Sunday, August 21

this is your brain on archaeology

Warning: This post rambles.  Read on!

I do archaeology.  I mean kind of.  I used to do a lot more of it than I do now. I used to drag myself out of bed every day at the crack of dawn to dig prehistoric pithouses and my old nemeses, the agricultural rock piles, for hours and hours in the hot sun.  I used to walk around in pristine desert areas looking for broken bits of pottery and stone tool-making debris on a fairly regular basis.  I used to crouch in shadowed backhoe trenches and draw lines in the dirt with my trowel where storage pits and other features were delineated by soil changes.  I used to monitor utility trenches. Except for the utility-trench-monitoring, it was pretty awesome.

These days, I'm an instructor of sorts and as such, I work an 8 to 5 job and am required to let the students dig the good stuff even if they have no earthly clue what it is they're looking at.  It's not my job to dig anymore.  It's my job to give them a clue, because it's not always obvious to students new to archaeology why what they're doing is the good stuff.

Me:  Sweet Mother of Jesus!  You just found a Clovis point stuck in a mastodon skull, and furthermore the skull is attached to the skeleton of a mastodon upon which is the skeleton of what appears to be a human being riding the mastodon, and also the mastodon is wearing a harness made of mastodon leather which has miraculously survived for thousands of years! And in Marana of all places!


Student:  Nope. I don't get it.

Luckily however, in addition to supervising students while they underappreciate archaeological features, in my role as instructor-type I often find myself traveling to random and unexpected destinations such as Hawai'i.  Even though I don't get to dig much anymore, I'm glad archaeology has gotten me and still gets me out into the world. I love traveling, but I didn't get to do much of it back in my shovelbum days because I had no money and could never convince anyone I worked for that they ought to send me to Hawai'i.

This is how it used to be:

Me: You could send me to Hawai'i.  I could dig some stuff there or look around or whatever for you. I could send you sea turtle postcards. 

Work: How about instead of Hawai'i, we send you to Marana again. There's a utility trench there that needs monitoring.

This is how it is now:

Me: We could go to Hawai'i.  We could bring students and map some stuff and check out whales.

Work:  Huh. Yeah. Yeah, that's not a bad idea at all. Let's find a way to make that happen.

As another example, last week, Work sent me to a conference in the Arizona Strip which is the area north of the Grand Canyon. This conference is an annual meeting of southwest archaeologists held in various locations in the southwest U.S. and sometimes, if you're lucky, in northern Mexico. It's called the Pecos Conference.

This trip isn't the first time archaeology has taken me to the Grand Canyon. When I was in graduate school, I drove out with some fellow students to survey in the Kaibab National Forest on the south rim of the Canyon. It took us three days to get there, and we camped along the way, and it was mid-to-late October at the time so it was chilly.

Once we got there, there were wild turkeys and there was a snowstorm which sent us into a 180-degree spin almost right off the canyon edge, and then later, after surviving that, we hiked down into the canyon during a series of thunderstorms (Jesus. The lightning. I'm not even joking. We could so easily have died a second time.) and spent the night near the river (we're not even going to talk about the flash flood potential). And I'm pretty certain there was a mountain lion on the other side the river for awhile, too. Also, it was mostly guys in the group which might explain the multiple brushes with death we experienced over the course of the trip, and I was therefore exposed to a lot more whiskey than I had ever been exposed to previously which was none. Incidentally, the whiskey almost killed a couple of people, too.


But look at you! I warned you about the rambling, and here you are anyway. You're intrepid!

Anyway, during that trip in grad school, we never made it to the north rim of the Canyon. Probably, had we tried, someone would have fallen off of something anyway. So this trip to the conference was my first one to the Arizona Strip and I was enthralled by the place. It's a stunningly lovely landscape. It's like driving through a painting.

On the way home from the conference at
Mile-and-a-Half Lake in the Arizona Strip.
The conference was actually held in the woods at about 8,000 feet of elevation.  Pecos is a generally well-organized but fairly informal conference. Many or most of the attendees camp, and the talks and posters are presented under big tents. People congregate around campfires in the evenings, except on Saturday when there's the big dinner and dance, and it often rains at least once. Additionally, there's always dogs, children, and free beer. 

The Smoked Pig.
This year featured a woman with a cat on a leash, Smoked Pig Appetizer, and the Young People Party which we crashed even though we're all old, most of us. This was after the dance and the free beer. There were, like, twenty Young People or six hundred or something, and they had this great fire going, and there was some crazy man who also crashed the party and tried to converse with me about Harry Potter for several tense minutes but I acted like I had never heard of Harry Potter because people had warned me about this particular crazy man, and I was terrified when we made eye contact.

Then it started raining and we all ran away. More on that later.  On second thought, I think you know enough already.

I did a poster on Burro Creek this year, which means I got to stand next to it under the big tent for two and a half hours while people wandered up to it, gazed at the pictures for a minute or two and then wandered away to go listen to the talks or look for snacks or something. I felt pretty professional.  I mean relatively speaking.

The drive up was extremely beautiful in a desolate and slightly frightening sort of way. Consistent civilization stops around Flagstaff.  After that, it's a few houses here, a few there, and one or two waaaay over there. Some very, very small towns. A lot of rocks. A lot of Navajo jewelry stands on the side of the road. A handful of gas stations. Not too many trees. Maybe none. Lots of red rocks and buttes and things. I think it's extremely likely that there are trolls. 

You can see forever and ever. You can even see what I'm pretty sure was Utah sometimes. You can be on the road for eight hours and still appreciate the landscape in northern Arizona. It's spectacular country.  Consider a trip there if you're ever trying to come up with a good vacation.  Maybe you could bring it up with your boss.  Maybe you should just consider becoming an archaeologist. If you need instruction, I can teach you how to dig.  But I'm going to want credit for any groundbreaking, mastodon-oriented finds.

Enough rambling. Time for pictures.   

That's my boss giving a talk. I know!  He looks smart!
That's my poster on the far right. See how professional I am!
Sitting in the grass having beers and learning stuff while listening to talks.
(That's my group there in the middle with the five-year-old.)
The line for Smoked Pig Appetizer: 
"Don't worry. We're gettin' pig."

Post-Pig; Pre-The Dance.
The dance.

The dance some more.
Our campsite. This is where the magic happened.

The magic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Next time you are up in Northern Arizona/Utah, check out the Wahweap Hoodoos, those aren't archaeology, but some crazy geology.