Presidio Memory Maps

For the next three weeks I’m helping to teach a class at the Presidio of San Francisco on digital documentation, cultural heritage, and interpretive trails.  It’s an intensive course, 8+ hour days for the undergraduates and more like 12-13 hour days for me.  For the first day, I had the students create memory maps using flickr and google maps to teach them how to use the tools, but also to teach them about free-associative narratives as a part of placemaking.  It worked well as an exercise, and it was interesting to see the different scales that the students used for their own maps.  I made one a couple of years ago ago about living in New Orleans, but I felt like I wanted to update it, so I made another one from Austin, linked above.

I’m also updating the official project blog, Remixing El Presidio, here:

Good fun, but I’m ready to have my hands in the dirt again!

Borderlands Archaeology, pt II

While reading a bit of the New York Times this morning, I was reminded of the violence we encountered in Nuevo Laredo while on a project on the Texas/Mexico border.  I posted about this in my old livejournal blog back in 2005:

I’ve taken dozens of pictures of nothing now. It’s so beautiful out here, but it’s nearly impossible to capture with a lens. All of them turn out overexposed, simple scrub with a big sky background. I also can’t capture the smell. It smells like sweet dust out here, like desert, and the birds are impossibly loud, and I’ve seen coyotes, wild pigs, and a spider-hawk dragging a fleshy tarantula across the desert pavement.

Where we’re digging now is much less desolate than our first landscape. Everything is sharp and dry and gorgeous. The area we’re focusing on is a prehistoric branch of the Rio Grande, so there’s river-dragged gravels everywhere. There’s lava and garnet and fossils and chert of all colors–it looks like the bottom of a geologist’s aquarium. It all has been sitting there for thousands of years. The silty sand doesn’t allow for much churn, so it all collects and sits on the top, surrounded by a black layer of the same lichen that coats surfaces in the Middle East. In the Middle East this lichen is edible, so some say that it is the source for the legend of manna from heaven falling from the sky.

The Texas variety is toxic, of course.

This trip has been an odd one. We’ve been besieged by packs of adorable puppies, and we’ve also come across two losers–dead pitbulls dumped by the side of the road. I accidentally drove through a grocery store. We’ve been harassed by creepy landowners, la Migra, the border station guard, and squat waitresses. There’s a war going on between two drug cartels, so brutal shootings and kidnappings are always on the news. We crossed the border last night because I wanted a gin fizz at the El Dorado and came back to a flashy show of sirens and police lights. We peered over the crowd and saw that the black pickup that was parked a space away from our truck had a clean arc of bullet holes through the driver-side window. When one of us asked what had happened, a guy said (in Spanish), “They killed them.” So we went around the back way and started to get into our truck when the detective came up and questioned us. Like a ninny I asked if everyone was okay. The detective didn’t answer. Stupid me.

So today I plotted rocks, dug holes, and stared at the sky until my eyes hurt.

Now, of course, I’m nearly immobile with homesickness.  I’m also surprised at how much my writing has changed over the last few years; it’s like it’s been calcified by social science verbiage.  And when did I get old and boring?  hmph.

The Great Abandonment

Cleveland, Ohio

“Explaining the ‘Great Abandonment’ has proven to be a challenge…The evidence for warfare, the widespread abandonments, and the subsequent settling of vacated regions by these nomadic peoples were considered to be compelling evidence. The arguments, however, have not held up to scrutiny.”

Cleveland, Ohio

“The trash deposits in the midden show that the initial abandonment was gradual, with perhaps a family or two leaving every once in a while, but the final exodus was much more rapid – so rapid that they actually left behind many intact vessels and perfectly good stone tools.”

Minneapolis, Minnesota

“The fact that people did leave northern towns is testament to how uncomfortable life had become.  As each family or kin group migrated south, tensions in the towns they left may have been alleviated for a while, but the town lost some of its labor force and defensive capacity with each person that fled.  It is perhaps for this reason that the abandonment started as a trickle but ended as a flood.”

Detroit, Michigan

“One possible explanation is that the aggregated towns simply lacked social cohesion and effective decision-making mechanisms…These were therefore towns only in the sense that many people lived closely together and occasionally acted in concert to face a common threat, particularly for defense against a definable mutual enemy.  But their internal ties were tenuous, and it may be that they were not sustainable when the problems were more nebulous and when the solutions required new social and political mechanisms.”

Quotes taken from John Kantner’s Ancient Puebloan Southwest.

Tuff Architecture


For my very last (and, at this point, quite late!) paper of the semester, I am comparing the volcanic tuff architecture of Cappadocia and that of the Southwestern US–Pajarito Plateau, to be exact.  I’m particularly interested in cavate architecture–where the tuff is actually carved into for more than a back wall/support structure as you see in many of the cliff dwellings in the Southwest.  It’s not a perfect fit, but it’s interesting comparing how people used the soft, sculptable rock in two different regions of the world.

The reading is actually a little sparse–there isn’t a lot in the way of useful literature about Cappadocia written in English and not a lot of archaeology has been done in the region, besides Asikli Höyük, another Neolithic tell site that some of the Catal folks work at.  The Southwest, on the other hand, has an immense amount of archaeological work published, except for most of it is about pottery–not very many architectural analyses that specifically look at tuff.  And the books that may be relevant are all stored in the Bancroft library, which is hands-down the worst library I have ever been to.  It’s an archive, so they’re doing their damndest to keep YOUR grubby hands off THEIR precious material.  But archiving books from 2005 that I could buy for $25 from Amazon and then throwing a big fit when I try to get them to fetch it from the big storage house in the sky, the NRLF?  Not altogether a wonderful fit for a researcher.



I’m not a “spiritual” person and I don’t believe in ghosts or horoscopes (though finding out that my advisor is a metal dragon–mechagodzilla–in the Chinese system was pretty hilarious), but I really can’t resist a good fortune cookie.

I passed my orals!

The one piece of advice that I never got, but that I will now try to give to as many other graduate students as possible is: be happy, confident and excited about your work.  Passion and enthusiasm will be reflected back to you, just as fear and self-doubt will help them destroy you.

Well, that, and study your ass off.

Now I just have this little ol’ thing called a dissertation to write.  No sweat, right?  heh.

Orals Hiatus


I am joining several of my esteemed colleagues (see links to the right) in taking a brief hiatus from blogging at the end of a very busy semester.

For a  little background, we have a 6-year PhD program at Berkeley. I am coming up to the end of my 3rd year (half way through!) and, in keeping with the program’s schedule, I have written three field statements (also known as literature surveys) and a dissertation prospectus in time to take my oral examination.  In theory, I will be tested over my knowledge of the three subjects I wrote about (visual semiotics, new media and archaeology, and place as recently imagined by archaeologists) but in practice, the field is pretty much wide open.  I have four examiners–three archaeology professors and a professor from the school of information.  They are all senior professors–at the top of their game–and I estimate that they have nearly 150 years of collective experience.  Totally amazing and completely terrifying.  I will open up with a 10 minute introduction of my work, which will be followed by questions from each of the professors, for a total of 3 hours.

This happens next Tuesday.

I have been studying for this, in theory, for the last three years.  Lately I have been taking what little time I have outside of other classes, teaching, and, y’know, eating and bathing to study as best as I can.  This weekend is all about tackling those books in the photo above, re-reading my field statements, and trying to stay calm.

Hopefully I’ll be writing here again next Wednesday as a PhD Candidate, instead of a mere PhD Student.  Time to get to it.

Borderlands Archaeology

A few days ago I came across some images posted by one of the right-wing vigilante border patrol groups of the trash that is left behind by people crossing the US/Mexico border.  This is just one of the many perceived affronts by what many people consider an invading force–their own ancestry be damned.

When I was still working as a contract archaeologist, I was on a couple of surveys near the border in Laredo and Brownsville, and I found a few of these items, left behind by people on the run, trying to figure out what they actually need and what could be discarded.  Toothbrushes.  Toys.  Socks.  Bibles.

Now that our esteemed government is planning to build a folly of a wall along the border, there is undoubtedly archaeological work associated with the project.  I’ve been talking about doing some contemporary archaeology at the border for a long time now, a project that would probably not get past the Human Subjects Review process, in that it would endanger illegal immigrants by making their paths known to would-be border-enforcers.  But, still–understanding the process of crossing the border better could help us to know what people need for the journey, and hopefully fewer of the immigrants would die in the process.

I was holding off on posting about it, but these images just broke Fox News where they are titled, “ALIEN TRASH” together with a sensationalist story about this trash costing taxpayers “millions” to clean up.  My hope, albeit a faint one, is that this story ultimately produces empathy in people instead of perceiving it, as it is stated in the news story as a “national disaster of our cherished outdoor areas.”  What do you carry on and what do you leave behind?