskets allegedly from Africa, and a Bible where one would expect the sheet music to be on the piano (and I checked, this isn't a Bible with a hymnal appendix, so it's presence in the sheet music location is decidedly odd).

And then there was the back room, a secondary common room, with couches, a fireplace, a television (one of only two in the hotel), and a seriously mishmashed collection of old books available for anyone to read.  Oh, and for no apparent reason, there are children's bunk beds in this room.

The hallways that led to our upstairs rooms rather reminded me of the Shining, but the rooms themselves were pleasant.


All in all, the Snowline Lodge was a good place.  The only downside was that there was no food on-site, and no fridges or microwaves in the room, so that we had to drive a good 15 miles in either direction to eat.  But we slept well, the staff turned out to be both efficient and friendly, and I would be happy to stay there again, which is not something that can be said for most of the hotels in which I have stayed for work.