The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Rush Continues...and There's a Sheep

Back in September, I wrote about the tendency for projects to get rushed through in the fall, before either winter snow blocks off access to project areas, or winter rain makes it impractical to slog through the mud to get to locations or dig in them.

Then, last month, I wrote about how one of these fall rush projects had become a "freezing-your-ass-off-during-the-winter project" in which we broke shovels while trying to dig through frozen ground in an attempt to ward off frostbite.  At that time, I had believed that once we had completed what work we could, we would be done until spring thawed the ground and melted the ice off of the roads, and then we would return along with the warmer weather to finish the job.

Oh, was I naive.

See, our client really needs this project done ASAP, though I am at this point not exactly clear on why anymore.  So, Tuesday afternoon - what was supposed to be a day off - I was contacted by the client and my boss and asked to put together a crew to head out Wednesday morning.  I busted ass, calling everyone I could think of, finally managing to pull a crew together, arrange for a vehicle, and get lodging for the crew by Tuesday night.

So, on Wednesday morning, we all met at the office, headed to the storage unit to get our field equipment, and headed out.  We arrived in the field late morning, and were a bit surprised.  We had, based on both weather reports and on previous experience in this location, expected to be very cold, and expected to encounter frozen soil that we would have to chunk out with breaker bars and chisels.  Much to our surprise and delight, we found that the weather was actually warm.  We quickly discarded our heavy coats and wool hats, and within 45 minutes were down to our t-shirts.  Moreover, the ground had thawed a bit, and digging and screening were both absurdly easy.  We completed a site in a few hours, giving us time to scout some of the roads that had been blocked by ice and snow a few weeks earlier.  We found that all but one of these roads, while still frozen over in parts, were passable. 

So, I am looking forward to getting this project our of the way.  We have two more sites that we can get to.  Both of them are in areas which are likely to still be frozen, so I don't think that the next couple of days will be as easy as today...but they will be easier than they were. 

And then, we finished up our project, and came to our hotel.  None of us had stayed in this hotel before.  It appears to have been an old hunting lodge converted to a hotel.  There are motor homes parked all about it, every one of them apparently having been here for quite some time.  The lower room of the hotel, a true common room, is open 24 hours for whoever wishes to use it.  It has a piano, numerous couches, several shelves of ratty paperbacks, a moose head mounted to the wall, a nude photo of Marylin Monroe on another wall, and a mannequin dressed in a short sundress sitting atop the piano.  Wandering about the hotel grounds is the pet sheep - yes, you read that correctly - which, despite being a sheep, behaves as if it were a dog (replacing the barking with "baa"-ing). 

The hotel rooms, however, are rather nice, and this is a pleasant enough hotel...if a bit odd.

Anyway, the rush to get this done this week has again disrupted my attempt to write entries on a regular schedule.  However, I will try to load some photos of this place by early next really does need ot be seen to be believed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

War on Christmas Annual Report

Last year, I had thought that the annual "War on Christmas" idiocy was rather muted, and figured that the popularity of this particular form of stupid alarmism was finally fading.  And then, this year, it picks up again, with the U.S. Congress even getting in on the act (funny, I thought that maybe they'd have other things to do).  And while last year I had encounters with twits, this year I see signs like this one broadcasting twitdom along a major highway:

Sign on Highway 180 in eastern Fresno County.

Now, had I seen this sign 20 years ago, it would have been in a social context where it was very clear that it was an admonishment towards Christians to not lose the religious value of the holiday to commercialism.  Even as an atheist, I can see merit in this view.  But in the days of the non-existent "War on Christmas", these signs now tend to be aimed at non-Christians and are intended to give them what-for and let them know that they are not welcome.  In other words, twenty years ago, someone who was sincere and in at least some way honorable would have such a sign up as a way of trying to elevate fellow believers, an honorable thing to do.  Now it's just bigoted assholes who do so in an attempt to hurl abuse at those who are outside of their club.

Hell, even the sorts of people who used to express concern over the commercialization of Christmas now demand the commercialization of it, provided that the money-changers in the temple pay lip service to Christianity to the exclusion of every other group on the planet.  Don't believe me?  Let me show you the mis-named American Family Association's "Naughty or Nice" list.  Yeah, they honestly are not only okay with the commercialization of Christmas these days, they are actively campaigning for it as a way of making non-Christians feel unwanted.

Head spinning...too much stupidity...

To make things even more bizarre, the usual Religious-Right bullshit about how "Christians are persecuted in America" has been getting amped up, with everything from the tendency of rational people to roll their eyes at Tim Tebow to the refusal of public schools to force non-Christians into Christian prayers seen as a sign of the persecution.  As in previous years, this reached it's usual December peak o' stupid this year when I began to hear, both around town and in the media, about how wishing someone "Happy Holidays" is a form of anti-Christian persecution.

The dictionary on my desk defines "Persecute" as "To Harass with Cruelty and Oppression."  So, members of the LGBT community, who often face direct violence as well as legislation aimed at stripping them of rights can fairly argue to be the most persecuted minority in the U.S.  In many locales, while legal persecution of ethnic minorities may be prohibited, it is still nonetheless a common practice (such as this church that banned an inter-racial couple*).  Religious minorities, while they usually face much milder harassment (although in some areas even this gets increased), also could argue to some minor persecution (people losing jobs, being harassed or even physically attacked, being barred from public speaking and advertising - which is, notably, in every case open to Christians).

But Christians?

Christians make up something in the neighborhood of 70%-80% of the U.S. population (depending on how you crunch the numbers).  A politician can not become elected without pandering to Christians in some way - even non-Christian politicians have to engage in some degree of pandering.  Christianity is the only religion that has one of it's holidays observed as a Federal and State holiday within the U.S.  While acts of vandalism occur against Christian churches and property, they are far, far, FAR less common than acts of vandalism against the places of worship of religious non-Christians, and the property of the same non-Christians plus atheist organizations. 

What's more, the attempts at bigoted legislation, hogging the public square, and acts of vandalism and aggression against non-Christians are pretty routinely helmed by, you guessed it, Christians.

Now, it should be said, most Christians don't do this sort of thing, most are actually good citizens, and decent people...but, and there is a but of course, they tend not to speak up when other, more radical, members of the Christian community are doing these things.  While the majority of Christians are not engaged in this sort of nonsense, by remaining quiet when the obnoxious minority are engaged in it, they give them cover, and the willingness of many otherwise decent Christians to reflexively strike out - whether through the media or the ballot box - at anyone who questions the obnoxious minority, they make themselves complicit.  At most, they will attempt to claim that the offender is "not a real Christian" as a way of denying that their own religion can give rise to the sorts of assholes that they will readily spot in other religious groups.  In short, Christians are not persecuted in the U.S.  If anything, Christians are either persecutors or are complicit through silence in the persecution of others. 

Christians who complain of persecution in the U.S. are fools or liars or both.  And regardless of which of these options best describes the one that you most recently encountered, they slander their fellow Christians in other nations who really are facing persecution.  In Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other nations, it takes great courage and conviction to declare one's self a Christian.  I may not agree with their views, but I can see something admirable in their fortitude.  In the U.S., declaring one's self a Christian is not an act of bravery, as it is the declaration that one stands with the majority.  At best, it's a statement of fact, which is honorable but not remarkable.  At worst, it's a disingenuous attempt to claim to be part of a privileged minority.

And it's privilege that this is all about.  Nobody is persecuting Christians in the U.S.  Nobody.  Nobody has the power to do it, even if they wanted to.  What is happening is that Christians are being told that there are other people living here, and that they have as much a right to speak and be heard as anyone else.  And, it should be said, most Christians accept this with grace and with ease.  However, a very vocal group can not see the difference between not being allowed to persecute and being persecuted themselves.  They can not see that they have the same rights as everyone else, and are not entitled to special rights that the non-Christians don't have.  And, unfortunately, the Christians who get it, who are generally decent and honest and aware, seem to be unwilling to call them on their bullshit.

And the yearly "war on Christmas" bullshit is symptomatic of this.  There are many holidays during this time of year.  There are people who celebrate no holidays this time of year.  The fact that the Federal and State governments essentially shut down on December 25 means that even those who don't celebrate Christmas are forced to observe it in some way - even if the observance is trying to figure out how to get work done without the necessary agencies involved.  So, if you support Christmas being a Federal and State holiday, but are upset that non-Christians are doing something to make it their own - the sentiment expressed in the phrase "Happy Holidays" - then you are an empty-headed hypocrite.  I have no respect for you, nor will any person with more than two brain cells to rub together.

You are not being persecuted, maltreated, or harmed in any way.  Grow up, and get over it.

*The church later rescinded the ban, but the fact that it occurred in the first place shows the depth of racism and willingness to engage in real persecution that exists in that particular church community.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Not-So-Disturbing Origins of Maligned Common Sayings

When I was in graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant, and UCSB offered many one and two day courses aimed at helping the teaching assistants learn to teach and communicate with students.  One of these courses was named "Feminist Pedagogy" and was required by one of the departments for which I worked.

By and large the course was a fairly useful run-through of the sorts of things that instructors often do that may upset or turn-off female students, and I had no problem with this.

However, there was a fair amount of time spent on the origins of common phrases, and how their origins might be offensive to female students.  The problem, however, is that the origins discussed by the instructor were wrong.  Dead wrong.  Completely wrong.

The two examples given were "more bang for the buck" and "rule of thumb."

The phrase "more bang for the buck" comes out of military and political circles, where it meant more firepower for the amount of money spent.  There is one other possible origin, however, that it comes from the explosives and mining industry, where it referred to the amount of explosive power per unit of explosive purchased. 

The instructor, however, was convinced that it came out of prostitution, and referred to the tendency for men who solicit prostitutes to hire those who would work for longer, or be more exciting, I suppose.  Really, I'm entirely unclear as to how, even assuming that the term "bang" to refer to sexual intercourse is old enough to pre-date this saying (it may be, I don't know), one would get "more" bang for one's buck with a prostitute...but, then, I have never solicited a prostitute, so what the hell do I know.

It is ironic that the misogynist false origin is the one that stuck with a group of self-described liberal people, while the possible actual origin involving warfare didn't.  Both appeal to their sensibilities, but one actually makes some degree of sense (clue: it's not the false one).

Then, there's the phrase "Rule of Thumb" which, thanks to a particularly stupid list of false origins for common sayings that made email inbox rounds circa 1998, people think comes from a law that described the width of a rod with which a man could beat his wife.  This is, however, not the origin of the saying at all.  The origin is somewhat murky, but appears to come from the world of measurement and not domestic violence.  In fact, there's evidence that it is a very old saying and well-predates both modern English and the legal codes that people often claim it is derived from.  Given the way that the phrase is used - meaning a quick-and-easy way to reach a conclusion or course of action - having an origin in measurements makes significantly more sense than it having an origin as a way to determine the size of the cudgel that one might use against one's spouse. 

But since then I have been thinking about this.  While the erroneous belief about the origins of the saying "more bang for the buck" aren't particularly widespread, there are probably as many people who falsely believe that they know the origins of the saying "rule of thumb" as people who don't.  Many, though not all, of these people refrain from using the phrase because of its allegedly sordid past.  The problem is, since it doesn't actually have a sordid past, we are creating one, and therefore feeding some dubious notions about our ancestors.  Moreover, we are casting the women of the past into the role of helpless victims rather than dealing with messier and more realistic views of women in the past.

In short, by buying into these false origins for these phrases, by trying to cast them in the role of remnants of a misogynistic past, the instructor for the Feminist Pedagogy course ironically bought into a misogynistic "men are the victors, women the victims" view of history and of our language, reinforcing the very "men vs. women" binary that most feminists admirably fight against - indeed most of this instructors statements and attitudes indicated that she did.  So it was rather odd that she should so easily fall into this trap with this portion of her lecture.

The simple fact of the matter is that history is messy.  Our ancestors did things of which we have every right to be proud, but they also did things of which all who are decent among us will be ashamed.  I am not sure whether the ease with which we buy into the notion that our ancestors were so despicable comes from our desire to see ourselves as enlightened and better than them, or whether it comes out of a certain type of cultural self-loathing that many of us seem to have developed to a high degree.

Regardless of the source, it's pretty damn annoying, and likely counter-productive.

For other common sayings and practices that most people know false origins for, go here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Virus, Looters, and Antiques, Oh My!

So, I had all of the fieldwork in the last month and a half or so, but figured that, now that it was done, I'd be able to get back to a normal blogging schedule. 

And then my computer got hit with a particularly nasty rootkit virus, which after a week-long battle and the failure of multiple anti-malware programs I finally took to someone who actually knows what they are doing, and will therefore be without my computer for most of the next few days.  So, I may not be blogging as per normal.  I'm sure everyone is so sorely disappointed.


Quick story, though - yesterday, Kaylia and I went to take care of the last of the Christmas shopping*.  We ended up in old town Clovis, which, as far as I can tell, as a five-block area consisting entirely of antique shops and Italian restaurants.  Anyway, in one of the antique shops, we found a large collection of flaked stone tools and groundstone tools (including an unusual quartz mano) in a glass display case.  Not telling the owner who I was or what I do, I asked him about the tools, and he replied that he used to be a rancher and that all of these tools came from his ranch.  He then went on to tell me about digging them out of sites that he was sure would yield stuff.  After a few minutes, I mentioned that I was an archaeologist, and he continued to go on about the virtues of digging into sites and just looking for "the good stuff."

As we left, Kaylia asked me why I was looking annoyed and perturbed.  I told her about my conversation with the shop owner, and expressed that after a bit, I had really wished he'd stopped talking.  He appeared to not know that he was actually destroying sites more than recovering artifacts, and that his lack of documentation made the artifacts less interesting to me, as I had no idea where they came from or what they meant.  He just kept going on, with me getting more annoyed and disheartened as he continued. 

Oh well.

On the up-side, I then got to go home and deal with a rootkit virus.

*If you were at all annoyed at an atheist celebrating Christmas, then work to get it removed as a federal holiday.  As long as our institutions are shut down and we are therefore forced to observe it, we're going to have fun with it, and there ain't nothin' you can do about it.

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.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Value of a Good Crew

I am doing a whirlwind tour of California - Sequoia National Forest yesterday, Oakland today, back to Fresno tomorrow, and then back out to Sequoia on Monday.

So, as described in my previous entry I described that we were anticipating freezing our posteriors off while doing fieldwork in the mountains.  The mornings were cold, though the afternoons weren't bad.  Some of the roads are covered in snow and/or ice, and we are staying in lodgings that one would compliment by comparing them to the Bates Motel.

And yet, it has been fun.

I have written before about the trouble of finding good crew, and it can be difficult.  But when you have a good crew, it makes life good.  Currently, I have a young archaeologist, someone who is just getting his feet wet, but is a fast learner, has an excellent attitude, and is excited enough about the work that he infectiously gets our spirits up.  I have an army veteran who finds that archaeological field work is somewhat therapeutic, is a hard worker, and is full of amazing stories.  And I have the son of one of my bosses who has never used the "my dad's the boss" excuse, is a hard worker, extremely smart, and is willing and quite capable of being the right-hand-man of the supervisor.

My boss's son, in fact, is heading to graduate school soon to earn the credentials to become a supervisor himself.  He will be excellent, of that I have no doubt.

All of these guys know their job, all can provide good suggestions that can change our strategy, but all understand the basic chain-of-command so that I don't find myself having to argue with them to get things done.  It is a pleasure to have these guys in the field.

Anyway, a potentially miserable situation has become an enjoyable one.  I am very grateful for this crew.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On Freezing One's Ass Off

So, the end-of-year fieldwork rush is finally concluding with a literal last-minute trip into the Sierra Nevadas.  I was notified this morning that I will be heading up tomorrow morning to lead a crew doing boundary testing at several sites in the Sequoia National Forest.  I may only be gone two days, or I may be going back up again on Monday, depending on weather. 

This is not the best time of year to be doing Sierra Nevada fieldwork.  There is the ever-present chance of snow, closed roads, and associated logistics problems.  There is the fact that many facilities available during the warmer months are closed in December.  And then there's the cold.

The damn cold.

The weather report states that we will have high temperatures below freezing while we are out there.  Below fucking freezing.  Yeah, some smart-ass archaeologist from Wisconsin is reading this and laughing at my wimpiness, but they can go screw themselves.  It's cold in the Sierra Nevada, in December, at 8,000 feet.  Not good fieldwork conditions.

The last time that I worked int he Sierras in the Fall, and this was mid-October, not nearly as cold as it's going to be, it looked like this:

However, our client, for various reasons, needs this project taken care of ASAP, and as cold as it will be, we're not looking at snow in the next couple of days, so the roads should stay open.  We would have done it sooner, but the federal agency with which we are working is constrained by consultation requirements with Native American groups, who are in turn constrained by political realities within those groups, all of which led to us being delayed by a couple of months.  So, it's off to the frozen highlands with us.  Yipee!

I'm not sure how much writing I am going to be able to get done over the next week, so it may be fallow here for a bit.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Every now and again, I'll work on a site where I find something that really doesn't seem to belong there, until the context of the item is worked out.  This is one such situation, involving a projectile point that seems out of place, but likely seems out of place simply because we don't know as much about the site from which it has come as we would like.

So, I was recently excavating at a site in the central Sierra Nevadas, in an area where the earliest agreed-upon sustained occupation began around 2,500 years ago.  We were at a known site, performing boundary testing - where we excavate small holes to see if the buried archaeological materials extend beyond what is visible on the surface, and if so, how far they extend.  We were not collecting any artifacts, just noting them, photographing them, and re-burying them in the holes from whence they came*.

During this process, we found a projectile point, probably a point from an atl-atl dart, made out of chert (while most of the waste flakes we found were obsidian).  It was of a type not commonly found in the area**, but appeared to be fairly unremarkable otherwise.  It looked like a type known as a Borax Lake Wide Stem, but those are very, very old, and I figured it was more likely that I was getting the type wrong than that a site that held features and artifacts that we can confidently date to the last 2,000 years held a point that was significantly older.  My boss was out on that day to see how we were doing, and neither he nor I immediately thought anything more of the point than that it should be photographed and we should try to type it when we got back to the office.

On returning to the office, I pulled out my books and articles to try to more accurately type the point.  And I kept coming back to the Borax Lake Wide Stem.  This was odd, as these points date from 7,000 to 11,000 years ago.  So, again, I assumed that I was wrong, and we forwarded the photos to an expert on projectile points.

When the expert responded, he told us that the point is, in fact, of the Borax Lake Wide Stem variety, and that it likely dates to between 7,000 and 11,000 years before present.

Now, keep in mind that other materials on the site date it pretty clearly to the last 2,000 years.  So, this point is a bit of an oddity.  However, similar points are found in the Great Basin, to the east of the Sierras, and throughout California to the west.  So, it is not at all unbelievable that this point would be there, but its presence brings up an interesting question: is it simply an isolate (a single artifact that was dropped and/or may have been picked up and moved by later people, such as those inhabiting the site during the last 2,000 years), or does it represent an earlier component to the site (that is, was there an early site here that the newer site was simply placed on top of)?  One confounding element is that the site is located in a somewhat out of the way place, somewhere where later peoples were clearly living, but where traders passing through would be less likely to go.  Another definite possibility is that points of this type, being relatively simple to manufacture as compared to some other points, might actually have a much longer period of use than is normally thought (and possibly, the longer period of use is based on the location).  Yet another possibility is that a later occupant of the site found this point while they were traveling elsewhere, and brought it back to the site (while this possibility tends to get downplayed in many reports, there is ethnographic evidence of this sort of thing happening from time to time).

Anyway, the presence of this point at this site does not necessarily mean that the site itself was occupied all those many years ago.  It's an oddity the meaning of which is unclear. There's no way to know without a more extensive excavation, and we have no idea whether or not we'll get to do it.  Still, it's pretty cool to find something unlikely, regardless of the final conclusion.

*This is a pretty common approach.  Partially this is an effort to reduce the amount of stuff that ends up being stored in curation facilities and not studied.  Partially it is done out of deference for Native Americans who are concerned that materials stay where they are.  And, partially, it is a desire to reduce the impacts that archaeologists have on the sites that we study.  We may destroyt the stratigraphic context of an artifact, but it's horizontal context remains intact - it may not be much, but it's better than nothing.

Of course, that being said, we still do collect artifacts on many projects.

**The shape and size of a projectile point can be used to figure out who was in an area and when.  Projectile points changed over time and not every group used the same sorts, so looking at the points