So You’re an Archaeologist? – on Youtube

Back in 2009 David Cohen and I made a video for the Afghanistan exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. This video was meant to accompany the mostly interpretation-free display of gold and human remains; we wanted to give faces to archaeologists and convey what it is that we do. The museum provided us a list of guiding questions and we filmed responses from UC Berkeley archaeologists. Anyway, I finally had a moment to upload some of the videos to Youtube, and here they are for your viewing/teaching pleasure.

The infamous …and I’m an archaeologist video.

What is the best thing about being an archaeologist?

What is the worst thing about being an archaeologist?

What do archaeologists do?

What are some common misconceptions about archaeology? (Show this to your friends and family who keep asking about dinosaurs and gold)

And my favorite: What type of artifacts do you find?

Fundraising: The Sound of a Duck’s Feet

Early in my graduate career I received the advice to be like a duck–remain serene on the surface all the while paddling like hell underneath. Serenity has never been a strong point of mine, so I’ve come up with a compromise: swim like an otter–dive underwater, paddle like hell, then come crashing to the surface in a completely different place, lolling on your back like you don’t have a care in the world. I’m hoping that the relative quiet here on this blog feels like that to you, dear reader.

Swimming metaphors aside, I’ve been working pretty hard to get the Maeander Project off of the ground. Between project funding and organization hustle and my dissertation, things have been a little crazy. All that aside, I have an incredible debt to the many people who have donated at Kickstarter:

We have 34 backers and are just shy of our half-way point at $2,257.00 out of $5,000.00.  We may be getting matching funds, so it’s really important that we make that $5,000 mark–we don’t get any money if we don’t raise it all.

I also want to thank the people who have generously re-tweeted our fundraising link, and who have posted on their own blogs, including:

The CRM Field Tech Newsletter 

Sorting out Science, in the #120 edition of Four Stone Hearth

Where in the Hell am I?

If I missed anyone, please let me know! Our fundraising drive ends on July 15th. If you can’t spare a dollar, spare a link?






Mesa Verde Part 1.5 of 2: Interpretation

The ranger station was in chaos. People in line were shouting at each other, and an elderly man shoved a small Asian lady out of the way so he could farther forward in line. She staggered and almost fell–I hollered at the guy and asked her if she was okay.

Wow. Mesa Verde. Okay then.

When you get to Mesa Verde you have several different choices of what to do–the Ranger you buy your passes from acts as a tour guide/scheduler. You can try to take in all of the ranger guided tours, walk around on top of the Mesa, or go on a few small hikes. The ranger guided tours are the only way to actually enter most of the ruins, so that was the option that we picked. The day before we stopped in Silverton, where a nice shopkeeper told us, “Mesa Verde only really takes about 2-3 hours. You check out the ruins and the rest of the stuff…it’s just holes in the ground.” Still, we gamely signed up for a full day of touring and wandering around. First we went to see the cliff palace complex, during which the ranger ran down the basics about the Ancestral Puebloans: they had to manage water, they farmed on top of the mesa, they climbed up and down using toe holds in the rocks and wow wasn’t that crazy? She was actually pretty good, considering that she had to speak to about 30 people of varied age and education. I usually don’t say much during guided tours, but I did ask about the conservation and reconstruction of the pueblos–were they indicating their reconstruction efforts in any way to make them obvious to the outside observer? The answer was yes, they were trying different colors of mortar to show different periods of reconstruction. After the tour we decided to strike out onto the mesa top, and by striking out, I mean driving along a road to each of the interpretive spots.

In stark contrast to the lady in Silverton, I enjoyed the hell out of the holes in the ground–how surprising! They have some open excavations on display, though I will admit that they don’t look like much these days. The dirt profiles and remains of pits have been heavily eroded and consolidated to preserve the display. It was interesting to see, as they have similar problems at Catalhoyuk, trying to keep year-long displays of crumbling mudbrick looking good is a near impossible task. There wasn’t any information about who dug what when, which was a little annoying, and there could be a lot done with virtual tours that would hopefully make the excavations more meaningful than just “holes in the ground” to non-specialist visitors. Much of the rest of the day was like this–speculating about interpretations and wondering about the details that were omitted from the tours and signs. We did have a spectacularly, hilariously bad tour of Long House, in which I wondered if the ranger was actually completely drunk or if she had debilitating social anxiety. We ended up just ignoring her and checking out the outstanding preservation of Long House–the seams in the buildings, blocked-off doors and re-built walls kept me occupied in wondering if anyone had bothered to phase the architecture in each of the settlements. Something to poke into while further procrastinating on my dissertation, I suppose.

(…to be continued – word counts are problematic these days!)

Crowdsourcing Archaeology – The Maeander Project Kickstarter Page!

After months of waiting, we received very short notice that we had indeed received a permit to conduct an archaeological survey in southwestern Turkey. Sadly we did not receive all of the funding that we had hoped–it is difficult to fund a project before you have a permit, and to get a permit before you fund a project. The fledgling project had taken flight, the Maeander Project is a go.

Obviously we still had to figure out a way to make up the missing money somehow, or else we would have to miss this valuable opportunity. I’d seen various projects funded by Kickstarter before, and even signed up for it last year, but after the urging of several of my friends I decided to try it out. Kickstarter is primarily for creative projects, but what is my work but creative? I might as well use this aspect of my research in a productive fashion. So, the Kickstarter page:

While $5000 does not cover all of our costs, it would help a great deal. Also, if we are unable to raise this amount of money in a month, we do not receive ANY of it!

So please, if you can, throw a couple of dollars our way. If you can’t (and I completely understand!) then please help us by getting the word out about this project.

Mesa Verde Part 1 of 2: Parkitecture

Cliff House, Mesa Verde by Elemsee

I just finished up a 10-day road trip, driving from my folks’ house in northern Colorado back to California, with some fairly significant detours along the way. After taking a quick soak in Glenwood Springs, we took the Million Dollar highway down to Mesa Verde. Colorado had a long, wet winter this year and it paid off in a spectacular run-off, accompanied by the greenest, most wildflower-filled spring I’d ever seen.

I have to admit, I was beyond excited to go to Mesa Verde. Though I’d lived in Colorado for a while, I never made it down to the four-corners region to check out the gorgeous vistas and the Ancestral Puebloan ruins that cover the landscape. It was pretty much a perfect storm of Colleen-geekery: ancient architecture, cave-dwellers, and the National Park system. The National Parks are a revered institution in the US – I’d argue that they constitute a cornerstone of American national identity. As a large, government institution I’m sure there are widely divergent experiences within the National Park service that would either support my enthusiasm or shatter it completely, but as an outside beneficiary of the decades of hard work by thousands of park staff, I remain a big fan.

While others have written more cogently on the aesthetics and the motives of the National Park, Mesa Verde struck me as one of the most vivid examples of the managed tourism and “National Park rustic” or Parkitecture that the National Parks has to offer. Parkitecture attempts to blend in with the natural environment and is often a folksy mix of wood, stone, and hidden cinderblock architecture. While the facilities at Mesa Verde are not as iconic as those at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, the log ladders, stone borders, and wooden cautionary signs contributed to the “parkiness” of the park, signifiers of the managed nature of the park.

While Parkitecture has its design roots in the 1920s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal projects in the 1930s provided the labor force necessary for transforming the National Parks into tourist destinations. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were young men between the ages of 18-25 who enrolled in a six-month term and were paid $5 – $8 a month while $22-$25 a month was sent back to their families. The “CCC boys” camped at Mesa Verde during the duration and their work can be seen in most aspects of the park’s development. (I’ll be mentioning the CCC again in the next Mesa Verde post, but for more information, check out the excellent New Deal Days: The CCC at Mesa Verde.) Without the New Deal investment in the improvement of the parks, it is doubtful that they would have risen to such prominence in the national imagination.

Parkitecture occupies an interesting liminal space in the parks; it both informs and restricts your movement, trying to blend in with the natural surroundings while being obviously official. It also requires an investment in apparently outdated trades–we saw trail maintenance in Zion being performed by a team of masons with chisels and hammers, chipping the red sandstone into appropriately rustic blocks. The curation and preservation of these trade skills seem just as important to me as the park itself.

In the extreme, parkitecture can contribute to the Disneyesque feel of the parks. One of the trail loops at Mesa Verde is only accessible by what they call a tram, what is, in practice, a bit more like a stretch golf-cart. We sat in the tram and there was a pre-recorded interpretive speech that blared as we zoomed by the different “attractions.” Even as Americans have gotten fatter, our hunger for National Parks remains unabated, with attendance rising each year. The best beloved and most visited parks have had to adopt measures such as this tram and an increased control over exploration of the monuments, to protect the park’s resources while still catering to the widest possible constituency. While the paved walkways and carefully groomed garden-fences allow people of most physical abilities to experience the parks, it can be frustrating to those of us who are used to scrambling up cliffs, through waterfalls and into the ruins.

With the national, state and local governments cutting all conceivable services, I feared for the National Parks, especially as they are attracting more tourists than ever. While it isn’t on the scale of the New Deal, it appears that the Recovery Act has been funding projects in the National Parks:

$14.6 million dollars went to Mesa Verde for six projects, from improving water lines to the purchase of alternative fuel transit buses for tours of the park. The full list of Recovery Projects slated for the National Parks is actually very interesting and a little sad, considering that the majority of work is very basic, long-needed repairs. This funding seems at best a fairly scanty gesture, especially compared to the massive investment that the New Deal projects provided for our parks and for the enskilment of a generation of workers.

(Tomorrow, more about the actual, y’know, archaeology and interpretation at Mesa Verde.)

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