Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Weeks 6 & 7 in Review

Okay so I think we can agree that I have fallen epically behind on posting about the field school, but I’m going to insist that it is valuable for me, and for you dear reader, to wrap things up. Good news is I have only this last post for you. The bad news is here are my notes for what I should cover (Good work, Past Katie btw! Also I really wish there was a dedicated sarcasm font.):

On looting…fuckers…

On the mad rush at the end to back fill, re-seed, etc…

On the last push of lab work and final research papers…

On the importance of a feast…

So yeah, the site was looted. After spending weeks carefully revealing the bones and contents of the midden/garbage pit, our students excavating in Unit 3 arrived one morning to find it had been disturbed. It was immediately clear that several bones (mostly cow skulls) had been stolen from the unit (this was confirmed through consulting the maps precisely drawn at each level and through reviewing notes and photographs), Haeden reported the looting to the Archaeological Survey, while several students, and myself, took to social media to express our anger and our outrage. Honestly I tweeted without thinking – something I usually am better about when it comes to ethical and legal issues like this – and while I didn’t say anything horrible I wasn’t thinking about appropriate procedure nor ethical or legal implications and consequences. Luckily it wasn’t illegal to publicly discuss the looting, instead I will argue that the media coverage and public attention we received about the site and our work goes a long way towards informing the public regarding the importance of protecting, preserving, and not-looting archaeological and other heritage sites. So several media sources, who had covered and were continuing to follow the project, saw our tweets, instaposts, and Reddit forum comments, and contacted us for follow up interviews. I was particularly proud of the thoughtful comments made by my students on Reddit who had been patient science communicators and represented our work, our course, the site, and our discipline articulately throughout the field season. I think these personal accounts by the students – how they were angry and hurt that someone could so thoughtlessly destroy the careful work they’d done over weeks, that questions would go unanswered because of the loss of critical information we could have obtained from those bones – really resonated with the public. Further we had several community members stop by the site or contact us to let us know how upset they were by the looting as well. See that’s the lovely thing about projects that welcome community members, they too become interested and invested. While we never recovered those bones (and likely never will), the students also learned one of the harsh realities of archaeology – looting is a common part of the experience of field work.

Here you can see holes in the unit wall (look for the “fresh” or darker coloured sediment that was exposed) and the dirt on the floor from the looting of Unit 3. 

Following the looting, work at the site was simply a blur. We had more rain to deal with (meaning we were yet again bailing out units) followed by some really hot days. There is so much that needs to be done to wrap up work at a site. First we needed to finish excavating all of the units we started. Units 4 and 5 were already close to completion leading into the week so we weren’t too worried about them and we did finish them by the Thursday. However, Units 3 and 6 were our biggest concerns. The profiles for Unit 3 were taking quite a bit of time simply because there was so much left in the walls; we typically leave objects in the wall unless they are at risk of damaging the wall (i.e., are too loose and may fall out). We continued expanding and excavating Unit 6 until the Friday (technically our last day on site). We’d encountered some more cement and a few pipes and needed to determine their relationship to the cement feature in Unit 1. While we finished excavating it, Haeden and JP decided they would come back over the next few days to finish up the profiles and requested that we all return to the site on the following Tuesday to backfill the units.

Revealing a pipe feature in Units 1 and 6, and preparing wall profiles for Units 3 and 4. 

Why Tuesday? Because on the Monday we went on a field trip. I really wanted to make sure the students visited another archaeological site at some point over the term. It’s valuable to see how other research questions are approached, what other strategies are used in different contexts, and to examine different kinds of material culture. I’d originally hoped to visit another field school, and possibly do an exchange of sorts, but the other ones occurring in the province were Spring Term courses so it didn’t work out with our Summer Term schedule. I decided then we’d drive out to the Bodo Archaeological Site and Center, where one of our former students was working and where I’d previously excavated, then swing by the Viking Ribstones. I love the Viking Ribstones; they are situated in the most beautiful spot and I always feel so calm and peaceful after visiting and making an offering there.  All the driving and the multiple stops made for a long day but we all agreed it was well worth the trip.

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Field trip to the Bodo Archaeological Site and Center. Note I’m talking in the photo because of course I am.

So the following Tuesday we returned to the site to backfill. Backfilling involves replacing all of the sediment excavated from the units back into place and we also had other site reclamation we were required to perform (in this case we had to re-seed the surface of the units where sod had been removed). We also had a bunch of housekeeping to do: all of the gear must be cleaned and repaired (as needed) then returned to storage (or to those individuals we begged and borrowed from).

For the rest of that last week (technically week 7), the students were also busy wrapping up their final “research projects” and trying to complete any remaining lab work. They really accomplished a lot in the lab; we had very little left to clean and catalog once the course was finished, which Haeden and JP completed in just over a week. The students’ final “research reports” varied in content and form. Most wrote a paper either looking into the history of the site/ravine or a particular category of raw material in more detail. One student wrote a wonderful reflection on how prepared (or not!) our current Introduction to Archaeology (Anth206) course made them for field school. Another prepared an “unessay” of sorts; they designed a poster and exhibit proposal for a space in our Centre for Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFE); paired with my personal photos, this student’s work is currently on display in CAFE as a curated art exhibit called “One Site, Two Histories”.

Finally we had a feast…of sorts. It’s tradition to have a wrap-up party so I hosted all of the students, their guests, and our volunteers at my home. We did a simple BBQ, where we ate, chatted, and decompressed. During the party I presented them each with a Certificate of Excellence “for digging real good”; a silly tradition started when friends of mine presented me with one after a particularly intense field season. They also received from one of our volunteers a special camp stool to mark their transition from field school student to archaeologist; we had two of these stools on site and they were much coveted by the students. It’s hard to capture the meaning of gifts like these; they truly represent the bizarre and lovely microcosm that can develop on a field site between team members during a project. No outsider will ever understand why eating a whole cucumber with rice cakes for lunch is hilarious. No outsider will ever understand why we’ll forever cringe and roll our eyes upon hearing a dog named “Precious*” being called. *The name of the dog has been changed to protect the innocent dog. All dogs are good dogs. This dog just had a really obnoxious owner who was not a good dog owner.*

 

And then it was done.

 

I want to finish by acknowledging my fantastic students (Lace, Jesse, Kat, Kathryn, Emily, Keyna, Tara, and Josalyne), volunteers (Erika, Lisa, Andrea, Thomas, and Kendra), Haeden and JP. It was a honour to have worked with you this summer. I’m proud of what you accomplished and the work we did. It was archaeology at its best.

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Last day photo of Team MCHAP 2017. 

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Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Public Archaeology Day & Week 5 in Review

Public outreach was a huge component of how I designed my field methods course. I’m a huge proponent of public outreach, of community archaeology, and of students demonstrating what they’ve learned by teaching others all about it. As I knew we were in a high visibility and high traffic area I wanted to formally acknowledge that this kind of labour was needed and necessary, but I also needed to then assess how students engaged with the public, particularly how well they communicated the research objectives and the purpose of the field school. While I knew we’d have plenty of opportunities to give informal “tours” throughout the field school and answer questions from people passing through/around the site, I also wanted to host a formal Public Archaeology Day.  This day would feature tours, activities for kids, and artifacts on display for handing, as a way to formally invite the public to our site and to allow our students’ friends and family an opportunity to see what they’d been up to all summer.

We had over 160 attend our Public Archaeology Day on Saturday July 29th. I was so pleased with this response and the students were too. I was even more impressed by just how excellent the students were at doing tours, explaining archaeology, and answering questions – I mean I’d pretty much figured that out by this point but they really were exceptional on a very hot and busy day. Tours departed approximately hourly; the students met with people at a designated meeting point, then brought them down to the site to see what we’d been up to. Other students hung around the station we’d set up with cleaned and catalogued finds for people to handle and examine. We also had “learn to be an archaeologist” activities that kids could complete to earn stickers.  The media was also on site so our coverage of the project continued.

Highlights of the Public Archaeology Day. From top left clockwise: examining artifacts, the calm before the storm, the guide signs used for the tours, and screening for artifacts. 

After a single day of rest we were back on site and back to work. Week 5 was all about:

a) Routine. At this point in the field school the students have learned that they really can do archaeology (bolstered by the positive feedback and energy of the Public Archaeology Day) and things pretty much just happen. Every morning we unload the gear. We dig and screen and talk about food all day (seriously, we talked about food a lot. At the end of the day we pack up the gear (in a super efficient manner now that it is routine) back into the vehicles and call it a day.

b) Concrete. In Week 4 we opened up three new units and during Week 5 we found that all of these new units had concrete features. Unit 4 had an interesting concrete “floor” The concrete in Unit 5 was a smooth “floor”; it had a unique pattern on it that we eventually figured out was the impressions left from brick “frogs” (bricks with material cut away to reduce weight and to allow more mortar/cement to adhere); to track this feature we expanded the unit by an additional 1 m to make a 1 m x 3 m unit.  Unit 5 also had a concrete “floor”. It was much smoother than seen in Units 1 and 4 but seemed to line approximately up with the concrete feature in Unit 1. It was also much larger. Instead of a narrow line of concrete, the entire 1 m x 2 m unit was concrete so we made the decision to expand it into a 2 m x 2m unit to see if we could assess the extent of the floor. Unit 6 also had a concrete feature that was perpendicular but not attached to the feature in Unit 1.

You can see the impressions left behind in the cement by a brick “frog” in Unit 4. 

Work continued in Unit 3 but the quantity of material recovered had finally started to decrease. The students excavated some articulated cow foot bones, a surprising number of bullet casings (later lab analysis would put the total over 150), and some leather that we initially identified as belonging to a belt. Luckily one of our students had horses and corrected us that it was likely part of a bridle. The preservation in the midden really is remarkable.

Always grateful for students who bring in their items to show their classmates (Thanks Lace!). On the left some harnesses from the 1920s, 1960s, and 1990s are shown; on the right is the piece of buck chinstrap that we recovered from Unit 3. 

With only one week of digging left the pressure was on to finish as much excavating as possible. The students were starting to get anxious about their research papers and I was also busy planning our field trip!

 

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 4 in Review

NOTE: I really fell behind in writing these week-in-review posts but that’s one of the realities of fieldwork, it is physically, emotionally, and intellectually draining so sometimes non-fieldwork things get set aside. But luckily they are review posts so it’s not to late to reflect back upon what happened. This is why we take good field notes right?!

Week 4 began with what we called our “Big Bonding Day”. Unit 1 was flooded from all of the rain we’d had over the weekend; as the lower strata in the unit was clay, drainage was an issue, and all the rainwater just collected and sat in the bottom of the unit. Luckily archaeologists always have an abundance of buckets, so we bailed the unit out and got back to digging (Note: this wouldn’t be the last time we’d need to bail out this unit…).

The students finished Unit 1 this week and opened up Unit 5, a 1m x 2m just north of Unit 1, and Unit 6, a 1m x 1m just west of Unit 1. These were placed to capture some more of the cement feature found in Unit 1 and get a better idea of what it represented (foundation? wall? ramp/sidewalk?). Unit 6 was specifically placed to try to find more of a possible wooden beam found in a Shovel Test Pit in that location.

IMG_7884This is what Unit 1 looked like after we bailed it out!

Unit 2 was completed; upon reaching and excavating “sterile” levels (sediments with no cultural materials in them) the students drew wall profiles to capture the stratigraphy seen in that unit. This is a labour-intensive task but critical for making interpretations post-excavation; it challenges students to use their best mapping, measuring, drawing, sediment analysis, and communication skills. The Unit 2 team was partially disbanded – one of the students was sent over to Unit 3 to help with the midden/bone bed, and the other two opened up Unit 4, a 1m x 2m unit located just west of Unit 2.

Work was proceeding well in Unit 3 now that three students were dedicated to its excavation and mapping. Having a third student working on that unit was really needed at this point – there was much that needed to be done, we weren’t sure how much deeper the bone bed would go, and the clock was ticking.

So it wasn’t clear what that cement feature was in Unit 1 and it wasn’t clear how much midden there was in Unit 3. It was clear, however, that we’d just passed the midpoint of the field school; several students missed a day or two as they were sick. We didn’t have a single day where everyone was working on site. The air quality was still not great so it seemed like we all were having headaches. Overall body pain was not too bad as we’d all reached the point where we were used to the physical work but some students were starting to have symptoms of more serious, potentially chronic pain (elbow, hip, and foot pain/numbness). We talked about self-care on the site and shared tips and tricks (yoga, shower beers, bath salts, massage, etc.). All of this was not surprising as field work is extremely taxing mentally and physically; so I supported and encouraged students to take days off when they weren’t feeling well and to leave early/arrive late to accommodate appointments. Part of my mandate to have an accessible, ethical field school was ensuring that students felt comfortable to take time off when needed, no questions asked. I also ran the field school around “regular” working hours (8:30 am – 4:30 pm, Monday – Friday); this selfishly also supported my childcare requirements. These policies were the direct result of my personal experiences as a student and my concerns about overwork, stress, and work-life balance. I know as a young archaeologist in my first CRM job, I worked insanely long hours in really long stretches (12-18 hour days for two or three weeks) and did not feel like I could take off time when I became sick (and ended up being very very sick with giardia for an unnecessarily long time as a result). All of these concerns about health, safety, and risk were constantly on my mind.

Haeden and I appeared on Global News at 7 am on the Thursday morning; it was an opportunity to discuss the project and field school, but also promote our Public Archaeology Day (more on that in another post). It was my first time doing a studio interview but I think we did a great job in the 3 minutes we had.

The week ended with a day in the lab as usual. We spend some time talking about and planning for our Public Archaeology Day; we pulled artifacts to display, prepared signage, printed stickers, and planned some simple activities for kids. It was clear that building in a lab day was really worth the “loss” of time in the field; the students were making excellent progress in cleaning and cataloging the finds.

IMG_7906The site at the end of Week 4. Unit 1 was “closed” – it is under the plywood. Unit 4, under the green tent was opened. Unit 5, under the grey tent, was opened just north of Unit 1. Unit 6, in the process of being made, was opened just west of Unit 1. 

 

IMG_7897This neat red plastic car was found in Unit 4. We were super excited by it. Children are often “missing” in the archaeological record so to find a toy was fun. We posted some photos and video of its big reveal on social media and the response was really interesting and informative. Someone commented on my Instagram post that their husband said he had a car just like this when he was a kid in the 1960s in Saskatoon; he revealed that Donald Duck was its driver (no, we never found Donald!). 

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 3 in Review

One of the toughest parts of archaeology is that no matter how much time, effort, planning, people, and/or money you put into a field season, the weather can and will throw a wrench into the works. Edmonton is particularly problematic; it has a reputation for having terrible weather…well… year around. The winters are cold (but it’s a dry cold! even if there is too much snow) and the summers are hot or wet or plagued by extreme weather (thunderstorms and/or tornadoes). By undertaking an early field season (say May) you may be able to avoid the worst of what the summer can throw at you but you may also find yourself dealing with late snow or too much rain anyways. A July-August field season was what worked for the head of the research project so we knew we’d need to be flexible and deal with what is thrown at us. So to briefly recap: week 1 was hot and week 2 was wet. Week 3 was too smokey. Where there’s smoke, there’s no fieldwork.  At least for us there isn’t. The week started off with air quality alert warnings, which would only get worse as the week went on.

I notified the students, after a Sunday with an air quality index of 7, that we’d still meet at the site Monday as usual. Monday started off chilly and overcast but warmed as the day went on. While we got the occasional whiff of smoke, it really wasn’t too bad out. I took advantage of having several volunteers on site that day to spend some time with each and every student individually to talk about their research papers. Typically I’d have students write up a technical report about their 1 m x 1m unit to submit at the end of the season but because the students were working collaboratively on 1 m x 2 m or  2 m x 2 m units and because they were contributing to the research of a PhD student, I thought it could be more informative for them to be flexible with what they wrote up. Some are addressing the types of materials recovered from the site (bricks, glass, or clinker), others are examining the change in land use/place over time (one via plants, others via peoples), another is applying the knowledge obtained from an internship at an art gallery to propose a curated exhibit about the site, and finally one is interested in critically reviewing how our introduction to anthropology course (Anth206) lab assignments and exercises do or do not prepare for our students for the technical skills required in the field. As an instructor I appreciated the thought the students had clearly already put into the topics so tried to take the time to make sure that they were taking on manageable projects. With less than four weeks to research and write the papers up I really wanted to make sure the scale of their projects was appropriate. Otherwise work proceeded as normal at the site. Unit 1 had finally dealt with most of the really tough sediment and were starting to proceed faster through level 2. Unit 2 was working on level 4 and taking out the wooden plant feature they’d uncovered the previous Thursday. Unit 3 was finding a lot of metal objects and glass, and started to find animal bone – this was in line with what the associated test pit had found so the shift quickly became getting the level down to the bone bed originally identified in that test pit.

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Tuesday began as another overcast day with light drizzle in the morning. We met again in the field; we’d discussed on Monday that for the week the plan was we’d always start in the field if the air quality in the morning was low so we’d get at least a half day in and retreat to the lab if necessary. The day got off to a slow start; people trickled in late and it took some time before the units were uncovered and work was actually started for the day. I knew that this would be the case as we reached the half way point of the course as it is always a challenge to keep students motivated and engaged once the initial excitement of a new term, a new course starts to wane and as the workload starts to increase. I was also aware my own dwindling energy reserves were not allowing me to be as enthusiastic as I needed each day. Such is the reality of courses and especially of field work. But we still had a productive day. Unit 1 was finishing levels and doing an excellent job of uncovering and mapping their feature 1 (the cement feature); compared to their slow initial progress, they were really “flying” through their levels now (soft, unconsolidated sediment really is a blessing). Unit 2 was closing out the unit – the last level was pretty much sterile so they focused on”cleaning” the walls of the unit; we ensuring the walls are as flat as possible so the stratigraphy can be clearly seen then captured in a profile drawing.  Unit 3 was focused on mapping the bone bed, which they had reached and carefully revealed by the end of the previous day. Both stratigraphic or wall profile drawings/maps and floor plan maps are valuable pieces of the record of the site. They are used to illustrate the context of the finds and as such are important interpretive tools.

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I made the call Wednesday morning to again start in the field. The morning was a little smokey but not too bad. Units 2 and 3 continued with their mapping; I checked in regularly with the students, who were doing an excellent job with their maps but really focused on helping Unit 1 screen. Unit 1 had encountered another tough sediment – clay. For those of you archaeologists when I say their AHN was a G you’ll know what they were facing. For those of you non-archaeologists, AHN is a type of “tests” we do to figure out what the overall composition of the sediment is (sand, silt, and/or clay) based on its texture. An AHN of G means that when a handful of sediment was collected and a little bit of water was added (or in our case no water was added) it could be kneaded into a ball then rolled out into a cylinder which could then be thinned out into a longer tube that could then be joined into a loop (i.e., we could make a donut with the clay). The clay was first hard but pliable quickly turning into wet, sticky, and sterile. It was hard work to dig out and even harder work to screen. We had to hand sort through all the lumps of clay feeling for the smallest inclusions that might represent artifacts. By the end of the day everyone was helping squish their way through the buckets of clay coming out of unit 1 as the air quality had gradually gotten worse over the day to the point that we needed to not be outside any longer. My eyes were sore and it felt like I had a brick on my chest.

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We woke up Thursday to an air quality that was close to what it was at the end of Wednesday – far too bad to head to the field so I emailed everyone to tell them to head to the lab. The conditions can be best described like the filter you see in a horror movie – an orange sun surrounded by dulling fog. It was gross. The air conditioning in the lab was much appreciated and we had a really productive day cleaning and cataloging. Haeden and his partner JP still had to venture out to the site to meet with people from the Archaeology Survey (the branch of the Provincial government that provides permits for and oversees archaeology in Alberta) but were happy to report upon their return to that the Arch Survey was very pleased with the work done on the site and that we’d passed inspection. Haeden, JP, and I chatted and decided that it was best to stick to our usually schedule and spend Friday in the lab as well.

Our Friday lab was a little different. We spent a little time first thing talking about our plans for the Public Archaeology Day, which is quickly approaching (see poster below). One of the students and I went down to CAFE to see their space as they’d shown interest in hosting an exhibit relating to our work. We also were visited by children from the MacEwan University Early Learning and Child Care Lab School; my daughter was so proud to show off her mama’s lab and the children loved running around with the magnifying glasses I loaned them looking at what we’d found so far and interacting with my students. It was a great burst of energy and activity and a nice way to end our week.

The air quality has improved since then so we’ll be back on site this week. So far it looks like we’ll get wet then be very hot…so typical Edmonton weather.

Week 4 update to follow…

 

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396): Week 2 in Review

On Monday we were welcomed to the site with overcast skies and the threat of rain. While the rain never came, the relief from the low temperatures was much needed and appreciated. We set up the excavation base lines so that units could be established. Three excavation blocks (1- 2m x 2m, and 2- 1m x 2m) were set up based on the results of our Shovel Test Pits (STPs). This is always a slow process but is a very important one. Next we began outlining our strategy for excavating the units. Basically day 1 of week 2 was information overload. Luckily the students have weeks to ask questions, to learn, and to practice the art of excavation.

The promise of rain that never was became the reality of downpour by lunch on Tuesday. Luckily we’d taken some time in the morning to set up tarps. It was a busy morning with visits from the Edmonton Journal and our social media team from MacEwan (look for a story about the field school from the students’ perspective on the front page of the MacEwan website soon!). My colleague Dr. Hugh McKenzie visited with his children and their friend; they assisted with excavation and with screening in Unit 1 as part of their “summer camp”. It was a great opportunity for the students to share what they’ve learned this far by teaching it to others.

We are excavating in 10 cm levels (baring any clear and/or significant changes in sediment) using a pass method – the students begin along either the southern or northern border of the unit then slowly proceed towards the opposite boarder. They are tasked with removing only a few cm at most of sediment slowly and uniformly across the unit. All of the removed sediment is screened.

I began my Wednesday (July 12th) morning with a 6:55 am interview on 630 CHED’s morning show. We talked about the project, the field school, and the great pleasure that comes from being an archaeologist. It was a busy day at the site with much material culture (concrete, brick, nails, various metal objects, glass, bone fragments, clinker) and our first feature revealed – a concrete “patch” in Unit 1, which could be part of a foundation or a wall or something else that, hopefully, our ongoing excavation will hope us figure out. As larger accumulations of rubble (mainly clinker, cement, and brick) were encountered in all of the units, sampling strategies were developed. In most cases all pieces were collected then counted and weighed in the field as types; only representative samples brought back to the lab for further cleaning, cataloguing, and analyses.

By Thursday the sun and heat was back. The process of excavation was becoming routine; students were figuring out the tools needed, when and what to record, how to work around and with roots, what to collect, etc. Our second feature, two overlapping boards with nails still in-situ, was slowly and expertly uncovered in Unit 2.

Friday was our first full lab day began with a quiz, included an introduction to cataloguing, and ended with lecture/discussion on the assigned readings, which are:

  • Casella, E.C. 2005. Social Workers: New Directions in Industrial Archaeology. In Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions, edited by E.C. Casella and J. Symonds, Springer, pp. 3-32.
  • McGuire, R.H. and P. Reckner. 2002. The Unromantic West: Labor, Capital, and Struggle. Historical Archaeology 36(3): 44-58.
  • Shackel, P. 2004. Labor’s Heritage: Remembering the American Industrial Landscape. Historical Archaeology 38(4): 44-58.
  • Silliman, S.W. 2006. Struggling with Labor, working on identities. Historical Archaeology (ed.) M. Hall and S.W. Silliman. Blackwell. 147-166.

I must admit these articles got me all fired up about Historical and Industrial Archaeology (and the possibilities of bring these concepts to my work in Tanzania next summer…).

It is unlikely that the students will complete all of the lab work required but that’s an important part of the learning curve for them – the recognition that field work, while fun, produces an enormous amount of data. Simply recovering artifacts will not lead to meaningful interpretations of the past; intensive time and effort in the lab is required.

Week 3 to follow…

Archaeological Field Methods (Anth 396): Week 1 in Review

IMG_7695The 2017 Mill Creek Historical Archaeology Project (MCHAP) and MacEwan Archaeological Field Methods (Anth396) Crew. 

This summer I’m teaching a course on Archaeological Field Methods (Anthropology 396). It runs for six weeks and I’ll (try to) post a summary at the end of each week. My preparation for this course began last summer when, long story short, I was put in contact with a PhD student from the University of Chicago, Haeden Stewart, who had a number of our students volunteer with his project, the Mill Creek Historical Archaeology Project (MCHAP). After some discussion and much thought I agreed to run a field school during Summer 2017 that would provide our students an opportunity to get formal training and credit, while providing Haeden with much needed bodies for his field research. It would also provide me with the unique opportunity to get back in the field (I was last in Tanzania in 2010) but stay in the same city as my kid. Haeden and I had to do paperwork to get the required permit and to ensure that the Archaeology Branch was satisfied with this unique hybrid of a field school and research project. After advertising the course and reviewing applications back in January and February, I ended up with eight students enrolled in the course. All of the students were excited by the opportunity to learn archaeology in their own backyard, as it were, which meant that the course costs were relatively low. We had a pre-field orientation session in the lab on June 22nd to discuss supplies, safety, and ethics, and to introduce MCHAP.

The course officially started on July 4th; our first day began in the lab – we loaded up the supplies I’d been accumulating over the past few months in my car and headed down to the site. Haeden met us there and took the students on a tour of our field site, Mill Creek Ravine, a vibrant park in the heart of Edmonton.

IMG_7672Haeden showing the students the location of the 2016 MCHAP excavations, which focused on the shantytown of Ross Acreage. 

Haeden’s research examines the relationship between industrialization (the development of infrastructure, the standardization of commodities, and the development of a labouring class) and settler colonialism in the context of early twentieth century meat-packing plants in Edmonton. Mill Creek Ravine is a cultural landscape of deep history and of competing and contrasting claims from Indigenous groups, the local community, and the municipal government. It was the center of the early Albertan meat-packing industry as well as one of the sites of the most blatant appropriations of an Indigenous reservation at the end of the nineteenth century. After the construction of the Edmonton, Yukon, and Pacific Railway through Mill Creek Ravine in 1901, the area became one of the first major sites of industrial production in the city and the province. By 1910, three large meatpacking plants (Gallagher-Hull’s, Vogel’s, and Gainer’s) were located along Mill Creek, employing approximately 1 in 8 of Strathcona’s male population. By the end of the First World War, economic depression and incoming European settlers produced numerous ad-hoc shantytowns throughout Edmonton, including one of the largest and most stable informal shantytowns along Mill Creek. This shantytown, known as Ross Acreage, lasted until the 1940s and at its height consisted of over fifty shelters. Haeden’s fieldwork in 2016 focused on locating and excavating Ross Acreage. In order to uncover the history and impact of early industrialization in Edmonton, our focus this season will be on surveying, sampling, and excavating the first of these meat-packing plants, Vogel’s.

Vogels

Following the tour we got right into Shovel Test Pits (STPs). The strategy for the placement and execution of STPs was explained – three main areas (labelled A, B, and C) were identified based on pedestrian and ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys conducted prior to the start of the field school. Our STPs are 35 cm x 35 cm in size, excavated in 10 cm levels to a depth of approximately 70 cm. As the location of Vogel’s could be established through the use of archives, the STPs are used to establish the exact placement of the buildings and thus to inform the excavation strategy. The tools required were listed and their use was explained; how to fill out the necessary and critical forms for documenting context, method, and finds was also discussed at length. Finally it was time – the satisfying crunch of shovel cutting into turf was heard as the students conducted their first ever STPs.

The rest of the first week focused on STPs. In all 25 STPs were excavated in the three areas. Plastic, glass, clinker, bone, brick, cement, and various metal objects (mostly nails) were carefully extracted to the thrill and delight of our students. Honestly! It is hard to capture in words but all were excited by their first finds while I was excited to see them learn how to first identify something as an artifact then to distinguish different artifact types. The amount of learning that occurs in that first week is immense.

During week one, the students faced high temperatures, a veritable fog of mosquitos, and much interaction with the public (people are constantly hiking, biking, or walking with and without dogs throughout the ravine and thus the site). Chief Bruno of the Papachase came by to share with our students some of the Indigenous history and use of the ravine, Edmonton, and Strathcona. We were also visited by local media, which resulted in an article in the Metro newspaper and a CTV interview featuring yours truly (our feature is around the 7:30 mark). The realities of being in the field, and becoming familiar and dealing with the unique attributes of each field setting, are also part of that critical learning curve.

Our week concluded by heading to the lab, where students got set up for cleaning their finds (we’ll start cataloguing and analyzes in the second lab during week two). While a field methods course, I have also built in a significant lab component as I firmly believe that students should not only learn how to excavate but also how to clean and catalogue, and begin the analysis, of what they recover.

Week 2 update to follow….

 

Pseudoarchaeology Spoiler Alert! Nope, It’s Not Aliens.

I-am-not-saying

One of the effects of being an expert is that people solicit your opinion. There is nothing wrong with that and I am always happy to talk about archaeology (thus this blog, my twitter feed, my career path, my outreach activities, etc.). Add in the inherent sexiness of archaeology and the popular misrepresentations of what archaeologists do, which I’ve briefly touched upon before, and I frequently find myself being asked to comment on “the latest greatest discovery that will shake our understanding of humankind to its very core” or “that challenges everything we know” or “that academics don’t want the public to know about”. So yeah, aliens. But not just aliens a whole bunch of content, theories, interpretations, and explanations about “the past” that can only be described as pseudoarchaeology.

Archaeology is the study of the past (and increasingly the contemporary) through material culture (i.e., stuff). I always spend a portion of my Introduction to Archaeology (Anth206) course talking about pseudoarchaeology to demonstrate to students the process of evaluating explanations in archaeology. Pseudoarchaeology is any interpretation or explanation about real or alleged phenomena/events/humans that are not supported by the basic logical and evidence-based standards of archaeology. Pseudoarchaeology has some characteristics of archaeology (and thus of science) so it takes some serious examination to identify it.

For example, here is the video a friend asked me about on Facebook that sparked this post, which I’ll just refer to as the Unearthing Gaia project. To demonstrate the process of identifying pseudoarchaeology, I’m going to critically assess the video and associated website using Fagan’s (2006) defining characteristics of pseudoarchaeology, characteristics of attitude and of procedure.

First and foremost, the evidence lacks context. I’m sorry but “near” a famous site is not enough contextual evidence. The number one concept we emphasize in archaeology is the context of our finds i.e., where and how we found them (note: trying to “protect” the site by not sharing that information is not how archaeologists protect sites nor disseminate knowledge). Context is everything in archaeology. If you don’t have good context, for the find and for the date (more on that below), then your explanation is going to be difficult to support. The Nazca lines are part of the “canonical suite of ‘mysterious’ sites” (Fagan 2006:27) and elsewhere on the site there are references to other cultures (the Maya) and sites (Gobekli Tepe) that are also part of the “recycling plant” (Fagan 2006:27) of pseudoarchaeology’s kitchen-sink mode of explanation. Basically the same body of selected evidence is presented time and time again.

Second, outrageous claims are another red flag – if you click through the website you’ll find statements like “discover what the history books won’t tell you”. This type of language sensationalizes archaeology and suggests that archaeologists a) won’t share the “good” stuff with lay people (because we privilege our own), and b) that we are conspiring to prevent this information from widespread dissemination. Further the whole video and website implies that there is something mysterious about our past. One of the characteristics of pseudoarchaeologists is that they seem to be unsatisfied by archaeological explanations that are “simple” or “mundane” and that the lack of evidence of life in the past being anything but mundane means not that this evidence does not exist but rather that it must be hidden – hidden by archaeologists who do not want you to know the truth.

Third, to suggest archaeologists “hide” information is part of the pseudoarchaeology attitude that both disparages academia and appeals to academic authority; there is both suspicion towards the scholars (and often critique of their elitism) but a willingness to state and emphasize the credentials of any theory or work done by any scholar that seems to support the hypothesis presented. Take the radiocarbon date presented in the video as an example – they defer to the authority of the science of radiocarbon dating but do not indicate what was dated (a date is no good if the sample has no context), fail to report it to standard (use of AD instead of BP), and do not state which lab conducted the dating (important because radiocarbon dates must be calibrated and corrected, the procedure for doing which can vary somewhat by lab). A CT-scan is prominently featured in the video but again no explanation nor context for the scan (including who performed it) is provided other than a quick comment that it proves their hypothesis.

Fourth, the language that is used is poorly or not defined. For example, what is meant by “primitive humanoid”. The use of the term “primitive” is extremely problematic in archaeology and anthropology unless it’s explicit use is defined, such as “primitive here is used to refer to biological traits that are inherited”. Primitive is not used to refer to ancestral populations because of the colonial, racist implications. “Humanoid” is also not used because it doesn’t really mean anything clearly nor easily identifiable other than what I think their intended use is, which is likely human-like but also non-human at the same time. That I need to infer intended uses of terms and their likely definitions is a major problem. It means that someone else could interpret those terms differently, which then impacts how they assess the explanation provided.

Fifth, one of the best ways to evaluate an explanation in archaeology (or any science really) is to apply the principle known as Occam’s Razor, which posits that the simpler explanation is usually the better explanation. Consider the “mummy”. There is much evidence of humans, both past and present, practicing cranial modification – the shape and size of the cranial vault was intentionally modified. This means that the best explanation for the elongated skull of the mummy is that they were part of a human community that practiced cranial modification, which is a far simpler explanation than this individual cannot be human and therefore MUST be extra-terrestrial.

So thanks to my friend for sharing the site with me as I do honestly love this stuff as it is an excellent example of pseudoarchaeology but I don’t buy what they are trying to sell (literally trying to sell as having to “buy” access to their “secret” insights…well that is another red flag…and yes I am aware of the issue with academic journals and paywalls but you are wrong if you want to suggest that they are the same thing because they aren’t).

 

Reference Cited: Fagan, G.C.  2006. Diagnosing Pseudoarchaeology. In Archaeological Fantasies, edited by G.C. Fagan. New York: Routledge.