An Open Letter to Our Students: Sexual Violence, Awareness, and Academic Lives

[Editor’s Note: Drs. Shulist and Biittner frankly care a whole lot about their students so this post is quite different than those that have come before. This post is a letter written to their students. It is a meant to address some of their nuanced understandings of how inequality exists in the academy, something they frequently talk about especially in the context of their roles in the Academic Women’s Network at MacEwan University. But really this means they want to write about some topics that are hard for them – hard because they are personal, they require reflexivity, they are triggering, they represent the very worst of the academy as an institution, and as such they require tact and care.  This article, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering for the reader.]

Dear students,

If you are here at MacEwan in person, you know that this has been our first ever Sexual Violence Awareness Week. Among the events taking place this week was a roundtable panel, organized by the Academic Women’s Network, on Sexual Violence in the Academy. Both of us were involved in that panel, as executive members of the network, and in Dr. Biittner’s case, as a panelist. Between these local events and the explosion, on social media, of people sharing their stories or just their ‘#metoo’, it’s been a difficult week for us. We have been thinking a lot about our own experiences, about the literally countless stories we have heard over the years, and of the fears we have for women in the future. In some ways, Sexual Violence Awareness Week is frustrating, because many of the people paying enough attention to attend these events (including ourselves) are already deeply and painfully aware. At the same time, it reminds us of how necessary it is to recommit ourselves to learning more, to paying attention more, to reflecting more, on how the pervasive myths of rape culture intersect with and reinforce oppression in multiple forms. As we think about these things, and particularly emerging from the panel about academia, we have a few things we want to say to you.

  1. Academia is part of the world, and the world is patriarchal and unsafe, especially for women, trans, and nonbinary folks. On yesterday’s panel, we heard statistics about everything from rates of sexual violence in archaeological fieldwork (see also this update here) to patterns of negative judgment on student course evaluations. We also heard personal stories and reflections on experiences that have happened as we go about our lives and work in the academy. The statistics are horrible. The rates of sexual assault and harassment are heartbreaking. The personal stories are affecting and enraging. Some of this is the product of being part of a world that is so full of violence it can hurt just to look at it. Some of it is also the result of specific structures and patterns of academic culture. We are profoundly hierarchical. Rank and status matter, and institutions are inclined to protect those who bring in money. Our lives are deeply embedded in close relationships of trust, and our careers can rise and fall on the favour of our PhD supervisors or the Principal Investigator on a major grant project, which gives these people immense power to silence and control us, and some of them abuse that. And we often work in ways and in places that blur the boundaries between personal and professional, in which we lower our guard, and which can give predators ways to attack without being noticed by outside observers. Academia isn’t the only type of workplace where we see this, and other environments include different types of practices and standards that predators exploit, but these aspects matter and are meaningful to how we talk about what to do about it. We wish we could counsel you on how to move forward in or beyond academia without talking about this, but we can’t. Because…
  2. We want you to be safe. Just as we know that these experiences are hard to carry in our own work, we see how hard it is for you to carry them. We are committed to making you safe in any way we can. We try to do this by advocating for better policy, by warning you away from people we know to be dangerous, by getting training in ways to support you, by reflecting on how our own privileges require us to pay attention to our own roles in the perpetuation of patterns of abuse and disbelief of those who do not share those privileges. This is a pedagogical commitment for us, and we think it should be for everyone, though we know it’s not. It is almost frustrating to have to say that of course people who are dealing with trauma, who are anxious or fearful, or who are unable to safely attend their classes, cannot learn to the best of their abilities. Some people see this as being overly protective of people who should be adults. We see it as our responsibility as educators and human beings. At the same time…
  3. It’s hard to admit we can’t make academia safe for you. We really, really wish we could. We wish that we could do more than whisper these warnings. We wish we could guarantee that when you go to a place to get an education, that is, in fact, what you will get. But the problem is so big, and it’s so hard, and we can’t. We wish we could be the Carrie Fisher in this story, and maybe, in a few decades when we are more secure and established, we will be, but for now, the only thing we can say is…
  4. We want you to talk to us. But we also want you to realize this is hard for us. This is not easy to articulate, because we do not want it to seem like we are claiming your traumas and experiences of violence are too much for us. They aren’t. Far from it. We are not counselors, and we are not friends, but we care about your success and your ability to do your work with as much focus, energy, and even joy as you can. At the same time, when we think and talk about the impact of sexual violence in academia, we need you to know that some of us are hearing these stories, checking up on those of you we are concerned about, and spending time and mental energy thinking about how, exactly, to protect you and others from known predators. Others around us are not doing that. And this is not to say you should go to them, necessarily – they may not be safe, this is a real thing. We just want you to consider this when you look at who is successful in academia, and when you plan, for yourselves, an academic life. We do this instead of writing another research paper, because this is far more important, but we also must admit it is the research paper that will get us a job, or a promotion, or a grant. As it is women profs (and especially, women of colour profs) who do the majority of this…
  5. This has a big impact on how many people, especially women, trans, and nonbinary people, are able to do their jobs. You, students, may or may not see everything that is involved in our work as your professors. We teach, we prepare classes, and we grade, yes; we also write our own papers and presentations, apply for grants, conduct original research, and serve on committees that make the university run. None of this is easy to do if we are also dealing with the symptoms of trauma, or the anxiety that comes from dealing with a harassing supervisor, or the distraction and shame of an abusive partner. It’s not that we don’t want to provide you with the support you need, it’s that we are more frequently asked to provide this much needed support from our students than our male colleagues because we are female, while knowing that students are also more likely to be biased against us as instructors also because we are female. Add all of this to the emotional labour that is overwhelmingly required of women in our society and you have not just for poor job performance but a high risk for the development of serious mental health issues (anxiety, depression, etc.). So we have to take care of ourselves meaning…
  6. We may only be able to listen, to acknowledge your feelings, and then send you off with options for additional and/or ongoing support. We can and will provide you with academic accommodations – the anniversary of your assault is the same day as your due date so you need to just take off somewhere and might not be able to hand that assignment in on time? Ok. Not a problem. As stated above we cannot be your therapist, your friend, or your confidant (though we will try to make sure that you have all of those people in your life), but we can let you know of what resources are available for you as our student, because…
  7. We know of resources! As instructors we learn the ins and outs of our institution. We also try to make ourselves aware of additional resources nearby that we can suggest may be able to help you – especially those that provide low or no cost counseling services, because it’s horrible to realize that financial barriers prevent many people from being able to access support. Here’s a list of some valuable resources available to you at our campus and in our city:
  8. Together we can try to change this. During the panel one of our students, one of your classmates, maybe you, asked “what can I do to change this?”. Any answer we give to this feels inadequate in the face of a problem of this size, but as anthropologists, we firmly believe in the importance of understanding and imagining the possibility of a radically different world. We know, from our research, that the way things are is not the way they have always been or the way that they have to be. And so we know that they can be changed, and that they have to be changed from the ground up. We have to challenge pervasive assumptions that dismiss the importance of consent and minimize the damage that occurs when we violate other people’s boundaries, that make light of intimate partner violence, that perpetuate toxic notions of masculinity and authority. We have to reflect on our own assumptions about what victims look like, act like, and feel like, and honestly interrogate whether we are more likely to believe some than others. And as the week’s keynote speaker, Dr. Rachel Griffin, reminded us, we have to show up, and be open to listening, because that act could be the thing that saves someone’s life. This is not abstract. This is not a courtroom in which we must hear evidence and be fair to the accused. It really is that important just to say…
  9. We believe you. Because we do. We will. We know.

In solidarity and hope,

Dr. Biittner and Dr. Shulist

 

 

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Names and Patriarchy

Names are a remarkable form of linguistic material. Group names, place names, personal names – all have functions and social roles that are far more complex than we often credit (I’ve written before about the use of endonyms for Indigenous peoples/languages, and will put a bookmark in my brain to try to write about place names at some point as well). Names carry a lot of weight in defining identities — and this means they do a ton of social work in establishing relationships among people.

I am well behind on blogging things I’ve found interesting, so forgive me for delving into ancient internet history of a full month ago, but the story of Serena Williams’ baby’s name was too fascinating to let go entirely. As the link notes, the name is apparently highly conservative, putting a junior on the father’s name – except that in this case, Alexis Ohanian Jr. is a little girl.

For all that we, in Anglo-North American society, have moved away from many aspects of patrilineal descent (like for example in terms of inheritance), names are one of the ways we cling quite strongly to it. Without wanting to get in to any kind of discussion about the merits of name changing at marriage (seriously, don’t @ me. It’s always the same conversation), one point that’s always raised is that women choose between “their partner’s name or their father’s name”. It’s a claim that depends on the notion that our names have and will come from our fathers, and that it is primarily boy children who get to claim ownership of the name. While there is now a proportion of heterosexually married women who have, either completely or partially (e.g. using one name professionally and another personally) kept their original names, this has not yet translated into a widespread change in how offspring are named. Hyphenation has a definite presence, but the most common pattern remains that children receive their father’s names. My own family is an exception here, because I said I wanted a child that would carry my name, and my partner and I quickly agreed to have one of each. Our older child has their father’s name, and our younger child has mine.

This is meaningful to me because my lineage is marked in our family. Last names, though, are not the only ways that we put that identity forward. Giving our children family names, particularly ‘Junior’ from an immediate parent, also carries those meanings. And while the practice is generally waning, it remains much more strongly associated with father-son bonds than with any relationship involving women and girls. Gilmore Girls made a joke of this by having teenage mom and highly quirky Lorelai name her baby daughter Lorelai (called Rory) for exactly this reason – men do it all the time, why couldn’t she want her girl to carry on her name? (I have a general theory that this is why we see much greater variation in the “Top 100” baby names for girls than for boys – decade after decade, William, Michael, John, David, Daniel, and Matthew hold strong, while Sarahs and Katies – to pick two entirely not random examples – peak and fade relatively quickly. This theory is entirely the product of my brain and fascination with reading baby name lists, however, and no real stable evidence).

Little Alexis Jr. inserts another interesting exception to the pattern, having a daughter carry on her father’s name/identity. Honestly, it’s somewhat unsurprising that a powerhouse mother like Serena would be willing to push the boundaries of how her baby daughter will be named and seen. At the same time, I am a bit surprised that this little Junior is taking on the name of her much less famous parent. A Serena Williams Jr strikes me as a name that would inspire an impressive reaction (although perhaps too much weight to put on a tiny person, but that didn’t stop countless famous men from assigning that burden to their sons).

The whole conversation speaks to the way we see names and identity, and yes, the ways in which our perceptions of descent and family lineage remain oriented around fathers and sons. An era of acceptance of non-traditional family structures, including gay and lesbian couples (as well as decades of feminist pushback against the ways that names connote ownership) may have made a dent on this view, but its prevalence shows just how deeply engrained this part of patriarchy is. And this is why names are so meaningful and powerful – ultimately, this is a part of linguistic and cultural practice that holds force long after we have stopped thinking of our descent practices as inherently passing through a male line. I agree with the linked blogger that a female junior, in this context (and adding in the racial dynamic, which is also hugely important in defining young Alexis’ relationship to her white father) is a bold step. What strikes me, though, is that these bold steps seem to be taken in isolation, and I’m interested to see what it might take for them to start adding up to a march away from the status quo.

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!). 

Speech, Action, and Freedom

It’s been a difficult week to be paying attention to the media. The events at the University of Virginia this weekend, where a white supremacist demonstration turned predictably violent, and many legitimately fear that the current President of the United States refuses to denounce these actions because he agrees with them. There are many things to say about these events, and many others who are better equipped to say them, but I want to zero in on the commentary about how to address the question of “freedom of speech” in light of this significant social threat.

Now, first off, remember that I’m Canadian, and while there are many in this country who believe in an absolute and unfettered “right to free speech”, our actual Charter of Rights & Freedoms places somewhat more restrictions on the concept than does the United States Bill of Rights. In particular, “hate speech” is disallowed, though in practice this remains difficult to define, and many marginalized groups in this country (especially Indigenous people) would note that a significant amount of violent rhetoric gets through the pages of our mainstream newspapers, but is never labeled as “hate speech”. These are longstanding debates, and I am only using the legal context to establish and remind others that it is, in fact, possible to develop a legal framework in which restrictions are placed on certain kinds of speech and still have a functioning democracy. This point seems often forgotten or ignored in discussions on this topic.

I’ll take a step back from the violence in Charlottesville for a moment to point to another case in which “free speech” has been on the public radar this week – the firing of a Google employee who sent out a company wide memo suggesting that the effort to get more women into engineering positions within the company was misplaced, since women are biologically ill-equipped for these roles. It was backed up with multiple pseudo-scientific arguments that have been debunked by multiple people, but nonetheless, certain segments of the internet have claimed that he was fired for his ideas and that this represents thought policing. In fact, he was fired for his actions – he wrote and sent a memo to his entire company outlining not only his beliefs, but also his suggestions for how the company should implement policies based on his beliefs. And these actions – the writing and the sending – entail acts of aggression against a specific group of co-workers (women). He has presumably thought these things for a significant amount of time, perhaps even prior to his hiring at Google, but he was never fired for thinking them – he was fired for the act of writing them in “manifesto” form, and sending it to the entire company.

The idea of “freedom of speech” in its broadest sense is premised on an ideology that posits speech is not action. There are any number of idiomatic expressions and signs that this is a commonly held belief among many English speaking North Americans. You have to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. “Stick and stone will break my bones” and all that. And to be clear, speech should be protected in some ways in a democratic environment – government silencing of dissent is a necessary part of authoritarianism, and people are rightfully highlighting press restrictions as one of the scary signs coming from Trump’s administration. But a robust theory of freedom of speech has to address the fact that ‘to speak’ is a verb – in other words, it is always an action.

How does this relate to what happened in Charlottesville? The march clearly crossed the line between acceptable speech and unacceptable acts of violence at some point, under all but the most hateful defenders’ definitions, as people were killed by the protesters. As many others are also noting, that point comes well before the killing, before the beating with torches even. It comes when they adopt the language and symbols of genocide as the semiotic frame for their speech. The use of swastikas, the “Heil Hitler” arm movement, and Hitler quotations on t-shirts — these are acts of symbolic violence. In and of themselves, they do harm to people (the ideas that they represent, if implemented, would do horrendous amounts of harm, but even in the absence of that implementation, their being stated publicly, justified by those in power like the police who responded only tepidly, or Trump who suggested it was somehow proportionate to violence on the left, does actual harm).

I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting “rights are rights” and that if I want to right to continue to speak openly in the way that I do here, I have to allow even actual Nazis to organize and publicly speak. That I must counter their positions with rhetorical force, and that it would be unconscionable to suggest that they should be legally silenced. This kind of argument assumes that these people can be reasoned with, and in making that assumption tacitly implies that promotion of genocide is a reasonable position that one should argue with. I refuse that assumption and its implication.

It is, of course, easy in principle to say that we will easily be able to recognize what forms of speech are acts of violence, and that we can guarantee that no democratically elected government would suppress legitimate speech. This latter point is obviously false, and the former is much more complex in practice. But at the same time, it’s not always easy, in practice, to spell out any clear cut rules that place limitations on actions. The same physical actions can, in one context, be loving, and in another, be violence, because of the presence or absence of consent. The presence of a law against arson doesn’t preclude us from setting a campfire. We are imperfect at interpreting legal and moral culpability and consequence in many of these situations as well, but it doesn’t lead to an interpretation that the underlying actions must be allowed to exist unchecked by legal authority.

All of this is to say: in order to effectively account for the impact of these forms of speech, it is important to move beyond an ideology that speech is not action, and therefore cannot be limited in the same ways as we limit physical actions. The oft-quoted statement that “my right to swing my arm ends at your nose” is meaningfully applied to the act of speaking as well. Because speech is an action, not an impactless idea floating meaninglessly in people’s minds, it can also be violence. Violence that not only can, but must, be restricted and stopped.

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…