Monthly Archives: September 2007


As I’ve mentioned before, we are required to do educational outreach each semester as a part of our graduate program. I rather enjoy it, though I like some forms (teaching a class at San Quentin) better than others (Cal Day). On Friday I had to fill in at the last minute for another grad student at the Julia Morgan School for Girls. We prepared a 1.5 hour introductory lecture, during which we generally introduced archaeology, then talked about our individual projects.

The school is a private middle school for girls, and while there are varying opinions about sex-segregation in schools, not to mention public vs. private, if I had the money and the inclination to have children, I would absolutely send my daughter to this school. The girls were smart and completely fearless and their instructors were engaged and happy to be there. I went to three different public middle schools in as many years, and spent most of my time ditching class so I could hang out at the library (!) or go smoke behind the bleachers.

Anyway, after the lecture we brought out the dig kits. The kits are basically squares made out of wooden planks, overlaid by blankets, then filled with dried corn (organic kitty litter) and artifacts. We divided the 1×1 squares into quads and let them go at it, encouraging them to plan map the artifacts before yanking them out of “context”.

Then they’d bag and tag the artifacts and come up with an interpretation based on the artifacts they’d find. After writing up the interpretation, we had them give a short presentation.

The interpretations were fun to listen to and the enthusiasm of the girls was contagious. All in all, a good day for outreach in archaeology.

Californios at the Presidio

I was looking through Barb Voss’ excellent dissertation on the Presidio, and was struck by a particular footnote:

“I wonder, however, how the Californios – almost none of whom had ever been to Spain, and who rarely met non-clerical Spanish nationals – understood and defined “Spanishness” amongst themselves; I can only assume that it had little reference to actual practices on the Iberian peninsula and rather was constructed in reference to ideas and symbols of elite behavior. Leo Barker has pointed out to me that in the 1820s and 1830s, elite officers in the presidial community – such as Guadalupe Mariano Vallejo – were avid readers of Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, and that these readings were undoubtedly influential in shaping their perceptions of European lifeways and values” (Voss 2002:161).

It’s so easy to think of the early colonists of Alta California as part of the Spanish hegemony, when in reality they constructed their own identities less as “Spanish” than as “not-Indian”, even though many were mestizo–along the many axes of racial, sexuality, and class identities.

Reading Voss’ dissertation was pretty intimidating–I hope I can come up with something even partially as good.

So, yes, I’m still commuting over to the Presidio twice a week, sharing seats with the hip young nerds that work at Lucasfilms. While I have certain tasks I need to complete, I still can steal time to riffle through the archives, read the gray literature, and hassle my friends who are processing the artifacts from the summer field school. Yesterday, in addition to reading Voss’ dissertation, I pawed over the 1868 coastline map of the Bay Area and compared it to a 1910 version, then google maps. We all know that a lot of the area is built on infill that is in trouble if there’s another big earthquake, but to have it graphically laid out in front of you is still pretty amazing.

Oh, and lest my previous sunny day photos have painted too pretty of a picture, here’s a more typical day at the Presidio:

Cold, foggy, windy.

Tape Measuring Olympics

A good tape measure is such a luxury in archaeology. Usually after a couple of weeks in the field they get dirty, don’t retract, get bent, and are generally a hassle to deal with. The best is when you have at least two–one big fat one (my best one ever was “Big Daddy” brand and I bought it at a dollar store…someone stole it) and one very thin one that you can sling around, take points off profiles, etc. It’s actually hard to find cheap, decent tape measures with metric measurements on them in the states.

They’re also generally the first thing to go missing from your toolkit. So I try to look for them every time I’m in a dollar store and will buy several when I can find them for cheap. I hate walking around sites all day looking for equipment!

(the comic strip is from, if you’re looking for some time spent in delightful procrastination)

A Few Items to Consider

First there is the scent of barley
to remember. Barley and rain.
The smooth terrain to recollect and savor.

Unforgiving whiteness of the room.
Ambiguity of linen. Purity.
Mute and still as photographs on the moon.

Everything here must be analyzed.
Catalogued. Studied twice.
A painstaking arrangement, almost vain.

Brandy glass with its one amber eye
on the bedside table. Shirt
draped across the chair. Woolen
trousers folded neatly in a square.
Little clock repeating —
precise, precise.

Not a stray whisker.
No comb full of dead hair.
No cup filled with coins and cuff
links and fingernail clippers.
A scrupulous chess game.
Formal. Concise.

There is much to learn.
Grace of the neck to memorize.
Heliotrope of sleep.
Hieroglyph of bones to decipher.
Love, if at all, comes later.

For now, the hands take to their dialogue.
Gullible as foreigners.
A greedy chattering, endlessly on nothing.
Nothing at all.

by Sandra Cisneros

(poetry and prose that remind me of archaeology, part 2)

The MoLAS Manual

Over the summer, a fellow excavator recommended that I pick up a copy of the Museum of London Archaeological Services manual to help me make sense of British idiosyncrasies in excavation. When I asked to purchase it from the good people at the Museum of London, they directed me to a free download source where I could grab the 1994 version while they are reprinting the 2002 version. Here it is, if you’d like a copy:

The MoLAS Manual

Some of the fun bits discuss recording timber and brick coursing, and I was practically purring over mortar style names and carpentry details. So much more fun than Saussure! I can only imagine how it would be to work in a place like London–start to be able to identify different building material sources, to see Roman/Medieval/Modern all reused to rebuild parts of the city. Sears & Roebuck page-turning just isn’t the same.

For example:

Niedermendig Lava, Mayen Lava: Extremely hard, porous, grey-black basaltic lava. Imported as quernstones from the Eifel mountains in the Rhineland, sometimes found reused as a building material.”

In the States we’re pretty excited if we get obsidian tools we can source from a particular region–and sourcing chert is generally out of the question.  Now I want someone to show me around London so I can ask a bunch of annoying questions about materials and construction methods.

While there is a certain amount of grass-is-greener going on here, I try not to go too far. I find it pretty obnoxious when people go on about the horrors of New/Old World archaeology, especially when they haven’t even tried the other.  Though I have to say, being back here it is such a relief to not be yelled at for “incorrect terminology”.

Tangentally, I ran into one of my more favorite professors yesterday and she gleefully described to me how the Swiss used to cut military deserters in half.  What would we do without historical archaeology/archaeologists?

The Other Perfection

Nothing here. Rock and fried earth.
Everything destroyed by the fierce light.

Only stones and small fields of
stubborn barley and lentils. No broken

things to repair. Nothing thrown away
or abandoned. If you want a table,
you pay a man to make it. If you find two

feet of barbed wire, you take it home.
You’ll need it. The farmers don’t laugh.
They go to town to laugh, or to fiestas.
A kind of paradise. Everything itself.

The sea is water. Stones are made of rock.
The sun goes up and goes down. A success
without any enhancement whatsoever.

(by Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven)

(poetry and prose that remind me of archaeology, part 1)

Rules for Designing User Experience + Make Art Not Content

Two great 5 minute lectures from the Seattle Ignite series:

Mortality & User Experience

1. We have a finite amount of time on Earth

2. Life is full of cool things to experience

3. There are things that needlessly take time and energy away from us

4. If you design anything, be mindful of this at all times

5. We need more experiences that return time to us

And Make Art Not Content:

As I’m dealing with “designing user experiences” right now, I found both of these 5 minute lectures pretty inspiring. Too often I find that archaeologists make islands–content-rich websites that sit, all alone in the world. I’ve advocated for integrating with social networking sites and using existing structures to “sneak” archaeology into a more familiar, everyday venue, but am I just producing “content” for these big media conglomerates that so thoughtfully provide space for my interpretive exercises? What’s the alternative?