Saturday, October 11, 2014

Unwritten Rules of Archaeology

This summer, the blog Archaeology In Tennessee posted an invitation for archaeologists to submit the "Unwritten Rules" of the profession. I not only procrastinated posting anything, I also failed to follow up and see what Rules were published until linking them just now. Instead, I pecked out a list of my own, and didn't even post anything myself until now. This post is going to be long as hell, and there are no images to delight and distract, but it's about Rules, so what did you expect?

Unwritten Rules of Archaeology
Who They Think You Are...
Most people think you dig for dinosaurs or gold. You can educate them, maybe. You will chuckle or sneer about them with other archaeologists, later. But try not to be mean to them, for they know not what they do.

In the real world, there are usually people with far less education than you who know a lot more about a particular place, or how people used to live there. Learn from them before you go telling them about their past.

Who You Think You Are...
We belong to what the social anthros call affinal kinship groups (or used to, before several jargon changes), and can trace our lineages back through crew chiefs and academic descent; we recognize families accreted around certain projects of yore.
  • Corollary 1: Be careful when dissing the founder of a school of thought, for the person you're speaking to may belong to that lineage.
  • Corollary 2: Be careful when exalting an archaeological ancestor above all others, for it makes you come off like a zealot.
Unless you are in a field school or surrounded by people with little experience, limit yourself to a single field school story within any given work group. Mostly, these stories show how little you've experienced, and they become tiresome. If you participated in multiple field schools, best keep mum, lest you be branded Dolt or a Dilettante.

As in all anthropological endeavors, listen first and talk later, especially when there are experienced elders involved.

Archaeologists can be real backbiting bastards, but as far as I know that strategy proves maladaptive outside of the shrinking niche of tenured academia, and maybe won't even work there. Criticize all you want, with the understanding that you must either pledge fealty to a strong camp or risk not getting work in your area.

Join your state or regional archaeological society, attend its conferences, and give papers. Archaeology is not the same everywhere, and you'll learn more that is of practical value by meeting and listening to your local/regional peers than you will in several years of national conferences; it's also beneficial to your job prospects, from shovel bum on up to principal investigator. Once you've given a few papers, people think you're an expert, or at least aware enough to be more desirable than the person with a fancy degree but no local reputation.
If you are a young archaeologist enamored with the latest technology, try not to dismiss archaic fieldcraft. When the satellites don't cooperate or the batteries go dead, tech savvy gets you nowhere. Besides, sometimes the old tech works best, which is why the best maps in Hawai`i are still made with plane tables and alidades.

The digital camera may be the greatest technological innovation in modern fieldwork. Take lots of photos to remind yourself of what you did all day. Shoot overviews, mid-range, and details. Take a shot of your GPS screen (see Redundancy). Get photos of flora and fauna for reference, and of anything that will look cool on your archaeology blog.

"Write in Rain" fieldbooks have their limits. Among these: too much rain, rainless but very high humidity weather, the inks of certain pens, and of course those ink-impervious clay smears on the paper. For pencil devotees, remember that after an erasure or two, you may not have full functionality.

The tool you buy needs to be modified. Unsharpened shovels and trowels are are the mark of an oaf. Grab a sharpie and draw a scale on your fieldbook, McGyver up a tool from things you can afford on perdiem (bamboo skewers have no equal in some situations, and stand in just fine for a handful of others). Watch and listen to the vets, but don't assume that they figured out all the best hacks.

Redundancy is your friend, and its value increases in proportion to the distance of the project area from your office. I know that the GPS unit stores coordinates, but writing them down in your field notebook will one day save you the pain and humiliation induced by lost or malfunctioning GPS units, not to mention software glitches, sunspots, EM-pulse warfare, whatever.

You will find things where you least expect them sometimes, but you never know which times. So stop whining and finish the transect.

After a long day of survey, or at the end of a project, be prepared to find something while walking back to the truck.  If at all possible, plan on a half day on the last day, to allow time to record this find. The worst case scenario is that you find nothing and have enough time for a few beers or maybe even a shower.

Don't pretend to be more precise than your data merits. I cut my teeth (shins, really) on dry masonry field stone features, and measuring these to the nearest centimeter is not only more effort than it's worth, but is fakery. 10 cm increments are fine. Most of the time, think millimeters for artifacts, centimeters for depths, meters for site areas, …
  • Corollary: Larger increments (rounding off to 5s or 10s, for example) can alert readers to uncertainty or imprecision they should be aware of in an honest report.

Unless you are a historic archaeologist working in a Commonwealth, use the metric system. (In the US, this trick mystifies the general public and our stature as scientists is enhanced.)  Be ready to be conversant in feet and tenths thereof when the engineers and project manages show up, though. Also, be aware that when they talk about "1:100," it's inches:feet, which is 1:1200 in like units (this is a trick engineers use to confuse and cow the populace).

The observation so obvious you didn't need to write it down will be the one you forget. (I phrase this truth thusly because the brilliant wording of my initial realization was not written down.)

When writing reports, stick to the facts for the most part, and relegate interpretation to a short section near the end.
  • Corollary 1: However, you should speculate frequently and in depth while in the field, drinking beers when the day is done, and drinking more beers at the local archaeological conference. This can help you discard the ridiculous and discover the creative, although it can end up the other way around if the drinking goes on too long.
  • Corollary 2: Be extremely careful when speculating with non-archaeologists. Off-hand and joking interpretations may be later repeated as facts by people who put a bit too much stock in archaeologist's words.

And Finally,

The Written Rule of Archaeology

It's spelled with two A's. Archaeology, not archeology. Don't be a fool.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Field Gear: DIY Photo Scales

Some days, what makes me a scientist (and not just some guy walking around with a camera) is the placement of scales in photographs. I've taken many shots that would have been really beautiful were it not for the scale, which might be anything from the palm of my hand or tip of my boot, to a notebook, or even various types of things actually intended to be scales.

Typically, scales mark 1 to 10 cm intervals (the metric system being what allows American scientists to call themselves scientists) with bold black and white contrasts maximizing visibility in all sorts of conditions. Intervals and overall size vary, and there are multi-functional options with North arrows or caption boards. You can spend a bunch of money assembling a bevy of scales to cover all your needs.

Or, you can make one. That's especially easy if you use a Marshalltown 45-5 trowel, like many of us already do. On mine, anyway, the wooden handle is 10 cm long. I wrapped half of it and the metal ring in masking tape, measured and cut out two 1 cm bands, and spraypainted the handle black. Removing the remaining tape, and I had a scale for artifacts, features, profiles, and pretty much anything short of landscape shots. It's not got millimeter precision, and I wouldn't use it to draw an excavation profile, but as an expedient scale for survey photos, it's great. It extends the trowel's extant function of North Arrow and improves the effectiveness versus the unadorned trowel, which archaeologists will toss in for scale pretty often anyway.

As slick as I think the trowel-scale is, I'll admit that my other photo scale most definitely is not. The idea is neither original nor flawed: saw a dowel to 50 cm, and mark intervening 10 cm increments.

It's the execution that fails in this case. Instead of taking the time to tape and paint, I just whipped out a marker and filled in the 2nd and 4th intervals (for no other reason than that being the easier and cheaper option). As the sharpie ink bled, precision suffered, and for some reason all I had was blue, which is clearly less scientific than black. It's a sup-par instrument, but then again it does what it has to for the scales when I use it. I guess that explains why I haven't fixed or improved it in a year.

This post seems not to be about archaeology in Olympia. But field gear is part of archaeology, and fieldwork often calls for improvisation, so I don't think I'm too far off topic, especially in a town that takes DIY a lot further than typical American towns do. I know a home-made scale will cause some eyes to roll when they see my reports or site forms, but not before they register the scale of the photo, which is all that matters.

If you're another archaeologist who wants to make your own scale instead of paying a corporation for one, remember what I said about trying to use a sharpie (did I mention that sharpie wears off of a trowel handle in no time flat?), and go for it. Plenty of people already do for photo sticks. I'm the only one I know with a trowel-handle scale, but hope that people will copy the idea, because it's easy and makes sense. Just don't try and patent it and make people pay for it, or I'll be forced to point out that you saw it here first. If you do make one and like it, send me a photo of it at work sometime.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Ritual Objects" and Caution

Remember this? It's an artifact from Mission Spit salvage. We found two of them, and after agreeing that none of us has seen anything like it (and therefore could not pigeon-hole it), began speculating. In fact, I managed to convince myself it could be part of a ritual object, that we had somehow recovered two finials from a cross. Maybe the hundreds of sherds and shards didn't say anything more specific than "people here shopped at the Hudsons Bay store," but pieces of a cross brought by the Oblate Fathers of the Mission? Cool.

Of course, I knew this was speculation rather than science, and even though I tried my damnedest to find proof, asking the Oblate archives for images and scouring the web, to consider these parts of an actual ritual object rather than roosting them in the dingy pigeon-hole we know as "unidentified" would be a leap of faith. Great story, plausible even, but unproven.

So I told the story, with caveats, and held onto a kernel of hope that one day I'd find that proof. Maybe a third finial would pop up (or a fourth, if the bottom part had one as well), or a belated Oblate response indicating that yes, of course, all missions were issued with cast stone crosses. I was repeating this casual hope the other day as my daughters and I visited the beach once again.

And then, we saw one. Now, I had a trinity of possible ritual objects. One had eroded from a part of the beach slowly deflating as the engineered earthwork done during restoration settles into a natural repose. My kids knew this was exciting, and I told them, "This is so amazing. There should only be three, maybe four, of these things, and we've found three!" The only thing that could mess it up, I said would be to find a bunch more.

So yeah, there were a bunch more.

It took just a minute or two to find the second. Then in rapid succession, a third, fourth, fifth,...the crestfallen quickly lose count. All of them are like the original two, cast stone finials, broken at the base, exact same size and shape, out of the same mold. Worse yet, they were with other rubble, including some concrete test cylinders, basically the most recent material at Mission Spit, part of the rubble component dumped after the road was built. Some pieces (upper left in this shot) have tar and asphalt stuck to them.

Even though I did also find a couple pieces of 19th Century glass in the same area, the odds that these artifacts were dumped a century after the Mission have jumped way up. There's no certainty to the context. Given that asphalt and concrete were visible on the surface a year ago before the restoration project even occurred, these things could be just a few decades old.

But wait a minute. It was almost exactly a year ago when we removed the "Tenino Stone," a fountain that I've also posted about before. At the time, I found concrete test cylinders around and under this thing, which turns out to be one of three fountains for Priest Point Park made (and given to the city) by the Hercules Quarry of Tenino in 1915. The shot above shows the fountain and the rubble; based on the location of the shovel probe at the right of the shot, this is about where I found the finials, although it's hard to be certain in a re-sculpted landscape.

So maybe, the cast stone was a decorative element of the fountain, or some other early Priest Point Park feature. (There I go, speculating again.) Once again, I cast this idea to the net in hopes that, once again, someone will know more of the history, or recognize the artifact, or otherwise help me move from speculation to knowledge.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Left Shoes Left Behind

A foot-long left foot's boot.

Among archaeologists, there is a tribe that will test the make-up of an artifact by tapping it against their teeth. Wood or bone or shell? Bark or rust or stone? Tap-tap-tap, and the sound will tell,...even for us older and deafer archaeologists, the difference in the vibration traveling up our teeth and into the maxilla and other cranial members yields a sense of what the material may be. Others are disgusted or afraid (and let's be honest, don't try this on a privy dig), but it can be effective.

Most of the time, the harder object, the sharper the sound, the better. Few objects of archaeological interest thump dully against enamel, because normally all that soft stuff rots away long before we arrive on the scene. The plink or ceramic or click of a lithic is welcome. Among the thunkier objects encountered by archaeologists are: deer poop, roots, rodent poop, crappy stone, goat poop, and wooden artifacts that once were beautiful, but are now just shapeless lumps.

At Mission Creek, though, and at many other places along the Salish Sea and its rivers, conditions conspire to preserve organics. Cool subterranean water flow keeps the ravages of oxidation at bay, and everything from pith to bark and bone to leather can remain fairly intact.

A "fairly intact" insole, once worn by a smaller left foot.

At the bottom of the dig at Mission Spit, we hit a layer of fart-smelling black goop, anaerobic and rich in organics. There were some pieces of cedar and cherry bark, as well as some worked timbers and bits of boots or shoes. As with the harder artifacts: a mix of native and foreign materials, a record of newcomers and persistence.

Interestingly, once into the layer of muck and organics, the ceramics and glass so common in the sandier sediment above disappeared. Shoes and axe-cut wood chips were plentiful enough to show that the Euro-American contingent had arrived, but as yet there were insufficient bottles and plates to become a noticable part of the archaeological record. On the other hand, shoes were dropping left and right (but mostly left, in this limited sample).

Other aspects of the site suggest that it dates to the Catholic Mission era, but may be the refuse of the associated Native community (not the Missionaries' house), and it's tempting to a curmudgeon like me to think that the wealth of shoes in the earliest level of the site signals a local rejection of introduced footwear. Were I a more political, post-modernist archaeologist, I might spin a tale of resistance from this trail of soles. But I am a simple man, who has noticed that shoes and boots tend to come loose in tidal mud, and it seems entirely likely that any number of shoes may have been lost by multiple nationalities stepping into or out of canoes and long boats at the spit where people landed when visiting the mission.

People never change

As if to prove that simple answers are best, on my last inspection of the Mission Creek outflow, I saw this Adidas sneaker, lost in a channel just a few months old.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The View Through High Windows

Imagine if you will (and really, you must, for I have no photos this time), that you are looking out of an Olympia window in 1850. The view may be across the bay to a ship dropping anchor a under a magnificent sky, or it may be fog clinging or rain striking the pane just a couple of millimeters away. Either way, you would be one of the first people looking outside through a window in these parts.

More committed historians than I probably know which of the original hovels had a glass window, and in what year light first entered a building here through anything other than an open door or the space in the longhouse roof planks where smoke flowed out. Thanks to Mrs. George Blankenship, writing a pioneer history in 1914, I know that one early set of windows was in the school started by the Catholic Missionaries. Not the first windows in this neck of the woods, but probably the first ones through which daydreaming students gazed at the South Sound sky.

How would I know that they were looking at the sky? Because Mrs. Blankenship noted that the windows were high on the walls, supposedly to prevent the kids from becoming distracted. I went to school 3,000 miles away and more than a century later, but this same trick of scholastic architecture was in force: put the windows high enough that kids at desks can't see much.

How long before the miracle of never-melting ice or solidified air (or whatever the Salish mind made of the first pane) became the underwhelming reality of broken glass? My guess is: during construction. Not that that matters. Even if the school-makers and then the students managed never to break a single pane, eventually the school and all the other Mission structures fell and their windows broke (though probably not in that order, there being both boys and rocks in Olympia from early on).

If you are an archaeologist interested in the birth of a building more than its demise, those broken windows come in handy. Because it turns out that in some lucky parts of the globe, the typical thickness of a pane of glass changed systematically over time. In fact, one of the best known chronologies comes from Fort Vancouver (in WA, not BC), a Hudsons Bay Company outpost that got going before Olympia, and for a while the source of nearly all non-Native goods purchased through a secondary HBC outpost at Nisqually, almost certainly including any window glass purchased for the Mission.

What David and Jennifer Chance documented during their Vancouver study was that over time, glass thickness increased. A couple of years later, Karl Roenke made the case for a broader Pacific Northwest window glass chronology. These two schemes for turning precise measurements of pane thickness into a calendar agree for the most part, increasing confidence in this method, at least within the region.

Ideally, the archaeologist working with window glass (OK, the lab tech stuck making measurements for days) will have thousands of pieces. At Mission Spit, we got just 69 pieces. A small sample size is vulnerable to attenuation and probably other stat-talk weaknesses that I do not understand, but which can throw off results or make it hard to see a pattern.

In this case, though, the limited sample still sets the clock to right about where we would expect.  It turns out that 2/3 (n=46) of the sample falls entirely within the date ranges established by the Chances and Roenke that correspond to the Mission occupation (AD 1848-1860).* If you include the chronologies' AD 1855-1885 period, which overlaps with but is not entirely within the Mission period, then over 85% of the window glass is in the expected age range. The mean, median, and modal thickness of the Mission Spit collection all fall in the 1840-1860 range of the chronologies.Three pieces are too thin to appear on the chronologies, and 4 are too thick; these may be flat pieces of bottles, rather than window glass.

So what? We already knew that the Mission was active from 1848-1860, and the glass merely agrees. But stand on the other side of the pane and take a look. First of all, there's the distribution. The chart above gives counts per period for the Chance & Chance chronology. Most of the glass is at the early end of the spread, as would be expected of a new Mission. But there is also a dropoff at the late end of the scale as well--there's nothing to suggest that occupation continued after the Missionaries left, and after their caretaker gave up interest a couple of years later.

The archaeological implication is that the salvaged Mission Spit deposit, scooped up with heavy machinery and virtually no vertical control over excavation, does not appear to be mixed with post-Mission cultural materials. Along with a few other observations, the window glass chronology for the site helps increase our confidence that we are dealing with a Mission period deposit, and not generations of subsequent settlement.

* Strictly speaking, some of the glass appears to be older than the Mission, but none of the tribal oral history or other written histories indicate that a building with windows would have been present anywhere nearby prior to the Mission. Maybe HBC was still selling off inventory from a shipment a few years prior?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Broken Glass, Everywhere

"Bang, broken like glass and plastic"  -Kurupt 2006
(or for old schoolers, "Broken glass everywhere" -Grandmaster Flash 1982)

No, the MG maker's mark is not a MF-in' typo, OK?!

Just name checking the Maywood Glass Company, of Compton, California, whose mark is the MG at the left. I heard that Dr. Dre's uncle worked there, maybe. Made a bottle that got drunk sometime during or after 1951 (so sayeth the "51" in the right-hand square), and ended up broken on a beach in Olympia. The stipply texture was known as Duraglas when it came out about a decade earlier.

Nothing but a coastal thing brought this gLAss up north, so I guess I cannot resort to my usual "globalization is older than you thought it was, you punk-ass kid" rant (as if punk-ass kids even gave a shit). Nor do I have any clue whether any of NWA's aggregate ancestry worked at Maywood Glass, so I cannot draw a line that runs straight outta Compton toward Olympia (one of the whitest cities in the US).

What I can do is thank bottle makers for putting their marks on the most durable part of bottles, and for bothering to code so much information in the first place. Besides the maker and the year, it's fairly common to have a plant code and a bottle style number. Maywood Glass followed the Owen-Illinois convention of reducing the year of manufacture to a number at the right (there was no Y2K panic over this, as far as I know).

Also, I can thank drunks for dropping so many bottles, and for insisting that they be shipped to the far corners of the earth in the first place. Where there are working men (or formerly working men), so there are alcohol bottles. Beer, gin, rum, wine,...these bottles trace the progress of Western civilization across the globe. A rock steady base line that can be read to trace trade and gin up chronologies. Once again, what appears to some as the downfall of society proves to be a windfall for archaeology.

So I pour out a sip for all the fallen homies, who left broken glass everywhere, and make archaeologists' jobs that much easier.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

And then...

Here's a sequence from before restoration of Mission Creek (September, 2013) and on through to after  the first King Tide after the restoration. In the shot above, they're pulling out some of the rubble dumped on the beach in the 20th Century. You can see the pipe, 3 feet in diameter, that was the outlet of Mission Creek for decades. See how the channel traces an lazy S on its way into Budd Inlet?

With the big chunks of concrete gone, this is what the channel looked like, not long after the first shot. Rubble removal has let the channel explore a bit (see the wetted ground insiude the lower curve of the S?), but not all that much has changed.

And here we see the effects of a rainy Fall weekend. There's enough outflow from that one little pipe to flood beyond the S-channel. Maybe this is why we found a log at the south edge of the channel, a check-dam to slow the flow and keep it from eating further south. Look at the mid-range left extreme of the whitewater, and you may notice the horizontal darkness that is that log.

And here above is the outflow in January, after the channel was dug (a few meters north of the old culvert), and then "armored" with cobbles. The photo was taken a bit to the right of the above shots, but you can probably pick out the S-curved outflow channel. The momentarily exhuberant leftward spillage has subdued, and the main flow (again, as all of these shots, at a not-extremely-low tide) is still following the S, more or leSS.

Over time, perhaps, more more than less. This is the lower elevation curve of the S. See how neatly it has undercut the mantle of cobbles introduced during restoration? See the unfortunate clams, exposed to the sun by a subtle nortward migration of said S? See the subtle layers of shell hash upon fine sediment? See the barnacles colonizing what is probably only a temporary mini-cliff? Some species are surprised and maybe killed by this movement, and others take advantage.

I have no idea whether the channel will continue its slow northward migration (but I hope not, because, damn, that's a pretty beach). 150 years ago, the channel was probably north of where it is now, but 150 years ago, the southern lobe of the estuary was not buried, there was not pavement nearby, the "city" of Olympia was a minor burg (capital or no), and the Eastbay Streams (Moxlie and Indian Creeks, in today's parlance) were not themselves culvertized. Maybe Mission Creek will impose itself upon its past and future channel, or maybe not. I intend to watch (and snap shots).