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.