Back to the Blog

Hello, blog. I remember you from before my school-induced hiatus! Now that I’ve finished my degree, it’s time to dive back into the writing world with gusto. While I often felt uncomfortable with going for so long without writing fiction, I have to say that, now that classes are over (until/whenever grad school happens) I find myself with more story ideas than I’ve had at one time in years. My sneaky writer-brain has never, it seems, stopped working, even though I’ve mostly only been aware of my student-brain over the last four years. While student-brain was constructing research papers and analyses, writer-brain was hiding in the basement with a chemistry set and a maniacal laugh, getting weirder and weirder the longer it stayed down there in isolation with its experiments. At least, that’s how I explain to myself why I had a dream last week that I was a blue, antennaed, inter-dimensional spy working as a bus-boy at an airport in Russia, with some weird little girl singing a haunting tune following me around everywhere.

So what am I doing with myself now that I’ve graduated? Answer: (a) working as an archaeology field technician, (b) freelance editing, (c) starting to pick up the threads of a couple of writing projects (including a sequel to Erica Flynn), and (d) staring happily in to space, daydreaming, and listening to music, because I didn’t have time to do that for most of the last year.

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The Pintia Field School

This June, I spent three weeks at an archaeological field school in northern Spain, working on an Iron Age necropolis called Las Ruedas. The necropolis served as a burial place for the Vaccean city of Pintia, which housed about 5,000 residents over 170 acres, and was occupied from around 400 BCE to roughly 600 CE. The necropolis contains burials from the Vaccean, Roman, and Visigothic phases of the area’s history. The Vacceans who first built the city of Pintia were a highly advanced Celt-Iberian civilization, with skilled artisans and excellent defensive structures–though the Romans did eventually conquer the city and settle in the area. The site straddles a stream, with the residential area and necropolis on one side, and the crematorium and artisans’ quarters (metal works and pottery workshops) on the other, which would have reduced the risk of fire in the residential part of the city.

The interpretive material the Pintia staff has put together for Las Ruedas Necropolis emphasizes the link between modern-day residents of the region and their own ancestry (the Vaccean people who lived here before them, whose descendants they are). Site director Dr. Carlos Sanz is especially focused on making the graves of the necropolis more personal. Each of the excavated tombs is marked with rough chronological dates, age at death and sex of the deceased (when either can be estimated), and requiem poetry (70 poems are by Aderito Pérez Calvo, a late friend of Dr. Sanz, and the rest are Celtic or Latin requiem poems). The stela (standing stones) which mark the graves have been re-placed in their original position, and a cypress tree is also planted near each excavated grave. There are larger, modern monuments with Celt-Iberian symbols, including one dedicated to the warriors who were not cremated (like the majority of Vacceans), but exposed to the vultures after death. Another is a Roman-style monument of tile, engraved and decorated in Vaccean patterns, which Dr. Sanz made himself. It has spaces where cylindrical tubes containing catalogued remains can be inserted once excavation and analysis is complete. This makes it possible to return the remains to the necropolis, while also maintaining provenience for other researchers who may analyze the remains in the future. An empty area in Las Ruedas is now used for dedications to people who have supported and helped with the project who have since died. The monuments and dedications bring to the forefront that the past and the present of the area are linked in important ways, that heritage has meaning, and that long-dead ancestors were real people with real lives. I found the care and attention to detail in the interpretive material both touching and impressive. It highlights how important the presentation of information can be in stressing the significance of a site and giving visitors a sense of connection to the people of the past.

Within walking distance of the necropolis is the tiny village of Padilla de Duero (population around 70), where the University of Valladolid’s Federico Wattenberg Center for Vaccean Studies is located. The Center, founded by Dr. Sanz, houses a small museum (which doubles as a living/dining area for students), a dormitory and kitchen, a laboratory, and a curation facility. Eva Laguna is in charge of putting together the publications for the Center, and she and Dr. Sanz cook all of the delicious Spanish meals for the students, as well. We were a small group–only five students–so we each got a lot of guidance during work hours from Dr. Sanz and Rita Pedro, the international coordinator, translator, and co-director of excavations.

On our days off, we went on excursions to see, for example, the castle at Piñafiel, the Vaccean exhibit in Palencia, and the University of Vallodalid’s rare and antique book library, as well as part of the university’s anatomical collections. We went canoeing one afternoon through a gorgeous canyon with cliffs full of birds’ nests. On our last full day, we visited an excavated Roman villa, as well as Altamira and Monte del Castillo, two caves containing 18,000-year-old paintings.

Work days were split in half: by 7:45 a.m. we were on site working, then headed back to the Center (or, more often, Angelina’s, the cafe down the street from the Center) around 1 pm. At 2:30, we had lunch, followed by siesta time (or free time, if you could stay awake), and at 5 we headed back to work. Dinner started around 9:30 p.m., but since we genuinely all liked each other, we usually stayed up late socializing, swapping music, and watching movies together instead of going to bed early.

Even with only three weeks of fieldwork, we put in 150 excavation hours, plus seminars on Vaccean culture, osteology, artifact processing and repair, archaeological drawing, and stratigraphy. While stratigraphy may not sound like the most exciting thing about fieldwork, it’s one of the most important things for an aspiring archaeologist to learn, and it’s not something I could have learned from a textbook or in a classroom. Even though I understood that stratigraphy provides the context for the materials and shows the layout of the site’s features (pits, structures, etc.), when I first started digging I had no idea what to look for in terms of changes in soil composition. After spending a few days in the field with instruction, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been able to see feature outlines or composition changes from the start. It isn’t that stratigraphy is particularly difficult, but you do have to physically work on a site in order to get the hang of it.

We excavated two units, each of us spending some time digging and some time screening for artifacts. Most of what we found were pottery sherds and faunal remains (burial of portions of the funerary feast was common), but we also found small pieces of cremated human remains, metal objects (brooches, pieces of weapons or belts, etc.), and canicas (decorated ceramic marbles, also traditionally buried in Vaccean graves). Just when it looked like we might not uncover an actual tomb during our excavation, we came to a collection of intact vessels–including a funerary urn. After cleaning all around the area to make sure we didn’t miss any associated artifacts, we took elevation measurements and drew the tomb into the site map, photographed everything in context, and took the pottery back to the Center for processing. The interior of each vessel was scraped with a scalpel in order to take a small sample to be tested. These samples are analyzed to determine the contents of the vessels–whether they contained wine, olive oil, or ash from human remains, for example.

Our success with the tomb coincided with Padilla de Duero’s feast of San Antonio, and we were invited to join the festivities along with the whole town. With cause to celebrate over our fieldwork and only a few days before the end of the program, it was the perfect time for a big feast in great company, followed by late-night dancing and singing.

I couldn’t have asked for a better field school experience, and I’m grateful to all the people who shared that experience with me–my hard-working fellow students and the always-informative Pintia staff, the staff of ArchaeoSpain and the University of Valladolid, and the kind and hospitable people of Padilla de Duero–as well as the people who made it possible for me to go: the University of Louisville Department of Anthropology and the Etscorn International Summer Research Awards Committee.

Operation: Feeding Frenzy

Classes start soon, and with that comes the knowledge that – however much I like to cook and want to eat nutritious and delicious (and cheap) meals during the semester – feeding myself and Zak tends to fall by the wayside once school starts.  So I’ve spent the last week or so arming myself (and my freezer) with ways to make it easy to chow down without resorting to packaged meals and pizza every night of the school year.  Yes, I take eating seriously, and yes, the semester will be conquered by my tactical assault by means of vitamins and essential nutrients.  Here’s the logistics:

1. Breakfast.  The meal I hate the most.  Being not a morning person, it’s like eating breakfast is an admission of failure – once I start eating, I have officially woken up, and now I have to go do stuff and behave like a civil human being around other human beings who would probably also rather be asleep.  And yet, I’m hungry and will feel even worse if I don’t eat something.  Usually this means I put breakfast off until I’m about to run out the door with a stomach full of nothing but coffee.  And I’d like to eat both a granola bar and a tube of yogurt, but I never do (because I’m incredibly lazy in the morning).  So here’s my solution:

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Dried cherries + dried blueberries + vanilla yogurt covered raisins + regular raisins +  sunflower seeds.  Throw into a bag, shake up, then put the mix into the emptied raisin boxes.  One box = breakfast…and it’s got protein, B vitamins & anti-oxidants, plus a sugar boost.

2. Lunch.  Normally this consists of either Wendy’s dollar menu on campus or, if I’m at the lab, an instant macaroni bowl with queso added to it.  Although queso mac and Wendy’s are definitely still options, there’s this…  So about once every two weeks, I end up making a ginormous batch of something – stew, slow cooker pork roast, roast beef, whatever.  And of course the two of us don’t go through all of it before we’re like, “Okay, I’ve had beef stew three days in a row – Enough already!”  So I throw the whole thing in the freezer and forget it exists until I’m trying to fit groceries into the freezer and can’t.  So about 1/2 the freezer is full of plastic containers that are 1/2 full of leftovers in big blocks that don’t thaw for two days.  So I split up the frozen leftovers into sandwich-size ziplocks, froze them flat (so they thaw quickly) and ended up with about a month’s worth of lunches and more room in the freezer.

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Chicken tomatillo soup, Blue cheese Italian chicken & veggies with rice, Chile, Beef Roast Stew, Tomato chipotle soup, and Pork stew – and that’s not even all the stuff I have in the freezer!

3. Smoothies.  I love them so!  When you don’t have time to get fresh fruits and veggies from the grocery, though, you can run out of things to put in your smoothies pretty quickly – or else you don’t use up your produce quick enough and it all goes bad, which is worse.  So I got the idea (from Pinterest) of making “smoothie packs”:  pick your produce combo, throw it in a sandwich bag, and freeze it.  When you want a smoothie, grab a pack from the freezer, empty it into the blender, add some yogurt and applesauce (or whatever liquid) and you’re good to go.  Yay!  I made about 7 different “flavors” using these fruits & veggies:  strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peaches, apricots, cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew, bananas, avocados, spinach, kale, lettuce, broccoli, cucumber, zucchini, and carrots.

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4. Dinner!!!  This calls for serious tactics, since dinner is my favorite meal of the day.  So:

  • 4a. Spent the summer finding recipes that are quick, easy, and don’t use a ton of dishes.  Have become a huge fan of the one-pot wonder meals on Pinterest, where I can literally throw all the ingredients (including the noodles) into a covered pot and have dinner 1/2 and hour later.  There’s chicken Alfredo, pasta primavera, veggie lo mein, creamy Buffalo penne…you name it!  Then there’s savory “cupcake” recipes.  Take almost anything and put it in a muffin tin lined with wonton wrappers and bake it for 20 minutes, and it’s awesome.  Taco cupcakes and shepherd’s pie cupcakes are my personal favorites!
  • 4b. Get a rotisserie chicken.  Pull all the meat off it.  Toss a little chicken broth and/or white wine in with it so it won’t be dry.  Freeze it in small portions.  Now when you want a some chicken on a salad, for a pasta dish, or in a soup, you don’t have to cook the chicken.  Hooray!20140807_155311
  • 4c. Ramen can become a decent meal without taking much longer than it normally takes to make it.  All you have to do is add some good flavoring, crack an egg into the hot broth, and stir.  Normally my “fancy ramen” includes coconut milk, also.  As for the other seasoning I add to fancy ramen, well…I figured I’d just mix up a big batch instead of adding all the ingredients individually. 

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    Contents: Soy sauce, lime juice, chili paste, sesame oil, rice vinegar.

  • 4d. Take a cue from Europe once a week!  A plate of bread, good cheeses, fruit, and some form of sliced sausage (smoked sausage, hard salami, etc.) is a damn good meal, and only requires you to pick the stuff to put on the plate.  And by good cheese, I’m not talking about a few slices each of Swiss and American cheese.  I’m talking about the good shit you get from the deli area of the grocery.  I’m talking about Manchego, aged white cheddar, goat cheese with sundried tomatoes and herbs, etc.  A little sample size of a few is all you need; you don’t have to break the bank with a huge block of $15 cheese!
  • 4e.  When my brain is in school mode, it’s not always easy to think about what’s for dinner.  So I made two lists to put on the fridge:  15 Minute Meals and 30 Minute Meals.  Everything else can wait for the weekend!

¡España!

IMG_2716There is so much to say about my trip to Spain, I don’t know where to begin.  Do I post about the food, the friendships, the excursions, the many things I learned, the process of trying to remember a language I haven’t spoken in about 12 years, the seminars, or the excavation?  Well, the excavation and the seminars, I know I can save for a guest post for Pintia!  But that still leaves a lot of ground to cover.  So here’s a list, to start with:

Favorite foods: Spanish tortilla, chorizo, manchego cheese

Favorite drinks: Peach nectar (not alcoholic), every single local Spanish wine, Portuguese cinnamon whatever-that-was (definitely alcoholic)*, Portuguese port wine*  (*note to self: must visit Portugal on a non-working vacation!)

Favorite city experience: University of Valladolid – anatomical museum with amazing human and animal skeletal comparative collections, and also an incredible rare and antique books library

Most unforgettable experience: 18,000-year-old cave paintings…in person…and feeling the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I saw 60-odd overlapping human hands from SO LONG AGO painted on a cave wall less than 2 feet away from me

IMG_2914Fell in love with: Northern Spanish countryside.  Absolutely stunning landscape with plains, hills, mountains, rivers, canyons, and breathtaking views; gorgeous skies; beautiful and ABUNDANT wildflowers and wild herbs….  Couldn’t get enough of it!

Best bonding experiences: 5 students making dinner together for our 3 program directors, sharing music and movie clips during mealtimes, and the evening we all went to our site director’s house for after-feast drinks and sat around playing the drums on encyclopedias while singing Spanish verses we didn’t understand

Funniest (yet most annoying) experience: The night of the World Cup opening, we were awakened at 1:30 am by Gangnam Style being blasted so loud it felt like a dance club was in the dorm room with us.  Haha!

I was honestly pretty nervous, before I left, about spending 24/7 for 3 weeks with a group of people I didn’t know.  If I’d had any idea how fun, hard-working, silly, amazing, and genuinely kind my fellow students and our caretakers program directors would turn out to be, I wouldn’t have been nervous at all!  I know it was only 3 weeks, but I felt like part of a damn cool family by the end of the program.  Thank you to all y’all who were/are a part of that experience with me!

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Goin’ Away To Spain

For some reason, everyone assumes I’m going on a *vacation* to Spain.  These people think I have way more money than I do.  Haha!  I’m actually going to Spain for an archaeological field school, which is both more exciting and a lot more work than a vacation.  For anyone who doesn’t know what happens at an archaeological field school, it goes like this:  I pay the field school tuition to let me work for them.  While working on the excavation, I learn the correct techniques for each step of the process, partly by training and partly by doing the work.  I also go to seminars and workshops to learn skills like excavation photography and archaeological drawing, osteology (skeletal analysis) and burial practices, etc.  From what I’ve heard from friends who have already done a field school, I’ll also spend a lot of time hauling buckets of dirt, digging in the dirt, sweating, cursing, laughing, cracking jokes, sight-seeing on the days off, and stuffing myself with good local food and beer.  See – better than a vacation, but also more work!

Oh, and if anyone is thinking this is a good time to find my apartment and steal all my stuff, note that Zak (an armed and formidably muscular man) is, alas, not able to come with me.  So I don’t recommend it.

Anyone who doesn’t get the title of this post, do yourself a favor and check out the Jane’s Addiction song, “Jane Says”.

Guest Post at SRAS’ Art in Russia Website

My final article for SRAS’ Summer 2013 program is posted!  You can read it here:

Program Review: Art and Museums in Russia

I’m very excited about everything I learned while I was there, and excited to carry these experiences and this inspiration forward – in my academics, my creative life, and my personal life.  It’s been an amazing summer, and I’ve still got a month to do more awesome stuff with myself before I stuff my brain full of more awesomeness this school year!  Woot!

What I Did on My Summer Vacation….

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View from the roof of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

I spent the last 3 weeks in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Now, if you’re thinking that 3 weeks is not very long for a study abroad semester, you are (a) correct and (b) not aware of how much can be packed into 3 weeks with sufficient effort and enthusiasm.  Ha!  I’m happy to say that, for just about every page of my beautiful DK Guide to St. Petersburg, I can point to at least one listing and say, “I’ve been there!”

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One of my favorite paintings in the Russian Museum

I’ve written a series of articles for SRAS (the School of Russian and Asian Studies, the organization which ran my program) – a pre-departure research article (previously posted on this blog) about Russian artist Aristarkh Lentulov, and the following 2 articles about some of the museum studies experience gained during my trip:

1. Archaeological Collections and Curation at the Hermitage

2. Painting Restoration Methods of the Hermitage

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A stormy day over the Hermitage Museum

My final article, a trip summary, has not yet posted to the SRAS blog.  In the meantime, let me say that I absolutely loved St. Petersburg.  It’s a beautiful city, and going in the summertime (when the sun only goes down for a few hours per night, at most) was fantastic!  The amount of art, architecture, and history you can encounter within one block in St. Petersburg is overwhelming.  My travel journal is around 45 pages (single-spaced!) and right now, I honestly can’t think how to sum up that much experience in one little blog post, so I will leave it at my articles and a few photos for now, and post parts of my travel journal from time to time in the next few weeks.IMG_0887

On the Oreninbaum Estate

Weird Stuff I’ve Learned at School – #1

1.  There are carnivorous snails in the world (although I didn’t know they were also hermaphroditic until I found this article just now).  There are some species of carnivorous snails that annoy the crap out of archaeologists because they nibble on bone and leave weird marks all over it, sometimes obliterating important features or prior postmortem trauma.  http://www.nbcnews.com/id/43260441/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/return-giant-carnivorous-snails/#.UXKgk8riv00

2.  The incendiary pigs of Rome (which ought to be a death metal album title), a.k.a. war pigs (which Black Sabbath has dibs on already) – the Romans, in battle against the Persian army, couldn’t figure out a good way to go up against war elephants until they discovered that pig squeals freaked the elephants out.  So the logical Roman approach was to cover pigs with flammable liquids, set them  on fire, and release them onto the battlefield.  Elephants freak, chaos ensues, Romans win battles.  Personally, I feel bad for the piggies, but if I had to face down a pissed off elephant with a bunch of angry dudes on its back, I might find myself in a morally grey area, too.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_pig

3.  In order to become a coroner in Kentucky, you have to swear or affirm that you have never fought in a duel.  Sometimes, I love this state.

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As an aside, I’m restructuring the blog – I will still write about the process of writing and update about my own writing sometimes, but I’m going to branch out with my subject matter, because (a) I’m going to start repeating myself if I haven’t already, (b) I plan on having a pretty interesting life from now on, so I’ll have good things to update about, and (c) I’ll update more often that way.  Well, and (d) my publisher thinks it’s a good idea.  Haha!