Anthropology has been a major part of my life. I spent five years in pursuit of it, and it forms the backbone of everything I think and write, even though my dislike of field work was pushing me away at the same time that writing was drawing me away.
When I discovered the field during the sixties, forensic anthropology was nearly unheard of and the tools of modern physical anthropology were just being assembled. Social anthropology, my specialty, and archaeology were the two choices for students then, and we all took classes in both.
My first class in archaeology was in spring quarter of 1967. The professor was a lean, fit man in his late thirties with thin blonde hair and a beard. He had great tales to tell. The class was taught in the MSU museum and there was a stuffed moose standing in the corner of the room. How cool can you get?
My roommate and I immediately started growing beards. I still have mine. In a miracle of convergence, I had a full beard about the time I saw them growing on faces all over campus. I had become a hippie, when all I wanted to do was look like Dr. Cleland.
It was an Indiana Jones moment, fourteen years before the movie came out.
I had escaped Oklahoma and had no intention of going back to spend my summers working on the farm. There are no summer jobs in social anthropology, but you an sign on to an archaeology crew, and I did for two summers.
1967 and 1968. Keep those numbers in mind. I was nineteen, then twenty. Keep those numbers in mind, too. Feminism was on the horizon, but I hadn’t heard of it yet. Political correctness, in those days, meant hating the Commies, supporting the Vietnam war, beating up hippies and draft dodgers, and voting Republican. I wasn’t politically correct.
The definition has changed since then, and I still am not.
Archaeology was an alpha male enterprise, in an alpha male era, and it was an alpha male time of my life. Sorry. Not bragging, not apologizing, just reporting.
Archaeology is hard, dirty work in the hot summer sun. It was much like what I left in Oklahoma, minus the manure but plus an intellectual content. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Like everything else in science, you spend a thousand hours of work for one tiny nugget of knowledge. The work didn’t bother me. Work is just work; I’ve always done it and I will as long as my body holds out. But there weren’t enough rewards.
My crew was doing survey archaeology all over northwestern lower Michigan. Our home base was Kalkaska just southwest of Traverse City. It’s a small town known for its giant fiberglass trout statue. The local young guys yelled insults at us when they saw us on the street. We were too cool (in our own minds) to be bothered. You know the drill. If there were any local young girls in town, they kept them well hidden.
We spent our days walking up and down the local rivers, looking for evidence of camp sites along the banks, or walking the shore of Lake Michigan for the same reason. Evidence of habitation meant chips of chert (the local low grade version of flint), pot sherds (broken pieces of pottery), or midden (trash heap) mounds. You had to learn to distinguish chips of worked stone from natural breakage while walking along at a normal pace.
If we found enough surface evidence, it was time to make a test pit. That meant a ten foot by ten foot square, taken down with flat bladed shovels in four inch lifts. All the dirt from each lift was tossed into a sieve — a wooden sided box with a 1/4 inch screen bottom. This was suspended from a sapling tripod and shaken. Dirt went through, chips, flakes, arrowheads, stone knives, or bits of pottery would be left behind.
Or, more often, nothing would be left behind and the test pit would be abandoned.
Sometimes we would be on public land, but most of the time we had to negotiate for permission to enter. The grad student who was leading our group spent more time making friends with local farmers — or trying to — than he did looking or digging.
So it went for most of two months and then everything changed for the better. It was about to get exciting. I’ll tell you about it Wednesday.