Backup Plan

Last week I described what I do for a living. It’s not a bad job, but it isn’t the career I want for the rest of my life. This is especially true given the fact that I’m technically not a full time employee. While I work 40 hours or more on some weeks, I typically pull 25-30.  Some weeks I don’t work at all. Such is the nature of an on-call employee.

Now that I have the dissertation all written up, I have a lot more free time on those days when I’m not working. Thankfully, those have been blessedly few lately, but I had Thursday and half of Friday off last week.  I used the time to apply for three other CRM jobs and one teaching gig.

Why so few? Because there isn’t much out there right now. Most of the teaching appointments available at the moment are for 1-year visiting professor appointments, and the bulk of CRM work out there is for field techs. I’ve been in the business too long to take a tech job. Most firms wouldn’t even hire me for that sort of work anyway. I do apply for the visiting prof jobs, but even if I do land one, I don’t know if it will be worth dragging my family and belongs half way across the nation for a one year gig. Not ideal.

Luckily for me, I do have a backup plan, and it’s been paying off. After I lost my full-time CRM job last summer I began to teach myself web design. Using a combination of books, online courses, and web design forums, I’ve been able to pick up enough to do some decent work. I opened up a business called Lamplight Digital Design Solutions, and I’ve actually made some money off of it. I don’t really do any marketing, nor do I have the self discipline to really run a business from home for a living, so I probably don’t make as much money off of things as I could (or perhaps should).  Still, between my semi-full time work, the occasional design contract, and my wife’s collections management job at Western Washington University, we’re somehow staying afloat.

A sample of my work: The main page for the Grip Tip Product Site (it will be going live in a matter of days)

But the search continues…



I mentioned before that I’ve been doing cultural resource management (or CRM) archaeology for about a decade now. CRM is a fancy term to encompass things like historic preservation, protection and preservation of historic sites, properties, and artifacts, graves protection and repatration, public outreach, and so forth. Most of the time though, CRM means determining if sites will be impacted by development, and if necessary, excavating them to collect archaeological and historical data which will be lost if the site is destroyed.

The CRM industry exists largely due to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act which requires that

“to take into account the effect of the
undertaking on any district, site, building,
structure, or object that is included in or
eligible for inclusion in the National
Register.” [16 U.S.C. 470f]

What this means is that if a development project is funded by Federal (or federally assisted) monies, it requires an assessment of historic and archaeological properties which will be impacted, and their mitigation if they are deemed important. There is a lot more to it than just that, and different states also have their own laws and regulations. For example, in Washington State where I’m currently living and working, there are laws which require all developments within a certain distance of known sites and or coastlines to include an archaeological assessment prior to any earth moving.

I was out in the field doing just such an assessment today. A coworker and I were sent out to a property on the south side of Drayton Harbor to inspect the portions which will be excavated as part of a septic installation. Drayton Harbor is located in northwest Washington right on the Canadian border. In the photo below you can see the harbor and the city of White Rock, British Columbia on its northern shore. You can also just barely make out the Canadian Rockies in the distance. Quite a view, eh?

View of White Rock, British Columbia from Drayton Harbor

we typically test an area by digging shovel probes. Shovel probes are small circular excavations about a foot in diameter and of variable depth. In Washington we typically dig shovel probes down into glacially deposited soils, as the thinking goes that no humans would have been around to deposit their trash prior to the glaciers that were in this region some 13000 years ago.

We dig the probes at more or less fixed intervals and screen all of the dirt from each hole through 1/4″ mesh. The idea is that if there are any sites in the area we will see artifacts in the screen, and then we can map where we found them. As we lay out a grid of shovel probes and map it, we can then see the extent of the site in space. Its how we find and map in sites.

Above is an example of an excavated probe.

Shovel probe survey is the nemesis of any self-respecting archaeologist. They’re tedious, back-breaking, and generally shitty. Most of the time you find nothing, and then you just pick up your gear, and haul it over to the next probe. Sound like fun? No? No, it isn’t.  But every once in a while you do find something.

We got a little bit lucky today. We found very diffuse, highly disturbed remnants of a shell midden on the property we were working on. Shell middens are pretty much piles of shell that people threw out in the past. If they did it enough, then the shell middens built up over time, and formed their own soil matrices and landforms. The people living on the coasts of Puget Sound ate a whole hell of a lot of shells, and then dumped them outside of their villages and camps.  They also threw out other food refuse, broken tools and other random garbage into their middens.  Over time, these shelly landfills would decompose and a shell/soil matrix formed.  People then built over the middens, placed their houses, storage pits, cooking pits, hearths, burials sometimes, and other things into the middens, and with time dumped their own garbage on the peripheries as well. Give the process several thousand years and you can imagine the palimpsest of occupational histories which builds up.

What we found today wasn’t nearly as fancy. It looked more like a series of small deposits, perhaps a basket or two of shells that were then kicked around and spread out over time. The shells were badly crushed and there wasn’t many of them. There was also very little garbage in the midden besides the shell. Whats more, judging from the burned soils and tree roots in the region, it looks like historic loggers clear cut and pulled stumps from the location, and messed up what little deposits there were to begin with. So a site like this isn’t much to write home about. It won’t get saved as there is no real data potential there. Its just mixed up scattered shells. Yes, we know the Indians out here at a lot of clams. This isn’t going to advance anybody’s knowledge. But we recorded it, and it will go into the records for posterity. Perhaps someday somebody will want to study the distribution of small camps across the landscape. Or maybe not, whatever. Either way I got payed. I’ll also get payed for writing up the report that describes how this thing was no big deal.

It’s good work if you can get it.

A freshly minted PhD

On Friday, May 11, 2012 I finally completed my doctorate degree in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It took seven years total (plus an additional 2.5 for the MS I had received before), but it was some of the best years of my life.

Like all good things though, those days are now behind me, and as the University poops me out cold and naked into an unsure economy I will be documenting my journey on this blog. As I think about it now, “The Quest for Tenure” might have been a better title, but given the trajectory of the last three years “The Wandering Post Doc” may do just fine.

So who am I and what do I do? My name is Ralph and I’m an archaeologist. I have been working as a professional archaeologist in the cultural resource management (CRM) industry since 2002, which is also when I decided to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology. In the United States archaeologist are generally trained as anthropologists (or at least they ought to be), as we’re actually supposed to be studying cultures much the same way as the social anthropologists do. The only difference is that our informants are no longer living, and their cultures are represented usually by no more than scattered material remnants from which we try to reconstruct their behaviors and lives. It works better sometimes than others.



My own research thus far has been focused on the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region of the United States. While humans had been living in that area for at least about 12 and half thousand years, it was really the last 500 or so years of their history that really grabbed me. I was particularly interested in exploring how their lives changed after they had come into contact with Europeans, and the period of time/economic development we often refer to as the fur trade. It’s a subject worth exploring as the type of economic relationship in which non-industrialized peoples extract natural resources for export to more industrialized peoples continues in many parts of the world today. It is the basis of European colonial systems, and has led to the development of what we typically call the third world.

The nice thing about archaeology is that it gives us a deep-time, perspective on long term trends. Thus, while economists, sociologists, historians, and journalists do a great job of exploring the modern third world, and its societies, they can only infer the effects that today’s actions will have in the future. By studying the Great Lakes fur trade, I am able to get glimpses into the long term processes which were at work over several hundred years and how they shaped the Native, and also European societies involved.

I won’t bore you with the gory details of my own research, but I looked at food refuse remains from an archaeological site in central Wisconsin to observe how diet and the means of food procurement changed over time at this site. The site was home to a small farming village during the 14th century, and then became the main settlement of the Meskwaki (or Fox, or Outagamie) Indians during the late 17th century. The Meskwaki were neck deep in the fur trade, and made a good living from it. They were able to control access to French goods traveling into western Wisconsin and the Mississippi Valley, and the pelts flowing east into the French trade posts in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Valley. It appears that in addition to meeting the demands of the trade (on their own terms I may add), the Meskwaki were also able to make as good as or better of a living in the area then their 14th century predecessors. They did this through efficient division of labor and foraging tactics, and by controlling access to a wide resource base through diplomacy, political intrigue, and war. It’s like a woodland version of a Tom Clancy novel at times.

I’ll be telling more stories of the Meskwaki, of other archaeological adventures, my own and others, and also documenting my progress towards achieving my goal of a permanent academic position on this blog. I hope that during the process I get to share some interesting information with my readers, and hopefully encourage them to develop their own interest in archaeology, anthropology, and whatever else I decided to write about here.