By Steve Black
Over Spring Break last week I spent several days at Eagle Cave eying progress. The 2015 season is the first time since the inception of the ASWT research program in 2009 that I’ve worn only one hat, that of principal investigator (P.I.). Until this season I have also been the field director, meaning I was responsible for making most of the day-to-day strategic field decisions, as well as setting the overall research agenda, organizing the endeavor, and arranging funding and logistics. And so I found myself in Eagle Cave on Thursday, March 20th looking at the ongoing investigations with field-fresh eyes.
Below is what I wrote in my field journal as I sat looking out from the back of the shelter in an almost comfortable camp chair. Other than minor spelling and punctuation edits and the added contextual explanations in italics, this is verbatim.
“Work continues apace in Eagle. The crew is now a well-oiled excavation machine—six different exposures—from closest to back wall: Bryan excavating Unit 50 in Strip 3, exposing Feature 8; Tory excavating Unit 49 which spans Strips 3 + 4; Emily strating PS13 in Strip 4; Kevin Hanselka strating PS12 in Strip 7; Lindsay cutting back 2nd step in Strip 8; and Larsen and Elizabeth excavating Unit 48 in Strip 9. Wow! The Strategist—field director Charles Koenig—moves back and forth directing the symphony, making strategic decisions, keeping track of who is doing what, looking over shoulders.”
“Bryan now an old hand—more confident and capable—Charles assigns him tasks requiring greater independence and/or leading the interns to accomplish a given task.” [Bryan Heisinger served as an intern in 2014 and promoted to staff archaeologist this season.]
“Larsen also more confident and able—building on short season. [Matt Larsen was at student volunteer for final six weeks of 2014 season; he graduated from Texas State in December and this season he is a regular intern.] Today he also has field journal duty.” [The crew takes turns keeping the daily field journal.]
“Tory handles TDS well—she set it up at right height for level or slightly downward shots, but must get on her tip toes to shoot down to the lower units. She is primary TDS operator this session. [Victoria Pagano is a 2015 intern and has just been accepted into the graduate Anthropology program at Texas State starting in the fall. TDS = total data station, the machine set up over a datum that gives us precise 3D coordinates for any targeted spot. A different core crew member serves as the go-to TDS operator for each 3-4 week field session. ]
“Emily assigning FNs in tent—flurry of requests from team members, some for Strats (she went to assign her own FNs for PS13, but wound up issuing FNs for others), some for Unit Layers, Spots, and Matrix Samples.” [Emily McCuistion is the final 2015 intern. She has defined the Strats or stratigraphic units for Profile Section 13 and assigned each Strat a unique Field Number. We also assign FNs for each small Spot sample of characteristic matrix for each Strat, and all other types of samples we collect. Our documentation system requires precise book keeping and the FNs make it possible to link one kind of data to another. We have a tent set up at the back of the shelter on the downstream end where we keep the laptop used to assign FNs and various equipment we try to keep out of the dust.]
“Kevin Hanselka volunteering today—fresh eyes with archaeobot lens—he was assigned to define strats in profile section with numerous fiber lenses. He spots various new things including a dart point with its tip sticking directly out of the profile. Charles tries out ideas on Kevin—good give and take. Kevin often mentions what he learned from previous experience or from an article he has read. “Ok, so we have agave lechuguilla and …” [Kevin earned his Ph.D. at Washington University at St Louis where he studied under Gayle Fritz, one of the leading archaeobotanical scholars in North America. His dissertation research was on plant remains from the Sierra de Tamaulipas rockshelters that famed archaeologist Scotty McNeish excavated the late 1940s.]
“This is why we really appreciate our visitors and volunteers—fresh eyes and questions. SLB joins a discussion of fiber production that Kevin links to a fellow Wash U grad student who based her dissertation research on ethnographic accounts from the Eastern Woodlands—weaving and basketry done in rockshelters + houses because in open the fiber dries out too quickly. Were such weaving activities also emblematic of LPC shelters? Related, the whole issue of H-G intensification—managing landscape resources such as lechuguilla fields. Lech harvested for fiber, beverage and food. Could possibly trim leafs without harvesting bulb. But wouldn’t the heavy use for food be a ready source of fiber?”
“Elizabeth and Lindsey are a bit more tentative—the latter now has some ENC experience, the former new to area, also here for Spring Break. Chas assigns both to work on outer strips where we are working to cut back to intact layers.” [Elizabeth Jaroszewski graduated from TAMU and was just accepted as a TxState graduate student beginning in the fall. Lindsey Vermillion is a TxState senior who volunteered during last six weeks of the 2014 season and has proven to be a quick learner and hard worker.]
“This is the balancing act the Strategist must juggle—who has the skill set for a given task—and how to keep everyone busy productively? Long trench with different steps, strips, units, and profile sections makes this possible. Core crew can now do everything so he [Charles] lets them follow through, intermittently or continuously, from strip to unit to PS, giving them a sense of ownership and taking advantage of specific experience/familiarity w/ any given area.”
[In laying out the “Strat System” in our 2013 Eagle Nest Canyon research plan I used the term “Strategist” for the position that archaeologists of my generation usually called “Field Director.” And although in the intro to this post I claimed to have worn the hat of field director/strategist until this season, I have shared this role with my graduate students as they have taken charge of certain investigations as part of their thesis research projects. I am sure I have intruded into their decision making rather more than was helpful at times. But making the strategic call is one of the things I love most about being an archaeologist and I’ve sometimes found it hard to relinquish strategic control. It does my heart good to watch my former graduate student Charles lead the charge with aplomb.]
“Sounds—conversations in various spots across EC—some of unrelated experiences, like those told at the Screening Station. Some work related—back and forth on TDS, FN assignment. Above ideas discussions. Charles explaining steps and making sure forms are filled out… ‘Larsen this evening I’d like you to …’ iPod with jazz playing softly in background…. ‘Looking.’ ‘Shooting.’ ‘Got it.’ “Next is 329 and 318….’ Footsteps, some loud some muffled….. Scrape of trowel hitting FCR….. Soft brushing sound emanates from billowing cloud of dust. Those wearing dust masks have muffled voices—I can’t understand, but crew seems to follow easily—practice and younger ears.”
[Added the next day] “Strategic decisions are often tough—no clear-cut best way when dealing with very complex stratigraphy—pits dug through pits, fill vs. primary thermal features, hard structure (FCR layers and concrete-like ash conglomerates) vs. soft ash and softer burrow fill, plus the many exposure faces (of strips, profiles and units). With SfM we can adapt and change our minds, knowing that we can reassemble/stitch [the 3D models]. Still, flexibility isn’t easy. Use of Strat System and FN essential. Record Keeping critical. ‘Tis a challenge!”
And that is the Eagle Cave 2015 progress as eyed by this P.I. I will admit that as I started to write most of the above in my field journal it dawned on me that ASWT blog readers might appreciate a look at the excavation scene at Eagle Cave. I had realized that at the moment I was superfluous – most of the crew knew what they were doing and Charles was doing a marvelous job directing the scene. I could sit back and take it in as a participant-observer.
A competent archaeological crew intelligently and diligently investigating a fascinating rockshelter in a remote corner of the natural and modern world is indeed a joyful thing for a principal investigator to behold. I’m already looking forward to my next trip.