Where in the hell am I?

Stories from the road, and home, by a contract archaeologist.

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Location: Texas, United States

I work out of town a lot as a contract archaeologist. Sometimes it's interesting. It can be quite funny, although probably only to other archys. Home is Austin, with my wife and our cute kitty and all of our crazy friends.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hey, a back yard blog!

Jack's acorns
Originally uploaded by texasrobo
The archaeology hasn't been very exciting lately, but I did take some photos a few days ago of some of the latest happenings in the wilds of our backyard. The highlight is that Jack the Live Oak finally grew some nuts! Yep, he's covered in acorns. We also have some marigolds and the fishhook cactus is blooming again. All the pictures are on my Flickr photostream.
The tomato plants keep on going. It's a race against bugs these days, and probably half of the ripe maters are ruined by the bugs before I get to them. Of course, when I do get to them I don't always use them in time, but the Sweet 100s have been very delicious on salads. The basil is flowering like crazy and covered in bees. The zucchini are totally dead, and the new zucchini and squash I planted haven't sprouted from what I can tell.
Going to Spring, Texas to survey for a couple of days. SInce that's next to The Woodlands, we'll be dropping by the in-laws for a birthday dinner tomorrow (Tina's mom) and going out with some of Tini's friends for dinner on Wednesday. Much better than East Texas!

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Fun weekend

It all started when we had a work meeting at 3pm. With beer. I had 3, and grabbed another bottle to bring home. Went out at 8 to Rio Grande (lame place but it was for someone's birthday) and had a couple of the Saint Arnold's IPA (not great, not bad), then to Six (lame place, etc.). Paced myself pretty well since I knew I would be driving us home.
Saturday I went to the outlet mall in Round Rock with Dan so he could get some clothes for his high school reunion. It was no sales tax weekend, so I was expecting mayhem, but it wasn't bad at all. I scored myself 2 pairs of Vans for $30 total!! Later that evening Eric and Joolie had a BBQ, where I ate and drank in full-on glutton style. Beerfest was on in the background, so we tried to get some drinking games going briefly, and I chugged a couple of beers. I just can't shotgun a beer! Tini drove us home that night!
Sunday I went shopping with Tini (didn't buy anything for myself this time), and then we stopped by Austin's Pizza on South Lamar and had a basil and garlic pizza. I drank a pint of Firemans 4. Then home briefly, then I went to Sound on Sound for the final Storm the Tower show. Drank a few Lone Stars, plus Billy's orphans and scammed a slice of pizza too. Storm the Tower was great as always, even had Mark sing a song and Ben Snakepit did a Misfits cover to close it down. They were probably my favorite local band for a while, but I admit that I hadn't seen them much lately (nor did they really play much anymore).
This week looks like it may be a boring week in the TxDOT office. Yawn.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

This stock market nonsense

It sucks because my work has a 401k retirement plan, like most companies these days. I don't have much money in there yet, which is probably a good thing because the way things are going I could lose a good chunk of it. It seems stupid that I'm putting money into an "account" which really isn't because if the market goes belly-up then bye-bye "retirement savings". They always show you how much money you'll get when you retire, based on this high rate of return that requires more risky investing. I guess I could just put the money into bonds and keep it safe. For a while, the one socially responsible fund was performing well, and I felt that lazy liberal goodness by having a good bit of my money in there, but even it is down now. I hate that I even have to pay attention to it. On the other hand, it seems like it's going to take a major stock market downturn to finally get the media and the politicians to realize what the average working person has known for a couple of years now: no, the economy isn't going strong, and it's not getting any better.
Ultimately, it could be bad for my livelihood because it would likely mean that less pipelines and subdivisions will be built. Then again, it looks like maybe the federal government is going to pay attention to our crumbling infrastructure.
I feel truly morbid and ugly thinking about how disasters and financial collapses might help or hurt business. "Hey, massive bridge collapse! Looks like there's gonna be a bunch of new bridge replacements!"
Speaking of indirectly, spent a couple days surveying for some fancy new lakehouses on Lake Conroe. Some pretty land, maybe they'll even keep some of the big loblolly pines and elms. We even found a site! I haven't found a site on a survey in months, although this one wasn't impressive. Some lithic debitage mixed amongst a lot of siliceous gravels. Literally, 1 flake for every 70-100 pebbles. But it was a site, dammit! Sometime (or maybe several times) from 400-11,000 years ago, people sat there and banged some rocks together trying to make some tools, and in the year 2007, I found some of their trash on my screen! Hooray for 41MX215 (or something in that range)!!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Lab work can be fun (and archaeology complicated)

I spent a few hours today washing artifacts from a small dig our company just did in Williamson County. I was not a part of the crew (I was in East Texas), so all of the things I'm washing are new to me, and I don't know much about the site in general. It made things very interesting, because I got to look for patterns in the recovered artifacts that might contribute to an understanding of the site, with almost no preconceptions. Some of the things I noticed may prove useful for the report and making a suggestion for further work, which made me pretty damn proud of my archaeo skills.
I also like washing because in some ways it's like a second stage of discovery. When you're dealing with 100s of pieces of dirty chert and a limited amount of time to dig, you WILL miss stuff. So when you're washing all the stuff, you get to find some goodies.
This site, like many Texas sites, is challenging because in a lot of ways it is a palimpsest. There's about 30 centimeters worth of deposits that are full of artifacts, but these represent literally thousands of years of occupation. Generally speaking, the newer stuff is on top of the older stuff (which is the proper context) but there's no obvious strata in order to separate the actual occupations. If you can envision a small landfill, where 3 or 4 houses dumped their trash for several generations, you get the idea. Actually, this analogy works very well because you will also be faced with the archaeological reality that perishable goods (organic material) decay quickly while non-perishables (rock, glass, metal to an extent) remain.
One of the characteristics of this particular palmipsest is that the lithic artifacts are patinated, even though they are currently as deep as 50-60 centimeters below ground surface. When chert is exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods of time (100s of years or more), it's patina can change color or become cloudy or glossy. So when you have 70% of your artifacts that are now 2 feet below the surface patinated, it means that stuff was sitting on an old surface for a very long time, a long time ago.
What's really interesting is that below this level is a much more sparse layer of artifacts, which are not patinated. Furthermore, the matrix is of a slightly different color brown (remember back to the Munsell conversation? This suggests that there's probably an intact, short-term occupation below the palimpsest/goodies level. While one would think that archaeologists are just interested in a bunch of sweet projectile points and tools, what we really like to find at sites are temporally discreet, isolable deposits. Imagine that our landfill is built on the edge of an active floodplain, so that every few months the trash gets covered with a couple of inches of dirt before more trash is dumped on top. This way, each layer of trash captures a short span in the life of a small group of people, but the odds of finding really interesting things are diminished.
In this case, there's no clearly diagnostic tools from this lower level, just a bunch of debitage. On the one hand, having a possible discreet component makes this site worth more work. On the other hand, what was uncovered thus far doesn't suggest that further work would uncover more significant, helpful information, at least within the current right-of-way. Since this is taxpayers' dollars at work, we have to make a compelling argument for further work (which spends more money and delays the project) if we really believe that this site has potential to yield unique and important information. That, ultimately, is the true challenge of CRM archaeology.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Today's fun

These are the kind of fun things you can encounter on the job. This is a "bridge" made of some I-beams, railroad ties, and random scraps of wood and metal to fill in the gaps. See, a lot of the railroad ties have rotted out (and a few more are rotting right now). It can handle an ATV. I guess a truck could bridge the gaps, if it had big tires.
I wish I had taken a picture of the ATV bogged down in a huge mud puddle. It didn't look that bad when we drove into it, but the tires got way stuck AND we high centered. Eventually, we dug out the front tires, lifted the front onto more solid ground and stuck shovels under them for extra traction. Then, we had two people pushing from the back, one guy pulling from the front, and me pushing from the side AND hitting the throttle. It was pretty funny when it finally got out and got away from me, thus driving off on it's own and almost sinking again. We all ended up caked in mud up to our knees, with extra splatters pretty much all over. Somehow, though, my feet stayed dry all day!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

You down with ATV?

Today we hit a point where much of what we had left to look at were going to be very long walks with relatively low potential. So the lead archaeologist drove back to Houston office (where he is based) and picked up an ATV. Since we're not doing a 100% pedestrian survey, it was decided that we'd get a lot more done with a lot less pain if we rode to the drainages on an ATV.
So 4 of us piled on and rode off! Yep, all 4 of us on one little ATV, tooling along at 5-6 mph on little 2-track roads. I got to try driving it (but only by myself, no passengers!) and it was pretty fun. I guess I can see the appeal of off-roading. I definitely can see the appeal of taking an ATV to a dig location to save a 2-mile roundtrip in 110 degree heat index East Texas summertime.
We're going to try and get the project done this week (with some overtime, and the help of our new vehicle), but we'll probably get sent right back out here for another survey project. And we might even have another in the pipeline (yes, bad bad pun). I really hope I get to work in the Hill Country again soon, or even South Texas!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


That's what a good chunk of this survey area in East Texas is: mush. It's rained a lot here the last few months, and most of the soils are poorly draining Beaumont Clays. Along the pipeline corridor, it's worse because any topsoils were probably buried during pipeline construction and there's lots of tire ruts to collect more water. Yesterday, we walked 3+ miles roundtrip to get to one river bank where we needed to dig some shovel tests. This was around 1pm, and our corridor ran almost due east/west, which meant no shade. Most of the ground was mush, which meant wet feet, poor footing, and lots of weaving trying to find solid ground. By the time we got to the area for digging, 2 of the crew were on the verge of heat exhaustion. Sadly, we spent all of about 20 minutes being eaten by mosquitoes while digging shovel tests in the treeline. Then, turn around and walk out. No one had any water left by the time we were out, and we actually drove the trucks along the line almost a quarter-mile to pick up the folks in bad shape (one of whom was Tina).
The plus side of this job is that we might get a bit of overtime, the per diem does not require receipts, and we're only investigating drainage crossings. Hopefully, we don't end up with any more like Monday.
Today we spent some time looking for a previously recorded site near the Trinity River. It was recorded during a survey for one of the many pipelines along the corridor back in the late 70s. It turns out that someone essentially stuck a trailer home and associated outbuildings right on top of the heart of the site. It's private property, and it's possible they weren't even aware of the fact (the cultural deposits are a foot or more below ground). Seems like they just decided that they wanted to be on the sandy, level area overlooking the bayou, just like the previous Native inhabitants.

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