What Archaeology and Fiction Writing Have in Common

For anyone curious about why my two biggest interests are so “different” from one another…here’s why they’re not:

  1. All knowledge is useful knowledge. Taking interest in a wide variety of subjects gives you that much more material to work with when it comes to writing – you can get rich, specific detail and a broad spectrum of characters and settings just by being curious…and you never know what will pop up that might give you an idea. In archaeology, you never know what might come in handy, either. Obviously, you need a smattering of history and geology of the area you’re working in, but then there are things like being aware of what plant species are native, which were introduced and when and for what purpose (for example, Vinca minor – graveyard ivy – isn’t native to Kentucky, doesn’t spread much on its own, and was a common graveyard planting in the 19th century); things like the fact that tanneries used human urine as a chemical component of processing leather (and therefore might be located near a lavatory in a historic building); things like what parts of an animal have the highest caloric value…you get the idea. Anything might turn out to be useful.
  2. Everything is writing / Everything is archaeology.  This is kind of along the lines of the previous. Anything you know about, hear about, learn about, can potentially be applied to fiction writing, and the same goes for archaeology. When you think about it, since archaeology is essentially the study of the human past, then any human behavior, and any natural phenomenon or environment that humans have ever had a relationship to, well…that pretty much covers everything. When it comes to writing, everything you observe, think about, act upon, receive responses from, and interact with is story potential.
  3. Getting into a point of view. Unless you’re writing a fictionalized autobiography, fiction requires you to step out of your own worldview and into the worldview of somebody (or more than one somebody) else. Any branch of anthropology, including archaeology, requires the same thing…except you’re doing your best to step into the worldview of real people, living or dead (depending on what you’re working on).
  4. Beginning, Middle, and End (and sometimes Epilogue). Obviously, a story has to have a beginning, middle, and end – even if it’s a flash fiction story, something happens, something changes, someone’s mind opens or closes or shifts. In archaeology, we have Phase 1 projects (surveys, which might be done with ground penetrating radar or electromagnetometry or by walking the site or by shovel testing), Phase 2 projects (“Hey! We found stuff in Phase 1 and someone is willing to pay for us to find out more!!”) where you dig test units in areas that promise evidence of features or artifacts, and Phase 3 projects (when you excavate a site in detail). Not every site gets to Phase 2, and not all Phase 2 projects go on to a Phase 3. It depends on money, the site’s potential for adding to our knowledge of history/prehistory, and why the site was being excavated to begin with (Who funded it? Did they fund it voluntarily, or for compliance with the law before their development could move forward? How fast do they want the archaeologists out of their hair?) Or you could view the beginning, middle, and end of archaeology this way: Excavation, artifact processing, and report writing. Because those three steps happen on any project, at any level (unless you’re a lousy archaeologist). The epilogue, in that case, could be seen as public presentations, or in some cases the establishment of a historical center or local museum on site. 
  5. Drinking, Swearing, and Nerding Out. All three of these activities are near and dear to both archaeologists and writers. At least, 90% of all the archaeologists and writers I know. Preferably, do all three at the same time while in the company of other writers/archaeologists after a day of slaving away at the computer/with the trowel.
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Gone Diggin’

About a month ago, I was officially hired into the ranks of working archaeologists – as a field technician at a CRM (cultural resource management) firm. Love the job, love working with friends from school, love being active and outdoors (even when it’s 20 degrees) – I don’t even mind (too much) the achy muscles. Both in the context of telling people about my undergrad senior thesis research and, now, in the context of telling people what my job is, people are almost always surprised that there’s any archaeology to be done in Kentucky. Which, in turn, surprises me…I mean, there’s archaeology everywhere (except maybe Antarctica.)

And yes, as great as historical documents are (and I do loves me some history) there is a lot that written history doesn’t account for. How accurate and unbiased a perspective on Native American life do you think European settlers really had? Who sits down and writes about their slaves’ or servants’ lives for posterity? For that matter, how many struggling farmers had time to write out the nitty gritty details about their daily lives? And how many parts of your daily life do you take for granted – well, of course you use your cell phone for navigation, because that’s what we all do here and now…and of course most of your diet consists of fast food, because that’s how busy people live these days…etc. – ? Why would you bother to document things that are perfectly normal and mundane? (Oh, wait…Facebook…)

So, we dig stuff up. Trash pits and privies are the best – what people throw away says a lot about them, a lot about their culture. Building footprints. Projectile points. Animal bones left from meals. Broken dishes. Medicine bottles. Buttons. The scraps of the past that nobody thought were worth mentioning. And that’s precisely the stuff that can be used to learn the untold parts of history – which is what I love about historical archaeology.

Two more things worth mentioning:

  1. I don’t dig dinosaurs. That’s paleontology. But, yes, I love dinosaurs.
  2. I don’t dig with a bullwhip and a revolver, but, yes, I love Indiana Jones (even if he is a terrible archaeologist).

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.

¡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”.

Catching Up With Fiction

So I’ve made it through another school year, and have over 250 pages of essays and notes to show for it.  As usual when I don’t have time to write fiction, I’ve been missing the process of putting together stories, settings, and characters – but they say a variety of types of writing is good practice.  I know for a fact that my expository writing has improved this semester, and connecting ideas and maintaining pacing  is important in either style.  Now that it’s summer, I’m so excited about the chance to get back to fiction that I can’t decide which project to work on!

Not that my summer is going to be much less busy than the school year…for the next few weeks, I’m doing book events, hopefully getting some editing work, and preparing for my archaeological field school.  Then I head off to Spain for 3 weeks to help excavate a Celtic Iron Age necropolis (stay tuned for updates on that!)  When I get back, I’ll (*fingers crossed!*) have a job waiting – plus more book events and independent research for my senior honors thesis for next year.  Not that I’m complaining, mind you!

Still, it’s high time to make time to write.  I’ve got a sequel for Erica Flynn to work on, a follow-up story to my steampunk/cyberpunk short story for 3 Fates Press’ anthology (Circuits & Steam) and a series of other interconnected post-apocalyptic short stories to go along with it,  and a prequel story to King Kong.  I feel like a kid in a candy store just thinking about all these projects!

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!