Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's hot!

On our single precious day off last week we went to Sugar Loaf, an artist's colony in the little town of Sugar Loaf, NY.
Artsy! But in a commercial sort of a way!

Tucked into the green hills, the main street is lined with little shops selling anything from watercolors to candles to little sculptures of skeleton pirates. We spent a few hours wandering from store to store, happily content in the cool, moist air under an overcast sky.

Not pictured: my new kitty friend. Don't pet the tummy! It's a trap!

We stopped at the Barnsider Tavern for a beer, then went on to the nearby French cafe La Petite Cuisine for lunch.

Mmmmm. Nice to be back in civilization. Every morning I see on the weather channel that it's raining in Bismarck, ND, and I laugh a little bit.

It has been ferociously hot and humid this week. In fact, I believe that today we broke the all time record high - shattered it, in fact, by 4 degrees. When it's already 85 at 9:00am, you should just give up and go spend the day in a dark, air conditioned room. The weather channel recommended that us here in the 94-degree high, 90% humidity Northeast should stay inside and limit exercise.

So we went out to dig holes in the sun.

It actually wasn't so bad. I mean, it was bad, but it wasn't soooo bad. It could have been worse - we could have spent the day without any shade, like some people on the crew. Our unit was strategically placed to get shade by 3:00. Ha!

Leland found another way to keep cool during the lunch break...

Worth the wet boxer shorts?

The water was cold and wonderful (even though I only went in up to my knees).

We also had some wildlife companions to get us through the day.

Yesterday night we had a wonderful surprise when Leland's parents came to visit! They had just been in North Carolina... and they found a gorgeous house down there for us to rent!! More on that later...

Friday, May 21, 2010

How much to show?

Such a pretty part of the country:

Stream leading to the WallKill River

We're very near to the Black Dirt Region, which has unbelievably dark, rich soil that apparently can grow anything. It's the remnants of an ancient lake and was swampland before farmers drained it in the mid-1800s. Essentially peat, in fact. I'll try to get some pictures of it but I'm not sure my little digital can really do it justice. It looks like ground up oreos.

Our day today was very hot (high of 90, humid) and Leland and I dug a nasty unit. Full of rocks, clay bottom. Hard to dig, hard to screen.

Our gorgeous backdirt

See? Big!

Now, you may have noticed me being a little vague about exactly where we are and what we're doing. That's for a good reason. Of course, I want to be vague about company information, and so I won't reveal the company we're working for or post anyone's real names.

But besides that, archaeological sites can attract the wrong type of attention from people who don't understand the difference between archaeology and looting. We are careful about the way we dig - proceeding in levels, screening dirt, collecting all artifacts, mapping significant aspects of the site and each unit, lots of paperwork.

We're scientists, and each part of that work that we do in the field is a piece of the puzzle. When correctly assembled, we can figure out what happened at the site. Where we find things - horizontally and vertically - is just as important as what we find. In fact, it's more important. If we don't know where an artifact comes from within the site, it's useless to us. It's lost context, and therefore we don't know where in the puzzle to place it.

A lot of people have picked up arrowheads before, and many enjoy fieldwalking where they collect artifacts on the surface of a plowed field. I'm not crazy about this practice, but any artifact on the surface has been disturbed, meaning that it has been moved from the location where it was dropped hundreds or thousands of years ago. Usually in a plowed field this has happened because of the plow itself.

Some people take this habit a step farther and actually dig for artifacts. This is called looting. It destroys the context of the artifact and the site and takes away part of the puzzle from us, making it that much harder to figure out what happened. Instead of scientific information, the artifact becomes only a pretty curio. People who do this often don't realize that they're doing anything wrong, because they don't understand the other aspects of being an archaeologist - they think we just find stuff.

The worst offenders then sell the artifacts they find. Some rare artifacts (like certain projectile points / arrowheads or ceramic pots) can be worth a lot of money. This is part of the black market antiquities trade and it makes me furious. And don't get Leland started on people diving for underwater "treasures". Just like on land, underwater sites like shipwrecks lose most of their scientific value if they're ripped apart by looters.

So you'll understand that I don't want to identify specific sites or locations. The areas I have identified contained sites that are pretty well known.

Monday, May 17, 2010

10 Things

Mondays, man...

There is always a certain amount of standing around in archaeology, but this company has the worst case of standing around that I have ever seen. Especially at the very end of the day, when we get back to the hotel. I am no longer getting paid for this - why are we just loitering in the parking lot?

I treasure my few personal hours every day. Get up at 6, work 7-5, and then I have five precious hours before sleep. That may sound like a lot, but I have a lot of lying around to do to make up for all of the effort expended during the day. Leland is off on a bike ride right now, and that makes no sense to me. I just spent 10 hours digging holes. More physical exertion is at the bottom of the priority list.

I generally enjoy my job, but motivation is hard to come by in the mornings, especially Monday mornings.

10 Things I Tell Myself To Get Through Monday Mornings:

1) Just six days until my next day off.

2) Just ten hours until I'm back in the air conditioning watching T.V.

3) Just five hours until lunch!

4) At least it's not raining today. (Or, if it is: at least it's not supposed to rain tomorrow. Or, if it is: we might get a rain day tomorrow!)

5) Think of all the overtime!

6) At least I'm not working retail and therefore don't have to kiss anyone's butt today.

7) I still have a 40 minute car ride before any real work begins.

8) I get to live in a hotel, which, let's face it, every kid fantasizes about at some point.

9) I might find something really cool today.

10) I get paid to be an archaeologist! There are only about 3000 professional archaeologists at any one time in the United States, so I'm in a relatively select club.

We had a pretty good day today, actually. We were doing phase 1 shovel testing, which is very boring. 50cm round holes, 15 meters apart, for about 3 miles. But we're done and now we get to do a phase 2, which is much more like an actual excavation and is at a site that's already been found (phase 1 is how we find sites, phase 2 explores them further).

We saw the cutest little orange salamander today, and a spotted one yesterday, but my camera has run out of batteries.

More pictures soon, I promise.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Day off

For those of you who were having trouble posting comments, I think I fixed it. You should be able to post comments now without creating a username for Blogger. Post away!

The flower in the last post is apparently a wild geranium. Thank Lisa for her horticultural knowledge.

Today is our day off. This is a bit exciting because we work 6 days a week, 10 hours a day, and have only Sundays off. CRM schedules are often bizarre - I've worked regular 5-day 40-hour weeks with weekends off, but also have worked "8 days on, 6 days off" - i.e., 8 ten hour days in a row and then 6 days break. No overtime in that scenario because you do two weeks work in the 8 days. I've heard also of "9 days on, 5 days off" and "4 days on, 3 days off".

Overtime isn't really common for the same reason it isn't common in other hourly-wage fields (no one wants to pay time and a half), but it is more common in CRM than in other areas except, perhaps, construction. There are two reasons for this:

1) Projects are usually rushed ("this pipe needs to be in the ground by June! You have three weeks to finish before the bulldozers arrive!")

2) Companies will make tons of money once the pipeline/well/whatever goes in, so they don't mind paying overtime up front.

As a result, we get 20 hours of overtime a week. Which is sweet. However, that means we work 60 hour weeks. Which is no joke when you dig holes all day long.

The long days make more sense when you think about the amount of time it can take to get to a project. We drive 45 minutes one way to get to the site - that's an hour and a half out of the day before any work has even occurred. One project I worked on had a two hour one way commute, leaving only 4 hours of actual work time each day.

Anyway, that means we have only one day off every week, and I intend to lay around and do nothing.

Well, not do nothing, because I have to devote a certain amount of time to scratching my bug bites. The area we're in is heavily wooded and we have a constant swarm of black flies and mosquitoes around our heads as we work. I had a very impressive itchy lump that pretty much took over my forearm, but it seems to be receding now. Not so much my ear, which I guess has a bite on it somewhere because the entire thing has been really swollen, red, and itchy for two days.

Most impressively, I got my first ever deer tick bite! I've lived and worked outside in several tick-infested areas and never even seen a deer tick (they're about the size of a poppy seed), but one showed up sticking into my hip two days ago. Deer ticks are the species that carries Lyme Disease. On the lookout for the characteristic bullseye rash, which should show up within a week or so if I have the disease.

Only about 1% of people bitten by deer ticks get Lyme Disease, and the percentage is down to basically 0 if the tick is removed within 36 hours (which mine was), so I'm not concerned - just alert.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Now, that's safety!

We are now in Goshen, NY, working for a pipeline project. The pipeline is being added to and so we are making sure that they don't destroy anything important as they do the construction. The past two days we worked in a state forest, and soon we'll be moving to a national park!

The scenery is gorgeous, both the nature and the little towns in this area. Lots of trees, cute old East coast houses, and culture. Possibly the biggest difference between NY and ND. For example, yesterday for lunch we went to a little deli right near the project and it was delicious. There probably isn't a restaurant that tasty in the entirety of North Dakota.

Last night we attended SAFETY TRAINING! And now we are SAFE! We know not to carry firearms with us or detonate explosives in our cars, and that we can't drink at work. Naturally, we were doing all of those things before so this information came as a huge surprise, I can tell you!

All of the contractors working for this pipeline have to attend the same training, and so the required safety video is 99% related to construction work and 1% related to anything we might be doing. Nonetheless, we shall not stand in the way of pointless bureaucratic rules! For our trouble, we got stickers for our hardhats showing that we passed.

Yes, we have to wear hardhats. Also, reflective vests and steel-toed boots. As our trainer reminded us, it is hunting season and we are in the woods, and so I am totally down with the reflective vests. But the hardhat and the boots? Are the hunters aiming for my feet? Am I in danger from falling airplane parts?

Leland demonstrates proper safety gear.

It's really not so bad, just a little silly.

The forests here are so lush, it's possible to completely forget that we're in modern New York, just an hour from the City.

North Dakota, this ain't.

We're also in a historically old part of the country. Out West, all the old homesteads and other historic features are already known (for the most part), and landowners certainly know what's on their property. Here, only foundations remain and no one living remembers who lived here.

Historic building foundations

See the rock wall?

Horticultural Quiz!

What plant am I?

Any guesses will be believed entirely, as I have no clue what the answer is.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wildlife Report

Had to post this picture of a ground squirrel I took in North Dakota...


There are bears in our project area here... and apparently two new babies just out of the den. Wonder if I can take their picture without getting mama angry?

The Saga Continues...

Sorry about the lack of posts, but we've had a crazy few days.

Last Monday evening we were in Medora, South Dakota, on top of a gorgeous butte. Tuesday we got back out to the site (forecast iffy, but only 30% chance of precipitation). It was cold and windy, but we began work.

Then the clouds began to roll in. We had miles of visibility across the badlands from our perch, but one by one the hills were swallowed up by the white band of advancing nothingness.

Where did everything go?

We were screwed.

Not rain, not even sleet, but actual fluffy flakes. In May. At first it wasn't so bad - even though we were basically in the cloudbank, the temperature wasn't too bad and a few flakes were nothing to worry about. Better snow than rain, actually - you get less wet.

Making the best of things

When Leland's mom saw this picture, she thought it was him. It's me. I'm a supermodel in the field.

These pictures, of course, don't really do this justice. It was so windy that the screens were difficult to hold up, and snow was building up on my back and legs. The dirt was muddy and very difficult to push through the screen. Finally our boss threw in the towel, and decided that we would pack everything up, go back to Bismarck, and return in a few days when the weather was supposed to get better.

To say that I was displeased by this would be putting things mildly. Of course, it was ludicrous to continue to excavate. It was too cold and sloppy to do anything carefully, and our paperwork was quickly wet and encrusted with mud. And the decision to drive the two hours back to Bismarck was an easy one - why pay for hotel rooms for people to just sit around when you don't have to?

But I was dreaming about the hot tub and sleeping in a bed after excavating in the snow and wind all morning. Returning to the KOA - because we had no place to stay in Bismarck - was not what I wanted to do.

Then we had a change of plans.

We had only been planning to remain in North Dakota for a few weeks, because we didn't want to be local techs. Local techs are responsible for their own housing and do not receive per diem for expenses. Non-local techs get a paid hotel and per diem. After accounting for rent and not receiving PD, that would really cut into the total amount we could make this summer. And we're trying to pay for Leland's tuition next year without taking out loans.

We were very upfront with the company in Bismarck about our intentions to look for other hotel-and-PD work, but it was still bad timing when we received a phone call on the way home from Medora to Bismarck. Long project on the New York/PA border. Starting in 8 days. Lots of overtime. Were we available?

We decided to leave Bismarck for the new project, and we had to leave that evening. It was a little shitty to leave the Bismarck company in that manner (in the middle of the stalled excavation), but the benefits to us in leaving were too great to give up the opportunity. People in the Bismarck company weren't pleased that we were leaving, but we could tell that they would do no differently, given similar circumstances. "You have to do what you have to do." We heard that a lot.

That evening, after 8 hours of driving, we were back in St Paul. The next day we packed up all our stuff, rented a U-Haul, and took off for Pennsylvania. We had a weekend in PA, and then drove the final leg up to Goshen, NY, where we are now.

We had a half day today in the field and the location is gorgeous - in a state park and completely wooded.

A few of the crew members complained about the weather today, but Leland and I weren't phased. Sure, it was about 55 degrees and drizzling, but there were trees! And no wind! And NO SNOW!

Monday, May 10, 2010

not dead

Not dead. In Pennsylvania. Long story. Headed for New York tomorrow for a 4-6 week long project!

But right now, enjoying some time with the in-laws and their hot tub.

Monday, May 3, 2010

CRM 101

Greetings from Medora, North Dakota, near the Montana border! We are in a hotel for the next few days (thank god) as we excavate a site on top of Sentinel Butte, a major landform in the area.

View from the butte

Little town of Sentinel Butte, ND

Leland throwing rocks (just can't help himself)

The butte itself is about 300 feet tall with a wide, flat space on top with a commanding view of the surrounding area. Even though the temperature right now is about 60, there is still snow - fresh snow! - on top of the butte. However, excavating today in the sun was quite pleasant.


People often ask me what we're doing out here and what we are trying to find, so I thought I'd use our field days on Thursday and Friday and our excavation today to explain what a modern non-academic archaeologist does.The field itself is called Cultural Resource Management, or CRM. It exists because of a law stating that any construction project which involves federal money must perform an archaeological survey to look for cultural resources (archaeological sites) which will be destroyed by the construction. These companies - building roads, wells, pipelines - contract this task out to CRM firms like the one we work for.

The first step is called Phase I, or survey, and it means just walking around the land and looking for stuff. Everywhere in the project area, a survey crew must cover on foot (as long as it is on flat land - no point looking for anything on steep hills). We line up in a straight line, 20 meters apart, and walk forward in a straight line looking at the ground for a predetermined length (anywhere from 100 feet to a mile or longer). The line we walk is called the transect. Because we use a scientific method of sampling the area, the assumption is that we won't miss any important sites. This also means that we must walk in a straight line regardless of obstructions - no picking the easiest path over the landscape. We do detour around, you know, lakes and stuff, but then we line up again on the other side of any un-walkable obstruction.

So what do we look for? Generally, we look for artifacts we know we might find. Everywhere in the US we look for lithics, or stone that has been culturally modified, made into knives and arrowheads and spears by Native Americans. Conveniently, rock that is able to be used this way is kind of shiny and distinctive.

Stone knife from Illinois

Example of a tool I found last year

The above picture is of an actual stone tool, possibly a drill. However, we usually find just flakes of rock that came off while the tool was being made.We also might look here on the plains for stone circles or tipi circles, which are circles of rocks that were once used to hold down the edges of tipis. Last week we found about fifteen circles in one large site.

Sometimes, we find even more subtle changes in the landscape that represent an area where there was a settlement or something like earthen ramparts (walls of dirt built to surround and protect a village site.

Earthen ramparts from an already discovered site in the area we were surveying Thursday and Friday. (I know they're a little hard to see in the picture - the low areas are the ramparts.) If they are this obvious, they have already been found a looooong time ago.

If we find enough cool stuff located in a single place, we might move to a Phase II, where we go back to one or two sites in the project area and actually dig to see what is below the surface. If we find enough there, we return again for the most intensive dig, Phase III mitigation. We put in several square pits, or units, which we dig in discrete levels. After a predetermined depth (such as 10 centimeters below the ground level, or when we reach a specific change in the dirt type) we stop, collect all the artifacts from that level, complete paperwork for that level, and start again with a new level.

We do this until we hit a sterile level, meaning one with no artifacts in it.We also screen the dirt so we can make sure we get all the artifacts out of it, and take samples that we don't screen but bring back to the lab so we can wash everything in the sample and look at the contents even more closely.

Our excavation with two open units

You can see here we're right next to a radio tower. They want to expand this construction in some way and because other sites have been found on this butte, we need to go in and make sure that the construction won't destroy any important stuff (note: we have not found any important stuff so far).

And that's what we do in the field!

Don't you wish this was the view from your office?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Meeting Landowners, The Library Game

Yesterday hit the trifecta of bad weather - cold, wet, windy.

Cold. Wet. Windy.

We didn't actually walk that far looking for artifacts - maybe about 3 miles - but believe me, that was enough. It actually began to snow as we left for the day.

We did have an experience that was new for both myself and Leland - meeting the landowner. Usually the project director or possibly the crew chief actually meets the landowner whose property we are surveying, but the regular technicians, like myself, do not. We see the landowners as they go about their business but with the exception of a tersely nodded hello, there is little interaction. Often the landowners are ticked off about part of their land being torn up or bought for whatever project we are surveying for (gas wells, roads, etc), and they are none too happy about us being there even though we represent the least destructive force that they will see (and the most likely to get the project halted if we find something important).

Anyway, the project we were working on is for the Historical Society, which is unusual. Because historical societies generally don't have the money to actually pay people to do things like conduct archaeological surveys, but somehow this one got this huge grant and is looking for Native American village sites. The landowner was super excited that we might find something cool on her land - and she invited us in for coffee and brownies to chat.
Coffee and brownies! I'm in.

So seven wet, muddy, cold archaeologists crowded into this woman's small kitchen, trying not to get mud and water everywhere as she brought out old maps of the property and pointed out historic gravesites and spent six years or so carefully cutting the brownies into geometrically identical shapes and transferring each to a plate and placing a fork on the plate - this involved much rooting around inside her kitchen cupboards in order to produce enough plates and forks all of the same set. She then wanted to know all of our names and where we went to school and what we studied.
It was very Midwestern. Leland just couldn't believe how Midwestern it all was.

I don't mean to complain or make fun - I was tickled pink to be sitting in a warm kitchen, happily eating brownies that someone had made just for me.

Anyway, conditions were so crappy that our field day today was canceled, meaning that we have (dum dum dum) a day off!! Days off are nicer when you aren't camping at the KOA and can hang out in front of the TV, but I will take it!

We spent our morning at the Bismarck Heritage Center (free!), which was actually very nice (and free!). The Heritage Center had enough exhibits to keep us busy for about 4 hours. They did a pretty nice job of covering Native American history in the area as well as discussing the later, sad history of violence and persecution towards Indians. The Center had to walk a fine line between being (relatively) honest about the settlers' roles in displacing and killing Indians without offending any of the descendants of those settlers who are still here.

The Center has the unfortunate distinction of being in the same complex as the North Dakota State Capitol (yes, Bismarck is the state capitol), the ugliest state capitol building in the country. I have not seen all of the state capitol buildings in the country, but I assure you that this one is the ugliest.

The building is not actually tilted, I just took this from a moving car.

Following our trip to the Heritage Center, we ended up at the library. We spend a lot of time at the library because it is free, you can sit down there, they have bathrooms and free wifi, and it is not outside. Kind of the same reasons that homeless people come to the library (with the potential exception of the free wifi).

To keep ourselves occupied, Leland and I played a new game that we made up. I'm going to call it the Way Cool Library Game. It is very similar to the other game we play, called Ha Ha, You Live in North Dakota. You play this game by pointing to someone and saying "Ha ha, you live in North Dakota".

Obviously you do not do this to their face, or in such a way that they can hear you.

It's really funnier if you're here in North Dakota. The threshold for what passes as humor here is quite low.

Anyway, the Way Cool Library Game is also a way of making fun of North Dakota - specifically, the magazines subscribed to by the Bismarck Public Library. As is usual, the magazines contain several that are obscure, ridiculously specific, or just plain bizarre.

There are five categories in this game, and each person has to pick a magazine that they feel fits best into each category. Below, for your pleasure, are the categories and magazines that each of us felt deserved the prize.

Most Likely to be on the ND Governor's Coffee Table:
Prairie Business Magazine: Your Premiere Business Source for the Northern Plains (me)
Guns n' Ammo (Leland)

Most Embarrassing to Read In Public:
Doll Reader or Practical Homeschooling (me, couldn't pick)
Mother Earth News (Leland)

Most Specific:
Heritage Review: Germans from Russian Heritage Society (me)
Primitive Archer: Passing on the Tradition of Classical Archery (Leland)

Smallest Following:
Wildfowl Carving (me)
Vegetarian Times (Leland, remember where we are)

According to Leland, Magazine Anna Secretly Wants to Subscribe To:
International Wolf (it's true!!)

According to Anna, Magazine Leland Secretly Wants to Subscribe To:
Cat Fancy

As you can see, we are clearly going crazy here without TV. We're supposed to be out all next week (hotel and per diem - yay!) if the weather cooperates. Hopefully we will not have to entertain ourselves for the next week. Clearly entertaining ourselves leads to nothing productive.