Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Christmas Bones

Ann Marie and I, as Site Stewards, monitor a basin shaped canyon that has 35 archaeological sites within its boundaries. One site is in a narrow, steep, bifurcated wash that had a vertical spring, many years ago –12,000 years to be exact. The spring drew animals for its refreshing water-- so unusual to find out here in the Sonoran desert.

We keep a close eye on this site as after the winter and monsoon rains bones may become exposed in the banks.

In late November after a heavy rain we trudged to the site and sure enough-bones! We could see a rib, part of a hip, a tiny mandible and other bone fragments we couldn’t identify.

We notified our Archaeologist contact, Bill G., of the Forest Service and he said he wanted to take the bones out. Not a big dig, just salvage what was basically on the surface. A date of 23 December was set.

On that December day, we were joined by the very notable, world renown, archaeologist Vance H. I was pleased.

Ann Marie and Bill worked in the bone area. I was sent down stream with Vance. I was disappointed not to be in on the “real” action.

My job was to help him ‘face down’ a wall in the wash. This means one is scraping and brushing the wall vertically centimeter by centimeter. This facing of the wall eventually shows the land layer by layer, known as stratigraphy.

Slowly the layers of land began to show but it was strange in that there were no rocks, not even a pebble! Just soft packed multicolored dirt layer upon showing various flooding events.

Suddenly, a pebble shot out from under my trowel.

I grabbed it and exclaimed, “This is the ugliest bit of chert I have ever seen.”

“Lets have a look”, said Vance. “That is not chert, it is Mastodon tusk!”

Mastodon! Wow!

Oh! I forgot to tell you the bones we were extracting were extinct horse and camel, mainly horse. This was the first sign of Mastodon.

Sure enough in another few inches my brush uncovered a tusk fragment about 6 inches long. It was so fragile and broken--it looked like a gigsaw puzzle-- we couldn’t take it out.

Guess I had gotten in on the 'real' action after all.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A New Culture

The Honey Bee site is on the NW side of Tucson. It is a huge Hohokam site being excavated by Desert Archaeology,Inc. under the expertise of Henry W.

I was invited to join in the dig as time had run out on the contract and volunteers were needed to complete some of the pithouse work.

The main large crew had been there for a long time, about 6 months. They had a dig amenity I am not used to, namely a porta-potty; a blue chemical portable toilet.

Well, I needed to try the porta potty--coffee you know!

Usually, when one leaves the dig area one slips their trowel into the back pocket of their jeans so it will not to get covered up or lost.

You guessed it! My trowel fell in the toilet!

I thought and said to myself, "Damn! Oh Well. I have another."

But when I got back to the dig area I decided to let Henry know this had happened so he could warn the Honey Wagon Crew. I sure didn’t want that trowel piercing the hoses and all the other attendant problems to happen that entered my thoughts. Not pretty!

This mishap occured on a Saturday. Henry said the Honey Crew had cleaned out the porta potty late Friday afternoon and it should be fairly clean as no one had been working but us.

I thought I said it quietly to Henry but I have a voice that carries and one of the Grad students said, “Lets retrieve it. I’ll make a tool to get it out.”

I told Henry I had another trowel and forget it.

As I scraped away I was missing my favorite trowel, a nice Marshalltown 54-- thin, sharp but well rounded on the tip.

So I said, “Ok. Lets get it”

The grad student ran to get a stick with a curved, bifurcated end and then we walked to the porta-pot.

Lid up! Low and behold! The trowel was floating in a vertical fashion, handle up so retrieval was easy and sans tool (stick).

But now it was blue. Metal shaft and wooden handle all blue!

One of the grad students commented, “Someday hence, a blue trowel will be found by an Archaeologis; analysis will determine it to be from the "Home Depot Culture" and this one, of course, ceremonial based on its blue color!”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


We were surveying a dairy ranch in north west Tucson for a purported archaeological site.

The ranch was still a very active dairy ranch-full of cows.

What in the world will we find here? Could we find anything here after years of severe and heavy cattle trampling, I wondered?

The rancher was right there with us moving cows from corral to corral as we searched the ground.

At one point I had the unpleasant task of holding the cumbersome stadia rod that is greater than six feet tall, unwieldly and heavy.

We were in a corral from which the rancher had just moved about 20 cows out to the next corral.

Here I was with that dang rod trying to hold it as still as I could in the light breeze so Michel could get a bearing on it for mapping purposes.

The clouds were hither and skitter that day. One cloud scudded by and suddenly I caught a quick sparkle of—

“Yikes” I yelled dropping the rod and ran to the spot of the sparkle. Michel came running too.

There it was with all its sparkle, a whole projectile point (arrowhead), close to 1½ inches long.

A quartz crystal one to boot!

It is very unusual to find quartz crystal lithics, as pre-historic peoples seemed to prefer other materials for their tools.

And good heavens! It was an archaic point (8,000 BC-1 AD) in perfect condition.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lake City

Bonnie invited me to join in her Archaeological Field School in Colorado for 3 ten-day sessions meaning, we would work for 10 days for 10 hours a day then have 4 days off.

She was to have 15 students from all over the US for field school.

It was my pleasure to say yes.

On the 3rd day I got sick—really sick. I think I had pneumonia-- not fun at anytime but at 9000 feet definitely not good. I spent a long weekend taking antibiotics recouping so by Monday morning I was ready to give survey a try. Or so I thought!

We drove to the survey area and formed into groups, going over techniques again with the students.

The mountains looked daunting but I trudged along with the crew, up the path with its steady climb but my breathing became frighteningly labored.

I told the crew chief I could not go on. I would sit “here” and await their return.

Breathless, I flopped down on a rocky surface and noticed a lithic! A pretty jasper(chert) piece! After resting and with my breath coming easier I decided to explore this strange lava type surface area.

Another lithic then another!

I had my pin flags handy so I laid them on top of the lithics. There was no soil so I could not stick them in the ground.

I had a sea of red flags!

I heard the crew coming down the hill and all exclaiming at my sea of flags. They had surveyed the mountain for about two hours and had found nothing.

I had found a wonderful archaic site.

I guess little old ladies do better just sitting!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

More Gault

The dig soil, well compacted by 14,000 years of weight, had to be water screened in the data recovery process. It was like concrete. Artifacts could be in the concrete matrix and wet screening is one way to separate the artifact from the soil.

The pail of dirt is dumped into a screen and then one takes a water hose and moves, by hand, the matrix mass back and forth under the water over the screen.

Many excavators wear gloves during this process. I don’t. I like the feel of the soil. I like getting dirty. It is my pleasure after so many years of hospital clean!

A loud “ouch!” and blood. I have been cut by a Clovis blade!

I refuse care and a band-aid. I wear the cut like a badge of honor.

14,000years ago a Clovis man made this blade. I have the honor of experiencing the sharpness of the tool.

Now tell me honestly, how many people do you know who have been cut by a Clovis blade?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gas Money

I was getting gas at the old Davis Monthan AFB gas station for my trek to the San Pedro dig site.

After pumping the gas I stood in line at the kiosk. An elderly gentleman in front of me was exclaiming his dismay to the cashier, Yolanda, about the absence of his wallet. No money-no credit card. Oh! Dang.

Yolanda said he could pay her at his next visit. He seemed reluctant to have her pay for him.

I leaned over and asked Yolanda “How much does he owe?”

$5 was her reply.

I paid.

Weeks later when I went to pay for my gas Yolanda said, “I have something for you.”

She handed me a calling card to which was stapled a $5 bill.

The card read J.E.G--- Board of Directors AAA!

On the back of the card, “To my guardian angel---Many thanks for your help with gas money.” Signed G--.

Tables turned!!

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Hellgap is a Paleo-Indian site outside of a cute little town, Guernsey, Wyoming. Guernsey hosts a small Reserve/Guard base that has an influx of military pilots for helicopter training, especially night training, during the summer. I was there for an extended dig during the summer.

I had my tent setup near a small deep, dry, tree-filled wash. My plastic shower stall was set up in the wash. Not too far away was the main building that served as our lecture and chow hall. Scattered haphazardly around the building were tents and trailers. Higher up the hill near the trees were other tents.

Our day began early with breakfast at 7am cooked by rotating crewmembers. The walk to the actual dig site was about ½ mile. The day’s work/activity was strenuous-troweling rock hard soil, carrying full buckets of dirt to the water screen area, the walk to and from the hall for lunch and back again at the end of the 10 hour day for dinner. Bedtime in other words was early. Long and deep sleep was a necessity not a luxury.

I had been in a deep sleep when I was suddenly awakened by the whap, whap, whap, of helicopter blades immediately overhead—about 30 feet overhead! My tent went flat to the ground from the force of the blades’ down draft and then sprung back into place. I grabbed my flashlight and sat up in bed with flashlight pointed to the ceiling. I was trying to tell them I was here.

The next morning I asked others if they heard, saw or ‘felt’ the helicopters. They all said, “yes” but it did not bother them. I said my tent went flat to the ground and they laughed. My shower stall had suffered in the down draft, too, as it was torqued!

The next night the same thing happened. Whap, whap, whap of the blades, my tent flattened to the ground; my heart raced at this rude, scary and noisy wakeup. Frankly, I was worried and I mentally started through all the “what ifs” and decided I wanted to live.

I told the dig crew chief I would be late to the site as I was driving to the Base Operations Center(Ops) and tell them I was worried. He objected but I said I had to do this.

Now mind you, I was dressed for the dig workday: faded shorts, grungy t-shirt, long socks, boots and my summer pith helmet, that sported a large turkey feather. I looked like an odd ball—definitely not military! Definitely not normal!

I walked into the Ops area that was full of young pilots in flight gear who were checking the NOTAM board. NO one looked at me. NO one said anything. Everyone continued about the business of the day. Some security I thought.

I stood at the Ops counter for a few minutes NO one came. Finally, in a loud voice I said, “I am Major F.” It was so funny. The place came to a screeching halt! No one spoke. No one moved. It looked like a static show of mannequins with all eyes turned to me!

A Sgt. rushed to the counter and asked if he could help me. I told him I was not complaining-- definitely not complaining. As a military member I understood and believed in training. I was there trying to get help.

I explained to him what had happened to me the two previous nights: tent flat to the ground, flashlight held to the roof to show I was there, my thoughts of pending doom–all of it.

He listened intently but there little to no response from him.

Finally, I simply said, “I want to live.”

He asked me where my tent was located and I gave him the UTM coordinates. He was surprised that I had this information.

He hauled out maps located the little wash. “Yep!” says he, “They have been practicing with night vision goggles right over that wash.”

Practicing with night vision goggles? Oh my, it was worse than I thought.

Right then and there the Sarge and I struck a deal, my tent was to be in a “No Fly Zone” from 10 pm until 5 am until the end of the dig session. I was to stay out of his Ops area!

The Sarge upheld his end of the bargain. I got sleep-uninterrupted sleep.

I upheld my end of the bargain and stayed out of his Ops area.

I was the laugh of the dig camp!

And I also had a new name "Maj"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Youngster

Six of us formed a crew this day and we were an unwieldy group! Some experienced at survey others not.

When doing an archaeological survey crew members walk side by side at given distances apart in a straight line to a given point. This is called a transect.

Well having said that- we were all over the place!

Each of us were trying to find artifacts on the surface but going in all directions; we were untamed. Our method was definitely not the way to cover the assigned area in our search for sites.

At break time, one of the members pointed out to the group we were not following the correct survey protocols. We should tighten up our lines so as to do a better and more complete job. We all acknowledged we were doing a terrible job; having fun but doing a terrible job!

It was decided we needed a leader, a crew chief, to keep us in ‘tow.’

One member was really brand new to archaeology-no experience what so ever. As I said, others had some to a lot of experience.

We elected the youngster to be our leader!

In a hushed and amused voice he said, “Why me?”

“Because you are the youngest, have no experience and need the experience,” we responded amid much laughter.

He did a super job in keeping us in tow, in straight lines, for the rest of the very successful day.

By the way, he is now getting his PhD in archaeology. I like to think he owes his success to us!

If he could deal with this unwieldy crew everything else would be easy!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Goof Up

Lubbock Lake is well known in the archaeological literature as a Paleo-Indian and Archaic site. I decided to sign up with EARTHWATCH for a couple of weeks of excavation, mainly to work in a bone field, which I had not done before.

By this time, I had worked on a number of Hohokam sites in the Arizona SE area where the artifacts were well diversified. Stone tools and flakes, decorated and plainware pottery and ground stone were all very common to me.

I was less familiar with bone. When we found bone we always had the crew chief check it in-situ, as it could be hints of burial.

At Lubbock Lake I was assigned the usual 1 x 1 meter pit.

Scrape and lo and behold bone! We were digging a possible archaic bison kill site.

Bones were tagged with red flagging tape then point provenienced before they were bagged and sent to the lab.

More scrapping—more bone. And so the days went by scrape – bone.

One day I had a nice little jasper side scraper in my pit and did the usual point proveniencing, mapping, tagging, bagging and made comments in my notes.

Off to the lab it went.

I didn’t think anything about it as I mentioned earlier, I was familiar with the commonness of stone artifacts, including tools, in the desert of Arizona.

I was called to the main site area by the crew chief, Jose from Costa Rica, who was resoundingly upset.

“You turned in a lithic (stone artifact) to the lab yesterday!”

“Yes, I did. I provenienced it, drew it on my map, bagged and tagged it and made the appropriate notes. Did I do wrong?”

“You should have called someone over to see it in-situ!

We don’t find many of those here.”


Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Michelle was doing her dissertation on archaic settlement patterns in the southwest, Arizona to be specific.

We had surveyed the Empire and Cienega areas every other weekend with Michelle for about 2 years. Now it was time to do data recovery (collecting).

One site we had found earlier in the survey was particularly heavy with archaic lithics. Unfortunately, for us it was in a low-lying Mesquite bosque (forest).

We arrived at the site about 9:30 in the morning. We walked the site for about ½ hour and saw nothing. Very frustrating to embarrassing, as we had promised Michelle a wealth of artifacts from this site for her study.

Michelle said we could still salvage the day. We moved on to nearby ridge tops that Michelle had decided to include in data recovery.

We worked all day. First we pin flagged artifacts then Michelle looked at what we had flagged; next if it was deemed diagnostic for her studies it was point plotted, numbered, and bagged. All items would then go into the lab for washing, labeling and analysis-- from there they would be moved into perpetual curation status.

At the end of our workday we trekked back the way we came. Across ridges, down slopes, up a few slopes, along dry washes and finally back into the area where we started in the Mesquite bosque.

The ground was solid with artifacts!

How can this be? How had we missed them in the morning? We all laughed and discussed the situation and determined it was the lighting.

Effects of fluctuating light can be intensified in archaeology, be it seeing artifacts on the ground, seeing the subtle ground color changes or even seeing rock alignments.

We recovered the day completely by working a tad longer and going through our usual artifact data recovery.

This lesson in lighting has served me well over the years. If you don’t see it now wait a awhile, it is there!