The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Cuspidors of Truth

I have just finished reading a collection of Raymond Chandler's novellas, all of them set in the Los Angeles County of the 1930s. Aside from the excellent writing and the great character Phillip Marlowe, the thing that really struck me about the stories is the descriptions of the material surroundings of the characters. For example, in most of the offices that Marlowe visits the furnishings include a spittoon.

What fascinates me about this is the fact that spittoons, once a common item in public places, almost entirely vanished by the end of WWII. During the early 20th century, people shifted from chewing tobacco to smoking. Part of the reason for the shift was the post-WWI influenza epidemic leading to a greater consideration about the transmission of fluids from the respiratory system. Fears of tuberculosis also played a role. Other reasons for the change were clear, but less physically tangible: the ready availability of chewing gum led to it replacing tobacco as the "chew" of choice, and cigarettes (considered more sanitary) began to fulfill people's tobacco habits.

The end result is the same: the spittoon, once a common item within households and public places, vanished by the middle of last century. When I read about an item like this, I always find myself wondering how archaeologists, lacking written records, would deal with such a change in material culture.

There are many different theoretical schools in anthropology, but we can break them very roughly into two types of traditions: those who seek explanation for changes in adaptations to the environment, and those who seek explanations in the social and symbolic experiences of the people who made use of the material culture. The spittoon is interesting in that it clearly can be accurately described by both sides, and both sides would fail to provide the full explanation.

The removal of spittoons was preceded, and pushed by, the influenza epidemic, and the presence of tuberculosis in most cities also played a role. Someone looking at the increased mortality rates and the routine presence of tuberculosis scars on the bones of the dead combined with residue analysis on the spittoons themselves might work out that there was a public health crisis in play, and that the removal of the spittoons might be worked out from that.

Other archaeologists might work out that, as the frequency of spittoons decreased, the materials associated with producing cigarettes and chewing gum increased. They might, from this, argue that chewing tobacco came to be seen as old-fashioned and low class, and that cigarettes and chewing gum became ascendant as an attitude of greater upward-mobility spread through the culture.

My own experience interacting with my colleagues leads me to think that most of my colleagues would argue for one of these two explanations, and might pay lip service to the other but generally brush it off. Of course, the truth is that both are true and both fed each other. The public health concerns may have spurred the removal of the spittoons, but it also created a set of social pressures that resulted in chewing tobacco and the use of spittoons being seen as low-class and disgusting, which further led to these items being seen as unsanitary, and so on in circles. A social/symbolic explanation and a material/biological explanation are both necessary to fully explain why a common piece of material culture became rare to the point of near-extinction (it's now almost solely a piece of specialist equipment for wine tasters - ironically making the spittoon a high-class item).

Anyway, it's something to consider the next time that you hear an archaeologist describe a change in the archaeological record as being solely or primarily due to one type of change (environmental, biological, social, etc.). Sometimes it's accurate to assign cause to one factor, but often it isn't.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Negative Declaration

Several years back, when I worked for a different firm, a project manager sent me an email stating that "I need you to write a negative declaration for a reservoir project."

A negative declaration, to give a simplified explanation, is a document that states that an environmental study was performed and that it was found that the proposed project, in this case the modification of a reservoir, will have no adverse impacts to the environment.

Knowing this, I sent an email back to the project manager requesting information regarding the study. She responded that there had not been a study. I requested a copy of the records search results, figuring that there hadn't been a survey because one had already been performed previously. No dice, no record search.

Puzzled, I figured that there was one last chance. The reservoir was being modified on behalf of the county, so perhaps they had worked out a programmatic agreement, a legal document that specifies the measures to be taken to protect environmental resources in the event of various types of development or construction, and the terms of that agreement removed the reservoir from consideration. So, I asked and was told that no, there was no programmatic agreement.

So, I asked, being as how there had been no attempt to assess the presence of or impacts to historic sites, how was I to write a negative declaration? If I had no information to go on, I had no legal way to prepare a document stating that there would be no impacts. Before I sent my response, I double-checked with another archaeologist who had been in this business for decades to make sure that I had a correct understanding of the regulations. With confirmation that I was correct, I sent the email back to the project manager.

An email came back, saying (and I'm having to paraphrase): "why is this so difficult for you to understand? You need to write a negative declaration! The area's a reservoir, so there's nothing there!"

I again checked with the older archaeologist, and then I wrote back explaining that archaeological sites are routinely found within reservoirs (in fact, I can think of three reservoirs off the top of my head which contain National Register Eligible archaeological sites), and so the fact that this location was a reservoir in no way exempted it from review and study.

The response (paraphrasing again): "I promised our client a negative declaration! You need to write one, or I will talk with the vice president in charge of our division."

I responded by copying and pasting the appropriate parts of the state regulations into the email, the parts that the explain the conditions under which a negative declaration can be prepared, and concluding by stating that if she disagreed with the state regulations, I would be happy to discuss the matter with her and the vice president of our division.

The next day I received an email that said, simply "just write the negative declaration."

Having gotten tired of this, I decided that I would do what she asked, but not in the way that she asked. The negative declaration is essentially a form that states what measures were taken to identify environmental issues and any outstanding matters yet to be resolved, and so I filled it out, explaining in each appropriate space that nothing had been done to assess whether or not the project would impact historic resources, and stating that such an assessment was an outstanding issue that had to be resolved before construction could begin. When I sent this, I included, once again, a paste of the relevant sections of the state regulations, and I copied the vice president and my direct supervisor on the email.

The next day she backed off and agreed that I should go out and do the necessary record search and survey.

At the time I had thought that she backed off because she realized that I wasn't going to allow myself to be bullied into doing something that I knew wasn't right, and because I had called her bluff by letting my boss and our vice president in on things.

About a year later, as I was preparing to leave the company, we had hired a new archaeologist. She requested that he write a negative declaration for a new project. When handing the project to him, she said that she wanted him, and not me, to do it because I "don't understand that sometimes you just have to write a negative declaration."

So, I don't know if she was corrupt, incompetent, stupid, or some combination of the three, but she apparently didn't get it. I was happy to see, however, that the new archaeologist did manage to force her into allowing study as well. And he found a few important sites, making a negative declaration a bad idea.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yo-Yo Schedule

Well, I got the call yesterday, seems I'm heading back out to the field tommorow. I also spent most of the last two weeks completing a report that was made more complicated than it needed to be by the inclusion of multiple offices, slow servers, and too many people.

So, I've not been writing as much as I would like, once again. So it goes. I hope to be writing a bit more this week.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's "Keep and Bare Arms" not "Threaten Hikers"

Looking through the field notes for a recent project, I came across notes reminding me of an odd incident that occurred while in the field.

My crew was split into to teams. I was on the southern part of the project area, while the other team was on the northern portion. When the team leader for the northern team turned his notes and forms into me that evening, he told me that young woman had walked out to where the archaeologists were walking in the field. She asked who they were, and they explained that they were working for our client, one of the major utility companies in Southern California, and that they were working on a well-known project out in the area.

She knew about the project, and said that she had no problem with my crew being there. But she warned them to be wary of one of her neighbors. The fellow is, she claimed, upset that there is a trail maintained by the National Park Service going through his land (to be fair, it had been there when he bought the land, and he was apparently aware of it at the time, he just doesn't like it), and he has been known to take shots at hikers with his shotgun. The young woman stated that he has expanded his ire to include utility workers as well as hikers.

My crew thanked her, and continued on their way. Stories of archaeologists (and biologists, and geologists, etc.) being confronted by gun-wielding landowners are common. Most of the time it occurs in areas where there is frequent trespassing and vandalism, and the ranchers or farmers carry the gun legitimately for their own protection. Once they ascertain that you are there for a legitimate reason, they are typically friendly, sometimes even helpful. I've met armed ranchers in the field, but never been threatened by them.

There are a few stories about some of the more unhinged landowners (or dwellers, they aren't always the owners) actively threatening fieldworkers with firearms - but even in these cases it's "get off my land, or I'll shoot" while brandishing a weapon, and no shots are fired.

But a guy who actively and routinely fires at hikers? I have a hard time buying this. How has this guy not been carted off to prison? I have to wonder if the young woman objected to our presence and decided to try to scare us off, if she was honestly confused, or if she had some sort of axe to grind with her neighbor.

Ahhh, yet more joys of fieldwork.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Me and the Booze

As those of you who know me are aware, I don't drink. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't view alcohol consumption as being evil or degenerate, I don't even think that being drunk every now and again is necessarily a bad thing. I simply don't drink because I, personally, don't like drinking. I find the flavor of alcohol repulsive*, and the times I have had enough to drink for it to have an effect on me, I have simply felt very sick (and no, this isn't a hangover I'm talking about, I felt sick shortly after a few drinks and before I felt anything else). So, I don't drink for purely personal reasons, and I don't have an issue with people who drink (well, alcoholics, sure, but I find any form of addiction distressing). I don't mind being around people who are drinking - hell, some of my best times have been spent hanging around with friend who were thoroughly sloshed.

So, if I don't have a problem with people who are drinking, why do they have a problem with me not drinking? Okay, do me a favor. If you know someone who doesn't drink, and who you have either tried to convince to drink or have tried to run a guilt trip on because they don't drink (or do any other drug), then imagine that this entire post is coming out of their mouth. 'kay? 'kay.

It is a rare thing that someone hears that I don't drink and then doesn't try to convince me to have a beer, a glass of wine, or some such thing.


Look, if you are uncomfortable with my not drinking, then that is YOUR PROBLEM and not mine. Get off of my fuckin' back! Telling me that I need to "loosen up" isn't going to get you anywhere - I don't have a problem with you drinking, YOU are the one who has a problem with me not drinking, so if anyone needs to "loosen up", it's you!

And no means no, don't keep trying to talk me into drinking. To offer me a drink once is polite, and well appreciated. To keep pushing after I have already said "no" just makes you a sorry bastard. You won't get me to drink that way, and all you're going to do is annoy me with your repetitive and obnoxious demands. I'm not judging your drinking (though I am observing the fact that you are a pushy asshole who won't leave me alone and is too insecure to simply accept that I do my own thing), so don't judge my not drinking.

While I'm on the subject, don't attribute any particular beliefs or notions to me because I don't drink. People routinely assume that I don't drink because I am religious (anyone who routinely reads this blog knows how far off the mark those folks are), others assume that I have some more ambiguous "moral" stance against alcohol (no, I don't, and as stated, I don't care if you drink, or even if you get drunk, I'm just not interested in joining in, though I may still hang around if you don't mind, it could be fun), and others assume that I am afraid.

I am just not interested! Okay? Get it? Just like you might not be interested in Chess or hiking or video games or some other such thing, I am not interested in drinking. It has nothing to do with religion, morals, fear, hate, love, sex, sorrow, society, family, or anything else! It is a simple lack of interest, nothing more, nothing less. Alright?

Oh, and I have not "fought temptation" either. I have never felt tempted because I have never been interested. It's pretty simple.

Also, don't try to push some faux nobility. I routinely meet people who tell me things like "oh, you don't drink? Well, I think that it's far more honorable/ intelligent/ fashionable/etc. to know how much you can handle and not go beyond that. I think that you are dishonest/ weak/ untrustworthy/ etc."

Really? You think that I am dishonest/ weak/ untrustworthy/ etc.? That's funny, because I know that you are a pretentious dick. Look, if you like drinking, then just say that you like drinking, that's fine. But don't go around projecting your own insecurities on to me. You may think you sound sophisticated or wise, but you really just sound like the pompous ass that you are.

By the way, the same goes for other types of drugs. While I am leery of things such as heroine or crack, I don't see a problem with someone who smokes pot from time-to-time or drops LSD occasionally. Hey, it's your life, as long as you are aware of the risks and benefits of what you are doing, and you're not hurting anyone else, I say more power to you. But I am not interested in joining in. It's not that I am judging you, it's not that I have a problem with you, it is simply that (altogether now) I am just not interested! If you have a problem with me not doing something when I don't have a problem with you doing it, then the problem is entirely yours, don't try to push it off on me!

Okay, I feel better now. Now, if y'all will simply remember that there are simply some people who don't want a drink for their own reasons, so don't get pushy when someone turns one down, then I will feel vindicated.

* for those of you who try to convince someone to drink something in which "you can't even taste the alcohol" - if someone doesn't drink, odds are, they can still taste it, we haven't gotten used to the flavor, so it stands out quite clearly no matter how muted it is to you.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

No Management Necessary?

So, I am currently working on a project where we have to make management recommendations for the sites that we encounter. This can be rather tricky, as we have to balance the preservation of important historic and prehistoric sites with the necessity of completing an important energy project (in this case, getting renewable energy facilities on line). It's a hell of a lot better than last year's work in the oil fields, and the intellectual challenge can even be fun, but it's a tricky job nonetheless.

It also, however, once again highlights one of the tensions inherent in being an archaeologist in a resource management setting rather than a research setting. I have described the ways in which we have to evaluate archaeological sites in the past. The issue is that pretty much any and all sites are of potential interest to researchers (my MA advisor even wrote an article for The Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology arguing that we need to not write off "small" or "limited" sites) because there is no limit to the research questions that academic archaeologists may develop, and therefore no limit to the types of data (or types of site from which they derive that data) that they might need.

By contrast, those of us in the management/compliance side of things have to make our arguments for site preservation based on the criteria of the appropriate federal or state regulations. These regulations are written to balance research interests (which usually wants site preservation) with economic interests (which often requires construction), and therefore, not every site can be protected. The appropriate laws do provide decent criteria to make these calls, which is nice as it gives us ground on which to stand when protecting sites, but there is no way that these criteria can cover every potentially interesting site.

Also, we on the compliance side have to choose our battles. As is, there are plenty of legislators and individuals and organizations that can afford to contribute large amounts of money to legislators who want the National Historic Preservation Act and similar laws repealed. If we fight on every site, and make construction and land development more difficult than it needs to be, we run the risk of tilting public opinion (which is currently in our favor) against us, and emboldening those sorts of attempts. But, of course, if we fold routinely, we make the laws toothless and irrelevant. It's a difficult line to walk.

So, I always feel uneasy when I tell someone that a site is not significant.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sequence of Rock Jumping

So, here's another photo sequence that I got at Seabright Beach in early June. Enjoy...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Cat, Update

I normally don't post things like this here, but since I posted about the cat yesterday and alot of people read that (and emailed), I thought that I should tell what happened.

We took her in to the veterinarian today. After checking her out thoroughly, the vet stated that everything that she saw was consistent with advanced cancer, and that there wasn't much that could be done. After talking with the veterinarian for a while, we decided that the best thing to do for Missy May was to euthanize her - she was cearly weak but not yet in much pain, very old, and her odds of improvement were pretty much nonexistent.

Both Kaylia and I are pretty upset. Still, we made the best choice we could with the information that we had on hand. And, in the end, Kaylia wanted to take Missy-May in so that in her final months the already elderly cat would be happy and comfortable. Kaylia succeeded far better than she could have expected.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Me and the Cat

I have adopted a cat.

Or I have been adopted by a cat.

Or, perhaps more likely, I have been suckered by a cat.

Kaylia has a cat. A rather elderly cat by the name of Missy-May. the cat had belonged to a former co-worker who had decided to remodel her home and wasn't interested in having the cat (whom she had had since the co-worker was in her early teens) around during the process. Kaylia, upon hearing that the cat was bound for the pound, offered to take care of her, and as such became the new care-taker of Missy May.

During this time, I was out working in Taft, so Missy-May provided some companionship for Kaylia, and the two became fairly tight.

The cat was not a fan of me, however. Whenever I was around, which was only for two-to-three day visits during the first couple of months that the cat lived with Kaylia, Kaylia's attention would be focused on me rather than the feline. Viewing me as an interloper, the cat was more than happy to make her displeasure with my presence known through showy displays of bodily excretions and the occasional use of claws.

For my part, I tolerated the cat. Kaylia liked her, so I would put up with her.

Then I came home to stay. The cat was just as thrilled as you would expect, and outbursts were the norm for the first few days, and then she seemed to accept that I wasn't going anywhere and that she'd have to live with me. The cats dislike for me was helpful in some ways - when she needed to be taken to the veternarian, I could put her in the travel cage without worrying about incurring her distrust, for example.

But she eventually got used to me, and after a while, it was common for the cat to jump onto my lap while I was sitting on the couch, or to climb onto me to sleep when I was in bed. For my part, I essentially tolerated her, I allowed her to sit where she pleased, and I would feed her when necessary, but I was also just as happy to be where she wasn't.

But in the last few weeks, things have begun to change.

A few weeks ago the cat stopped eating, and rapdily became disturbingly skinny. This followed several months in which she would, for no apparent reason, vomit up her food. We couldn't figure it out at first, until I found some wet cat food in a closet and gave that to her in place of the dry cat food that she had been eating. She had no problem launching directly into the wet food and no problem keeping it down, and so a trip to the store resulted in more being available.

She also has begun to show the signs of pain in her joints, and has begun having a hard time jumping to and from places that were once quite easy for her. And she clearly walks with a wobble that is not-quite-a-limp. Now it should be mentioned that she is 15 years old, quite old by cat standards. This is perfectly normal, and is probably arthritis setting in. Still, between the not eating and the wobble, it's hard not to feel some degree of compassion.

And so it is that I find myself driving home on my lunch breaks to make sure that she has food, I have a mental map to the nearest veternarian facility worked out, I have been the one to spearhead the project to keep her fed, I am the one who puts out a comfortable blanket and turns on the heater for her, and I find myself paying attention to see if she wants a lap to sit on and giving her a hand up.

Mind you, I still don't call her by her name. She is still simply "cat" to me. And whenever I speak about her with Kaylia, she is "your cat" not "our cat." I can still put up some token resistance.

Nonetheless, knowing that the cat is getting older, I find myself more and more concerned with making her as comfortable as possible and trying to help her improve her health in the hope that she might have a bit more time being relatively healthy and happy (or whatever the cat equivalent of happy is).

Good lord, I've become a sucker.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dating the Past

I was on a date once, years and years back, and we were talking about something entirely unrelated - I think it had to do with favorite restaurants, when the women with whom I was out said "you know, I think archaeology used to be about telling people the truth about the past, but now it's about trying to cover up inconvenient facts and hide the truth." She then proceeded to talk about a geologist who claims that weathering on the Sphinx of Giza is such that it must be older than archaeologists claim. She then began quoting Graham Hancock at me.

Needless to say, there wasn't a second date*.

What was striking about this was not the fact that someone out there buys into pseudohistorical nonsense, but that they would bring it up to one of the people that they accuse of "conspiring to hide the past" in such a matter-of-fact way, as if they were talking about the weather.

It's something that I have puzzled about in the six or seven years since it happened.

She seemed to take it as so astoundingly obvious that archaeologists were attempting to cover up "the truth" that, in casual conversation with an actual archaeologist, she just began commenting on it with no real preamble.

I did, of course, point out that the material that she was taking as evidence ran the gamut from questionable (an actual geologist did make the claims about the Sphinx of Giza, but his findings were not met with the wide acclaim that his view's proponents tend to claim, and his results have been questioned by many of his fellow geologists) to completely false (Graham Hancock is notorious for simply making shit up and claiming it as gospel). She listened politely, but whether or not anything I said had any effect, I couldn't tell you.

It's the sort of event that I am sure has some significance, though what that significance might be I cannot say. Perhaps it's simply that pseudo-intellectual forms of argument are common enough that, even when confronting one of the people that one believes is responsible for "covering up the truth", it is still possible to make bizarre accusations in a calm tone and with a straight face.

Perhaps not.

The only thing that I can say for certain is that the whole experience was just damnably odd and surreal.

*I went out once with another woman who asked me to describe my research. After a gave a brief (less than 3-minute) overview, she looked at me and simply said "that sounds boring." I'm not sure which of these two reactions to my chosen profession was worse.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day

It is July 4th, 2010 (or 4 July 2010, for any Europeans reading this).

So, here where I live, it's the Independence Day Holiday. I have always loved this holiday. It's the sort of day that one would assume would be full of jingoism and nationalistic hubris, being as how it celebrates the day that the United States declared it's independence from Great Britain, but it tends not to work out that way.

To be sure, there are people who do engage in the usual obnoxious "my vision of this nation is better than your vision of this nation, so get on by bandwagon or drop dead" bullshit, and there are those who see this day as yet another opportunity to declare their alleged superiority to "inferior foreigners". But this people are in a definite minority.

What I love about this day is that the vast majority of my fellow countrymen see this as a day to celebrate the fact that, whoever we are and wherever we come from, we are all part of this greater entity called the United States of America, and we all need to recognize each other. I have seen people set aside their differences, make a (at least temporary) peace, and genuinely enjoy each other's company. Indeed, the July 4th spirit is much like what the Christmas Spirit is supposed to be.

I'm normally not someone who feels much desire to be part of a community, in fact I usually eschew most community events in favor of time alone. But this is a day when I make an exception. I host parties, I seek out company, and I revel in the community.

I am not a jingoist. I'm not someone who blindly claims that my country is inherently superior to all others, or that it is always right when the eveidence shows otherwise. But this is my home, and I love my home. And today is the day when I celebrate with the other residents.

It's a good day.