The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, May 2, 2014

Re-thinking A Post - Feminist Archaeology

So, the post that originally took up this spot was on feminist archaeology.

The original intent of the essay had not been to provide an in-depth discussion of feminist archaeology, but rather to counter some of the common media arguments made that attempt to discredit it by mis-characterizing what it is and the types of claims made by feminist archaeologists.

However, when taken out of the context of the original place where it was posted, this becomes unclear, and it does look like it's suppose to be a good summary of the subject. And, well, my blog post was not a good summary of the subject. I received a comment that pointed out, correctly, that in my post I had focused on one very narrow aspect of feminist archaeology (even defining that aspect as feminist archaeology - and somehow I didn't catch that I had done this either in the original publication or when I re-posted it here), and I failed to mention the names of major feminist archaeologists (though, yes, I have read the work of Conkey, Gero, Spector, Watson and Kennedy, Gifford Gonzalez, and many others, and I am also aware of the earlier work of Marija Gimbutas).

Basically, in writing an essay for one context, I produced something that read very differently as a blog post. And I violated my own code of ethics in producing something that was (unintentionally) misleading. In the interest of being a responsible archaeology communicator, I have taken that entry back to draft while I re-work it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

So, You Want to be an Archaeologist...

I have, since starting this blog, received several emails from people asking how they can become archaeologists, or what to expect if they enter the field as professionals. It dawned on me that it would be useful to write up what I tell people so that I could just refer people here, and also it might let a few of the regular readers in on what professional archaeologists really do.

So, if you want to be an archaeologist, here's what you should probably know:

You Could've Been a Lawyer...or a CEO

One thing that I would say to would-be archaeologists is simply that they will spend alot of time training that could be spent pursuing better-paying careers. Now, this is not to dissuade these folks from getting into archaeology - I'm here, I spent the time and enjoy my career, so I definitely think that it's worth it - but the impression that I get from many people is that they think of archaeology as a field that can be easily entered, perhaps as a hobby, and it really isn't*.

A field technician is the "grunt worker" of archaeology (truth be told, they have to be intelligent and hard working, so they're hardly grunts, but this is often how they characterize themselves). Field technicians are responsible for carrying out the basic field tasks (walking survey transects, excavating units, screening dirt), as well as maintaining their own records for the project. Although some companies (and some projects) will allow field technicians who do not have a degree, you should expect that any field technician position will require a bachelors degree as well as field experience (at minimum a field school). Also, be aware that if you do an academic-oriented field school, you may not have gained the skills necessary to do CRM (cultural resource management) archaeology (consulting work and field/lab work geared towards keeping land developers in line with historic and archaeological preservation regulations), which is where the jobs are. Most field technicians work on a project-by-project basis, meaning that they should expect very little job stability, and you have to have a fair amount of experience before you should expect either a full-time job or a large number of employers keeping you busy as if you had a full-time job.

From field technician, you can work your way up to crew chief or field supervisor. On occasion, someone with only a bachelors degree and extensive experience will move up to field director or project manager. However, these jobs typically require someone with a Masters degree or a PhD (there are regulatory reasons for this, so it isn't just snobbishness). So, if you want stable, career-oriented employment in archaeology, you need to go to graduate school.

Myself, I attended a community college for two years, then transferred to the University of California, where I finished my BA. I then went to another University of California campus to get my MA. In between, I attended a field school and took other field and lab classes at Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA. All told, I was in college or graduate school for approximately nine years in order to get the credentials that I need for my job. Depending on the program that one attends, this could conceivably be done in six-to-seven years (I attended a research-oriented graduate school, so my MA thesis was a very different affair from those who attend CRM-oriented graduate schools). If you are an MA student, then there is not much funding available for you, so you should expect to take whatever jobs you can find while you attend school. Basically, don't expect to have a life outside of school and work.

This is comparable to (and very often exceeds) the education burdens on someone who is earning a law degree or an MBA. However, archaeologists should expect to make significantly less money than someone with a JD or MBA. So, bear that in mind while you rack up student loans.

You may have noticed that I focused here on CRM archaeologists and didn't talk much about becoming a professor. There's a reason for that...

Academics? Meet Consulting?

Although an increasingly large number of university anthropology programs are recognizing the necessity of CRM education, most remain academically-oriented. And by academically-oriented, I do not mean that they are geared towards education (though they are, and that is certainly appropriate), but rather that the majority of university programs are geared towards archaeology as a research discipline rather than an applied discipline, and many professors like to cast aspersions upon CRM (interestingly, the professors that I have met who are most likely to do this are the ones who are least likely to have had any CRM experience, and they are typically very much mistaken in their beliefs regarding CRM.

This is a problem because the vast majority of archaeologists in North America are CRM rather than academic archaeologists. Surveys of the field performed in 2009 indicate that at least 85% (and maybe more) of all archaeologists in the United States work in CRM, either for private companies or for government regulatory agencies. So, CRM is where the jobs are, and it's growing (that 85% includes an increase in numbers from a previous 2001 survey). By contrast, when last I checked (which was admittedly a few years ago, though there's little reason to think that matters have improved), there were 10 PhDs granted every year per academic job opening in archaeology. So, the odds are severely stacked against someone who wants to go into academics, and the number of unemployed PhDs that I know is truly staggering.

So, if you decide on a career in archaeology, expect to do CRM work, and don't plan on going into academics. What this means in practical terms is that the aspiring archaeology needs to learn more than just archaeological theory and practice. Someone wanting to become an archaeologist should study laws and regulations (Tom King's is a good place to start, but should not be where you stop), the standard phased approach to regulatory compliance (I recommend Neumann and Sanford's excellent books), and business skills including basic human resource management, budgeting, and project tracking.

Also, if you wish to become an archaeologist, avoid getting the "high and mighty" attitude that I have seen many people take with them out of the university. Talking down to construction workers and Native American representatives is a great way to not get hired for another project.

You'll Use That Shovel More Than That Trowel

Every time I bring a new person into the field, they are surprised at the methods that we employ. Owing to the way that archaeology is typically portrayed int he media (including portrayals by archaeologists), there is a perception that we always dig slowly using a trowel and a brush and nothing else.

You can imagine how surprised a newbie is when they see me pull out a shovel and a dig bar. And you should see the looks on their faces when backhoes show up.

The reality is that the tools that we use are diverse, and vary depending on a number of conditions. If we are digging a site with a lot of features that are identifiable only by subtle soil changes, then we may very well dig with a trowel and a brush. If you are excavating human remains, you'll use tools even more gentle than the trowel. By contrast, if you are excavating a shell midden that lacks any clearly identifiable strata and is located on a sand dune, you are going to use a shovel. And if you are digging a light density flaked stone scatter in dense clay, you are going to pound it with a dig bar. And there are even situations that call for excavation by heavy equipment.

Although there will be a few people who assume that this is the "destructive excavation" of CRM work, each of these tools is also found in the tool rooms of university anthropology departments. We use the tool that is necessary, which sometimes means slow, careful peeling back of soils...and sometimes means pounding the shit out of dense clay so that you can actually find the buried archaeological materials.

How Do You Feel About Hiking?

Another thing that you should probably know about actual archaeology is that we don't dig as much as people think. And I don't mean that our field season is limited, or anything like that. I means that the majority of the projects on which we work are geared towards finding out where the sites are, rather than digging them up. Although this has long been true of CRM, it is also often true of academic archaeology.

The way that we determine the locations of sites is by performing surveys. We hike over a given area looking for evidence of archaeological sites. Survey methodology varies from place to place, due in large part to local geomorphic conditions. In California, we typically do surface pedestrian surveys - in most parts of California, if a site is present, there will be some evidence of it on the surface. Where we think that may not be the case, we will recommend buried site testing (where auger bores, backhoe excavation, or some other method is used to look under the surface). In other parts of the U.S., survey involves digging holes with a shovel at regular intervals looking for evidence of buried archaeological materials. While this method does involve digging, it should be noted that they are digging to look for sites, rather than digging within sites.

Get to Know Your Relevant Disciplines

In addition to the need to learn about business and regulations, you should also make sure that you either know your flora and fauna, or build up a library for looking things up. Most archaeological site records include information regarding local plants and animals, and it is also wise to get some training in how to use local historical archives (local historical society libraries, county assessor's records, library map and genealogy rooms, etc.). Again, academics will generally not train you to do this sort of work, but it is vital for a career in archaeology.

An Adventure in Paperwork

Another aspect of archaeology that tends to surprise people is that there is a lot of paperwork.  Really, just a metric shit-ton of it.Get used to it.

On any given project, my paperwork consists of, at minimum, my field notes (kept in my personal notebook) and a daily work record (a form used specifically by my company, though many other companies have equivalent forms). I keep track of essentially the same things on both documents: where I am working, who is present, weather conditions, type of work, complications to doing work, anticipated and actual rate of work, and so on. I keep the notes because, after our forms have been put into cold storage, I will often be asked questions regarding something (especially if there is a complaint from a client or former employee, or if we find ourselves having to argue with a regulator or community group), and having my own notes is useful in order to save time. These notes also provide me a place to track information that is relevant to my job, but not appropriate to turn over to the client (for example: internal disputes between employees, musings on the nature of archaeological materials that are not directly relevant to the project, etc.).

Now, that's the bare minimum that I do. If I am performing survey, then I also fill out a survey form, which details the project area, where we surveyed,  transect spacing, ground visibility, etc. If I am excavating a site, then each excavation unit will have a form or series of forms detailing depth of excavation, tools used, soils encountered, materials identified, etc. etc. If I am doing site condition assessments, then I will have forms related to that. If we are collecting artifact,s soils samples, or anything else, then there are forms for that as well. And when you get to the lab, you have forms detailing your lab work and the chain-of-custody of items.

And that is just talking about forms that vary from company to company. Every employer for which I have worked has required a photo log for all pictures taken, and if you are recording archaeological sites, you will have to fill out the appropriate forms (which vary from state to state).

Then of course, there's the basic administrative paperwork that you have to handle. If you're a field technician, get used to filling out time cards and expense reports. If you are a supervisor, you do the same, PLUS you review your crew's time cards and expense reports. If you are a project manager, you have all of this, plus you may have regular progress reports and budgeting paperwork.

If I am on a project for more than a week, it is not uncommon for me to return from the field with a binder (or multiple binders) filled with forms and records.

Is it Worth It?

This is, of course, subjective. I have seen people burn out quickly, and decide to go back to school to become lawyers, or take a job in the administration of a local tech company, etc. etc. etc. So, for them, it wasn't worth it.

For me, it has been worth it. For all of the frustrations that I have experienced, and I have had some severe frustrations, I have been fairly happy with my career choice. I have been able to go to some amazing places and see some wonderful things, and meet some interesting people. And if I sometimes spend too much time in a shithole, well, that's the trade off for the good times. While I don't get paid as well as my friends who work in the tech industry, I don't have the stability of the friends and family who have gone into law, and my life isn't as adventurous as a friend of mine who travels Africa doing rather important agricultural work, it still suits me rather well, and I enjoy my job more often than not.

But this line of work is not for everyone. I does have a low financial payoff, a lot of stresses, frequent instability (depending on the construction industry's activities), and a lot of areas of conflict. But every career has its downsides, and the upsides are sufficient to keep me satisfied.

*There is, of course, and exception to this. There are volunteer archaeology programs that will teach people how to perform basic fieldwork, and there are programs that allow people to pay archaeologists to accompany them on projects. These are of variable quality, and they can be an entry-point into archaeology, but none of them will carry you very far in and of themselves.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Download the Blogging Archaeology Ebook

So, as per my earlier post, you can now download the entire book from Doug's Archaeology, using this link.

There are many different papers representing a wide range of opinions from archaeologists in CRM and  in the academy. I recommend it. And it's free, so, really, you have nothing to lose but a chunk of your life that you will never get back.

Blogging Archaeology Ebook Available!

So, the fine folks from Dougs Archaeology and Digtech (as well as Landward Research and Succinct Research) asked me to contribute a paper for an ebook about blogging and archaeology. I did so, and it has been completed and is now available. I am working on ways to allow my readers to download the ebook, but in the meantime, you can read it here.

Edit: Courtesy of Doug's Archaeology (which you really should be reading) you can now download the PDF here.


Friday, April 4, 2014

...and why are we in this handbasket?

Although I missed last month, I am participating in the final month of Doug's Archaeology's blog carnival. And, if you have not yet gone to Doug's archaeology, click this link here and go there immediately.

As per Doug's instruction: "The last question is where are you/we going with blogging or would you it like to go?"

I am really not sure about how to answer this question.

As I noted in an earlier post, I began my blog for multiple reasons, including the desire to tell stories about what archaeology is like, as well as to educate readers regarding various aspects of archaeology. In the years since then, the blog has served these purposes, and has also served as a platform for me to spout off about whatever topic is bothering me or things that I think are cool.

In the last year and a half, I have written very little, owing to work and family obligations. And in that time I have considered the question of whether or not I will continue blogging, and, if I do, what my goals will be.

I would like to continue, but I don't know how realistic that is. As my daughter gets older, she will require less constant one-on-one attention, which may free up some of my time. However, I am taking on more and more responsibilities at work, which take up more of my time. So, in the end, I don't know if I will have time to return to blogging on a regular basis. I hope to, but I don't know if I will.

If I do return, however, I would like to do three things:

1. Interact more with other archaeology bloggers. I feel as if I tended to be isolated, typing away in my own little corner of the internet with no real connection to other bloggers. But, of course, it doesn't have to be this way, and I can engage in various types of social blog activity (more blog carnivals, link-swaps, guest posts, etc.).

2. Focus. As my regular readers know, I tend to have a scattershot approach to blogging, writing about whatever odd thing happens to strike me as interesting at any given point in time. However, I would like to focus more on archaeology in general and CRM in particular. I would especially like to find ways to discuss CRM laws and regulations that move away from dry descriptions and gets into more entertaining narratives.

3. Enjoy my writing. I often enjoyed writing blog entries, but it was also sometimes stressful. For some time, I put a lot of pressure on myself to post three entries a week, and this meant that I frequently sweated as I tried to come up with things to write about. I would like to find that happy medium by which I can write routinely, but be comfortable on those occasions when I don't have anything about which to write.

I would also like to see the archaeology blogger community do two things:

1. Become a resource for the media. When the media want to speak with an archaeologist, they contact the local museum or university, and as such always get the perspective of tenured (or occasionally post-doc) academic archaeologists. The archaeological blogging community, however, contains undergraduate and graduate students, CRM archaeologists, faculty and museum staff, agency archaeologists, and field technicians. We're a much more representative sample of archaeology, and if we make ourselves well known, we can provide more and different perspectives to the media.

2. On a related note - provide an archaeological perspective on events. Earlier this week, the IPCC released it's report on global climate change, with a focus on adaptation. This has, understandably, generated a lot of media interest in how humans can adapt and maintain our current industrial civilization, and has also brought in those who are certain that our civilization will collapse. Archaeologists have a unique perspective regarding how humans have adapted to climatic and social changes, and we can help people understand what is going to happen (for example, my own grad school research into Native Californian adaptations to environmental change makes me think that we aren't staring down a Mad Max future if we don't deal successfully with the climate, but probably a reorganization of people at a more local level - but someone who specializes in Mayan archaeology might read this situation a different way).

There are many stories surrounding issues of ecology, politics, and society that could benefit from the perspective of archaeologists. Blogs are one of the many places where we can provide that perspective.

So, there you go, that's where I would like to see us headed.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pre-Paid Legal, Pyramid Schemes, and Religion

This post was originally written for the Skepchick website back when it was an on-line magazine rather than a blog. I twas later run on the blog. However, neither version of it still survives, and as such, I figured I would post it here. In the past I have at least attempted to contact them and let them know that I was re-posting stuff that I had originally written for them on my own blog. But as they have never actually replied to any such email, I'm not bothering this time around. If any of them read this and don't like that I re-posed it, they can contact me and let me know.

I entered the room and took my seat. I was there out of male stupidity. I had been invited by an attractive young woman, but, from what I had been told, I sincerely doubted that I would have any interest in buying the product that I had been told would be pitched. The dress of those around me – dark suits for most of the men and long skirts and pale blouses on most of the women – reinforced the notion that I was in business-land. Little did I know that I was about to be subjected to what amounted to the financial and psychological equivalent of a cult indoctrination.

The meeting was allegedly a sales pitch for the products hocked by a company called Pre-Paid Legal, a company that sells legal insurance. When I met Lucy (not her real name) at a party the previous week, she had invited me to the meeting, indicating that it would be simply an opportunity for me to hear about their products. What I discovered was that the entire “meeting” was structured as a religious gathering, geared at getting the audience to shut-off their critical faculties, and that the product that Pre-Paid Legal really wanted to sell was not legal insurance, but rather a pyramid scheme.

Pyramid schemes, Ponzi scams, and other such matters have gotten a fair amount of attention in skeptical circles. Typically, those who fall for them are labeled as greedy fools who didn’t bother to question what was really going on because they either were too stupid to get it, or else they allowed avarice to cloud their judgment. If my experience this evening was any indication, while greed plays an important role, the techniques used to hook and reel-in the unlucky participants may be just as important.

The Invitation
This had all started innocently enough. I was at a party at a friend’s house, and found myself in conversation with Lucy and her housemate. She had recently dropped out of college. When I asked why, she told me that she had found a job and no longer needed college. I then found myself in conversation with her about this, with me trying to convince her that she would find things easier in the future if she went back to college, and her insisting that she had found a company where she wanted to work the rest of her life in a manner reminiscent of a teenage bride who is convinced that nobody understands her (doomed) love.

As the evening began to come to an end, she invited me to attend a meeting at a local hotel in order to hear about her company’s products. While I wasn’t keen on buying legal insurance, I was interested in trying to meet up with Lucy again, and so I accepted the invitation and gave her my phone number. A few days later, she called to tell me the time and location of the event.

Religious Indoctrination
Upon reaching the hotel the night of the presentation, I noticed a general sense of desperate hope among the people assembled and waiting to be let into the room. I saw people who I recognized from the party as being part of the Pre-Paid Legal (PPL) team circulating and herding people into the meeting room once it was opened. At the door, a pair of other PPL folks tried to get the name and contact information for everyone entering the room (being the sort of person I am, I just walked in and ignored their pleas for me to give them my information).

I found a seat, the doors closed, and the sermon began. It quickly became apparent that we were not there to be sold legal insurance – we were there to be sold positions within PPL. Yep, this was a pyramid scheme, and as with all pyramid schemes, promises of riches were made to those who would plunk down some of their hard-earned (and in the cases of at least a few of the people in the room, desperately needed) cash in order to buy a “job.”

I did not choose the word sermon by chance or out of sarcasm, this sales pitch was, quite literally, a sermon. God was replaced by PPL, salvation by money, morality and earthly good by the material possessions that one could purchase with said money, and mother church by the pyramid scheme (AKA “Network Marketing,” AKA “Multi-level Marketing,” AKA “an absurd scam”, and so on…). Just as in many churches, the audience was encouraged to speak in unison at key moments (usually shouting words such as “opportunity,” “choice,” “money,” and so on). The origin of the company (a mythical story about the founder’s run-in with litigation) and many dramatic stories of people having the finances and often freedom saved by PPL were thrown out to an increasingly credulous audience. To add to the drama, a few different speakers approached the front, and would often begin weeping at key moments, showing the joy and overpowering emotion of having become one of the upwardly mobile (the financial equivalent of the “saved”), and having met their new friends through PPL (they would consistently indicate the troupe of grinning clones sitting on the sides). The message was cleared – join PPL and you will not only make money, but you will also be helping to save people, and you’ll gain the oh-so-bestest friends that you ever did have!

Just as in many churches, the sermon came to and end with testimonials where the faithful (those who had already made a commitment to PPL) were encouraged to tell their stories both to try to convert the heathen masses, and to reinforce the social pressure on those already involved. At the end of all of this, people were invited to come up and plunk down their money to purchase a position with PPL, just as the heathens are welcome to come up to the front of many churches after a service in order to be converted. No mention was made of the many controversies that PPL had been involved in (and talking with the “associates” later, I learned that they were woefully ignorant of these things as well), no discussion of risk/benefit analysis of putting one’s money into PPL was provided, and there was no mention made of the other players in the legal insurance industry (in fact, it was often implied, if not flat-out stated, that PPL was the only significant player, despite the fact that many larger, more stable and reliable insurance companies are in the field).

While there were many charts and figures projected on the screen at the front of the room to give the evenings activities the outward appearance of a business meeting, the structure was strictly that of an evangelical church service, and the language a mix of mythological and out-of-context business lingo, all aimed at both convincing the audience that this was a legitimate business meeting, and in getting the audience to feel well towards PPL without stopping to think critically about the financial and personal investment that they would be asked to make.

In short, this was less a business meeting than a religious indoctrination ritual that borrowed the tactics of Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic Christianity for a financial end.

Feel – Don’t Think
What bothered me most about the situation was seeing the enraptured look on the face of the people sitting around me. Listening in on conversations before we entered the room, it became clear that many of these folks were desperate. They were unhappy with their lives and their jobs (those who were lucky enough to be employed), and simply hoped for positive a change. Some had been told, as I had, that this would be a sales pitch for legal insurance, but most had been brought with the hope that they would find new employment, and they were desperate enough for a change that they wanted to believe. I do not know if PPL makes efforts to actively recruit these sorts of folks, but this was the result that I saw that evening.

Once these folks, who wanted to believe and were therefore vulnerable, were brought into the meeting room, the entire presentation, as described above, was geared at getting them to believe and not question. Watching the people in the seats around me, and listening to the chatter afterwards, it was clear that this sermon had accomplished its task, at least for the evening. Why wasn’t I also drawn in? Perhaps it’s because I have been to enough religious services at enough different types of churches to recognize the methods when I saw them. Perhaps my training as an anthropologist led to me to see the patterns behind the behaviors. Perhaps the fact that I am immediately suspicious of anyone who wants me to give them money is what tipped things. Perhaps it’s the fact that the evenings “special speaker” reminded me less of a sensible businessman and more of an especially slimy dope-peddler. Regardless, there appeared to be frighteningly few of us in the room (including many of the established PPL folks) who saw the night’s event for what it really was.

The entire structure of the evening, from the outburst of weeping on the part of the presenters, to the encouragement of people shouting back slogans and buzzwords was all geared towards a basic goal: make the audience feel that they are part of a select group, smarter than the rest, able to see an opportunity when it comes, and feel a sense of euphoria about it. Doing this in a group setting further allowed the organizers to make use of the tendency for people to become locked in a pack mentality, to not want to be the one nay-sayer in a room full of believers, to push people who might otherwise have been skeptical over the threshold into convert. That the euphoria was for a false cause and the opportunity illusory did not matter, because once they were hooked, PPL would get their money. These people were encouraged to link a good feeling about PPL to a good feeling about themselves, and critical analysis of the situation, the sort of thing that would show the situation for what it was, was discouraged.

Creation Myths and Other Confusions
In addition to the use of a religious sermon format, the PPL presentation borrowed from Protestant Christianity in another way – it used a creation myth to justify its existence and explain its mission.

The myth runs as so:
Harland Stonecipher was involved in an automobile accident in 1969. After the accident, he found himself being sued for by the other party in the accident, an unwarranted move as Stonecipher had not been at-fault. Faced with mounting legal fees and damages assessments, staring down a convoluted legal system that he did not understand, Harland felt lost and afraid. However, like any good mythological hero, he overcame and triumphed in the end.

The memory of this accident stayed with ol’ Harland, and he saw it as both a problem and a potential opportunity. Eventually he realized that he could help other people (and, it should be noted, stuff his own wallet) by offering legal insurance of the sort that he knew existed in Europe. This insurance would save the finances of those who, like him, were taken by surprise by a litigious individual. Moreover, this would help those who found themselves in trouble with the law and who might otherwise have to rely on overworked public defenders.

Now, Pre-Paid Legal is a booming business, publicly traded, well-respected by the legal community, and will probably cure cancer (okay, I made that last one up). All hail Harland Stonecipher, the great savior of mankind!

The truth of the matter was rather different. Stonecipher was indeed involved in an automobile accident. However, he was not immediately subject to an unprovoked lawsuit. Rather, he filed suit against the other party for a sum of $125,000. The other then filed suit against Stonecipher afterwards and settled for the much smaller sum of $3,000 (Cohen 2003). While Stonecipher’s suit may have been justified (I do not claim to know one way or another), the fact that he sued first and was then subject to a suit for a smaller amount of money does corrode away some of the hero-veneer with which he was laminated in the materials released by PPL.

Moreover, the product, legal insurance, is not the unique province of PPL. In fact many companies provide legal insurance, many with better coverage at better rates than what is offered by PPL. A number of employers offer legal insurance along with health insurance as part of a benefits package. When I asked an attorney who I know about PPL, they simply said “well, you can get better coverage elsewhere.” So, the wonderful and unique product of PPL is neither unique nor wonderful, it’s not even reputed to be particularly good. Our old pal Harland did not offer something new to humanity, contrary to the creation myth. He didn’t even offer something that was any better than what already existed. However, you would never know that from the legion of hard-sell masters whose methods, both as employed at PPL and elsewhere, have gotten the negative attention of many state regulators (Davis 2002).

On top of that, it has become open to debate whether or not PPL even provides the services it claims to provide. At least one court in Mississippi has decided that PPL has failed to provide the services advertised and as such was guilty of fraud (Davis 2005) (and Federal regulators have required that PPL begin reporting their profits in a more honest manner [Davis 2005]), and many folks I have encountered who have had dealings with PPL have told me horror stories concerning their inability to actually make use of legal insurance when they needed it. It is worth noting that roughly half of the folks who buy policies do not renew them at the end of the year (Davis 2002).

So, the origin is a myth. The value of the alleged product (as opposed to the one actually being sold, i.e. the “sales position”) is debatable and therefore largely mythical. Is it at least true that you can make a lot of money doing this? Well, sort of.

There are those who make a lot of money, but they are the ones who are extraordinarily successful at selling others on the idea of being a salesperson, those who actually spend their time selling the legal insurance are likely to lose money (Davis 2002; CBC News 2000). Moreover, the majority of those who recruit others into the company still don’t make much money on the deal (CBC News 2000). So, there are a few who do manage to make money at this, sometimes a fair amount of money, but they are few and far between, they do so not on the strength of their product but by pulling others into the cult of Stonecipher, and even these folks tend to have to jump from company to company (or scheme to scheme, as it were) as these schemes are not good long-term investments even if you are successful with it, the mathematics eventually causing the whole thing to fold in on itself (‘lectric Law Library N.D.).

As Cohan (2003) put it, the pitch is full of good stories, but these stories don’t stand up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, the structure and setting of the pitch is such that many in the audience shut off their critical faculties and buy into it without applying that critical scrutiny.

Quoting Scripture
The coda to my PPL experience came two days later. Lucy called me up and asked why I had not committed to PPL that night. I simply stated that I was not impressed. Lucy pressed further, asking why I was unimpressed, so I told her that if she would give me twenty minutes I would explain.

I explained the basic instability of pyramid schemes, whether they call themselves Network marketing, multi-level marketing, or by any other name. I explained that I could see three possible futures for PPL – it burns out (like most pyramid schemes) and she is left empty-handed, it finally crosses the line (or is finally found to have crossed the line) of what is legal and is taken down by the authorities, or it becomes a standard insurance company and the current crop of salespeople find themselves increasingly disadvantaged, if not quickly unemployed, in a more standard corporate hierarchy.

She disregarded all of this and simply stated that she believed that I wasn’t “seeing the opportunity” (a phrase that was often repeated throughout the sermon a few nights earlier). I responded that I did see what was happening, I suspected I could see it more clearly than her, and that I was not interested, and I was again told that I was “obviously not seeing the opportunity.”

It was at this point that Lucy began quoting scripture. No, really. PPL has produced a good deal of material aimed at keeping the faithful recruiting. These materials are filled with inspirational stories (which, given the truth behind the Stonecipher story, I am not inclined to take on face value), and logically fallacious sayings aimed at shutting down the critics and converting the heathens. The next twenty minutes were spent with her quoting what amounted to “Chicken Soup for the Pyramid Scheme Soul” at me, me pointing out why I wasn’t buying it, her becoming frustrated, and then quoting another PPL tract, clearly wanting me to see the error of my ways. In the end, I was halfway shocked that she didn’t announce that she would pray to Ponzi and his messiah Stonecipher for my deliverance.

When it became clear that I wasn’t biting, she asked to put me in touch with someone higher up the food chain who, she felt certain, would be able to get me to see what I was missing. I declined. When at last the phone call ended, I could read the heavy sense of rejection and disappointment in her voice of the sort that I often hear from frustrated evangelicals upon discovering that they are unable to answer the questions of someone they’ve marked for conversion.

Religion, Symbols, and the Stifling of Free Thought
Whether what I experienced is common to PPL or simply the hard-sell method of a particular cell of folks within PPL, I cannot claim to know. What I do know is that it is no surprise that someone attempting to sell a shaky business model with a questionable product would resort to the methodology of born-again religion to do so. After all, both use emotion to push the convert to feel that they have made a good choice and are somehow superior the masses (whether because they are “saved,” allegedly “helping people,” or “on the road to riches”) and both fall apart when an intended convert begins asking tough questions. The difference is that born-again religion may have some beneficial effects for the average convert, while some basic research into the company suggests that PPL is simply likely to drains their bank account.

Ultimately, the reason why so many people in the room that night were entranced by the PPL pitch, despite its lack of logic or legitimate evidence, was that they were sold a set of symbols. The stories, images, and promises that were made were provided in a way orchestrated to imbue them with meaning, with values, and to question the legitimacy of the stories was to question the legitimacy of the values that they seemed to exemplify.

By leaving out a few relevant details, Stonecipher’s story of the accident and legal case takes a run-of-the-mill story of litigation and imbues it with the power of what many perceive to be out-of-control litigation and the helplessness that many feel when faced with the law. It provides hope to deal with these fears in the person of Harland Stonecipher, who single-handedly re-invented the way that legal representation works to save the masses. The story becomes mythic, it is imbued with meaning, it tells of the heroics of an individual, and how you can join him. To show intelligence and inquisitiveness and question the story is to question the legitimacy of what PPL is doing and the righteousness of the PPL converts, and in turn to question the opportunity for you to be a hero (and, or course, make wads of cash while doing it).

There were many other stories told the night of the pitch, and each of them had one thing in common with the story of Stonecipher’s auto accident: they took a rather mundane story and imbued it with meaning so that the act of selling either insurance or memberships through PPL became something more than a simple occupation. One thing priests have known for centuries – it’s harder for the faithful to question a story imbued with meaning than one that is not, and it’s easy for the infidel to be impressed by the conviction of those who are energized by myth, even if the story doesn’t match up with reality.


CBC News. 2000. Pre-Paid Legal Services: Worth the Money? Broadcast on April 11, 2000.

Cohan, Peter. 2003. Pre-Paid Legal is in Need of Better Reality, not Better Stories. OKC Business, July 28, 2003.

Davis, Melissa. 2002. Pre-Paid Legal’s Colorful Workforce. The Street.Com, available online on July 10, 2006 here. Davis, Melissa. 2005. Pre-Paid Weathers Guilty Verdict. The Street.Com.

Electric Law Library. N.D. How to Avoid Ponzi and Pyramid Schemes.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Greatest Hits

So, Doug's Archaeology has a new question up for January: What are your best blog entries?

My two most popular, in terms of page views, are Ancient Aliens - The Test! and Glenn Beck's Pseudo-Archaeology, Part 1.

The Glenn Beck entry is one of three parts, and is basically a by-the-numbers explanation of a pseudoarchaeological claim. I enjoyed writing it, but it's not one that really sticks out in my memory. The Ancient Aliens entry is more of my typical sarcasm-mixed-with-Socratic-Method type of writing, and I quite enjoyed it. That being said, neither of these are my personal favorite entries.

I have edited this to mention that the most popular entries among my circle of friends include an ethnography of assless chaps, and one discussing the use of cats to generate electricity. While I very much enjoyed writing these, they are not my favorite entries.

No, my personal favorites, or which I personally consider the best, I would say that those would be my Wild and Wacky Forest Adventure entries, which are here  and here  (incidentally, these are photos from the project area). These aren't necessarily the best written, and as can be seen, I was still getting the hang of formatting my entries when I posted the first one.

Nonetheless, I love these entries for two reasons. The first is that the events detailed within them are a large part of the reason why I started this blog. As I was going through these rather odd series of events, I kept thinking to myself "if only people knew that this is what archaeology is really like." So, I created the blog, and began writing these entries. The discussion of archaeology is largely missing in these entries, and that is because the project was not all that interesting from an archaeological standpoint. It was a fairly standard survey with exactly the sorts of results that one would expect given the project area. But the various weird-ass events that accompanied fieldwork were memorable, and are the sorts of things that typically don't get discussed with the public or with aspiring archaeologists.

You may have noticed that these are not the first entries on my blog. The reason for this is that other things sometimes seemed more pressing, and I often would go with something that was easier to write rather than the thing that I actually wanted to write. However, I kept text files with the nascent versions of these entries on my computer for several years.

One of the ironies of these entries is that, despite the events described in them being the impetus for me starting this blog, I have yet to complete the story. There is so much more to tell about that project, from the various personnel that I had on the project (and their often unsanitary or eccentric habits), to the weird people that we encountered in the forest, to the freak weather conditions, to the bizarre public relations issues surrounding it. If I continue to keep a blog, and increase my output at some point, I will have more to say about it.

But there you have it - my personal favorite entries are the ones that have little to do with archaeology and everything to do with the strangeness of field work.