A Bone to Pick

The Adventures of a Second Career Archaeologist

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Back in the Field!

Last Saturday I finally got out into the field after a year or so hiatus. It was so great to be out there. I did take photos but I can’t post them since the dig site is on private land and I said I wouldn’t. You’ll have to content yourself with this selfie of me that I took on the way out there. Behold! That most elusive of creatures, an uncaffeinated archaeologist.

Sweet, sweet holy bean water!

Basically the only thing that will get me out of bed before the buttcrack of dawn and to a dig site on time is the promise of Happy Hot Bean Juice. Buc-ee’s in Bastrop is pretty decent and I can get in and out really fast. The drive out to the site was gorgeous. There were some low clouds over the highway, but not fog. The sun was just rising over Bastrop State Park as I passed it and it was such a stunning view. I really wish I’d pulled over and taken a photo.

It was also a rare moment of peace that I’ve had in ages. There is a lot of stupid going on in my life right now. A LOT. I’m on FMLA for having a nervous breakdown last month and I am only maybe marginally better. I’m still waiting to talk to a counselor, but I really should have been talking to one like…four months ago. Our society doesn’t make it easy to get professional help when you desperately need it. I’ve also been diagnosed with not one but three genetic corneal diseases. At least those issues are relatively under control and the incidents I’ve had have lessened in intensity and frequency.

So when I saw that beautiful sunrise over the park, it was like my whole soul sighed with happiness. I was going on a dig. It was quiet and peaceful and, for just one moment, everything seemed ok with the world.

I can’t express how wonderful it was to be in the field again and to be with people and my friends at Houston Archaeological Society. I was able to learn some new skills, but mostly I screened. I did find a partial animal skeleton for the first time and that was pretty cool. All of those classes in forensics and physical anthropology actually paid off! I think maybe it was a rabbit, but I found the femur, tibia, and I think part of the pelvis.

I think I’ll try to go every other weekend while the weather holds. I was super happy right after the dig and I think it’s good therapy for me to get out there doing something I love, honing my field skills, and seeing people.

Archaeology is the only thing in my life lately that hasn’t gone off the rails. I really need to get out of teaching. I just…don’t want to be there anymore. It’s not even a don’t. It’s a can’t. It’s like waking up one day and realizing you can’t do something anymore. I feel like a brick wall has been plonked down in between me and the classroom. I can’t really explain it any other way. I don’t know how to tear down that wall or climb over it. I’m not even sure I want to. This is why I need to see a therapist. I have all these great analogies for the way I feel, but I don’t know how to process them. All I know is that being in the field makes me happy and I need more happy right now if I’m going to recover and be able to manage anything besides my studies and homeschooling Nora.

Random Thoughts of a Desperately Bored Archaeology Student…

  1. Mom’s Happy Tuna and rosé do not a good combination make.
  2. Staring at the overgrown backyard and tempted to just…randomly start digging. More likely to break a utility wire or throw out my back rather than find anything. I really need to get back out into the field. Stupid COVID.
  3. Should stop putting off my test. It’s due tomorrow and there’s an essay on Make Prayers to the Raven that I haven’t started.
  4. Damn, this rosé is good.
  5. But not with tuna.
  6. These crackers are great.
  7. Oh damn, this cucumber salad is awesome.
Too bored and broke to go get food. Leftovers, yay!

8. I feel like living dangerously. Not stupid enough to go into a store without a mask on. My desire to be reckless should never potentially harm others.

10. I think I will have another glass of rosé and take my test and see what happens. LIVING DANGEROUSLY!

11. I am pathetic.

12. I wonder if the Koyukon eat tuna?No, you dummy, they live in Alaska’s interior.

13. They eat salmon. I hate salmon.

14. Does salmon go good with rosé?

15. Would I like salmon mousse? Does that go well with rosé?

16. Wasn’t that dish on an episode of Chef!?

17. Lenny Henry is hilarious.

18. What if I dug a hole in the backyard and called it gardening? What grows in Texas in October?

19. Shit, I screwed up the numbered list format in WordPress. This is the last time I blog on my phone.

20. My glass is empty. Time to imbibe the last of the rosé and consider my essay question. The Koyukon are freaking amazing.

21. I’m out of crackers. Damn.

22. And cucumber salad.

23. Happy Tuna is gross by itself.

24. I have had too much fish this week.

25. I hate this stupid pandemic.

(UPDATE: I got a 98 on the test while slightly tipsy, if you’re curious. I’m not sure if I should be proud or ashamed about that. Just to clarify, I don’t usually drink wine before exams in case any future employers or potential universities are looking at this).

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Surprisingly, a lot! You’d think that with COVID-19 making all of our lives miserable I wouldn’t have done anything related to archaeology, except maybe take some classes.

Well, you’re right. I did take some classes (Sociolinguistics, a requirement for my program), but I also did an internship at TARL to knock out three more credits for my anthropology degree so I can graduate in May.

“How?!” you may ask. How indeed.


The good people at TARL set me up with this amazing project entering data from burial records from the Ernest Witte site into their human remains database. I had to learn a ton about burial terms and how to interpret the records, which were incomplete and contradictory at times. For example, I had to translate coordinates into cardinal directions, which meant getting out some graph paper and drawing in burials. I’d never done this before and it took a combination of my experience in the field and my husband’s rusty Boy Scout orienteering skills to help me figure out what the HECK Annie was babbling at me to do. Once I got the knack of it, though, I discovered just how crappy I am at drawing.

I can’t draw worth beans, but hey…I was pretty proud of my sketches. This one is a double burial, a smaller skeleton (in red) on top of a larger, both face down. I couldn’t tell that from the burial record until I actually sketched it.

There was also a lot of reading about the care and curation of human remains, how samples are taken from bone, FORDISC and 3Skull, and NAGPRA. Annie talked me through a lot of that over Zoom and Marybeth joined us sometimes. I learned so much, and all from my office at home! I really enjoyed myself, though, and it was a really cool experience. Of course, I would have preferred to be back at TARL again, but this was the next best thing. TARL has become my summer home and I really miss it.

Part of the project involved writing a lab narrative, which I included in all of the stuff I had to submit to my professor at Western Illinois University. I guess they were pretty impressed because they included me in a recent news release. 😊

Check it out!

All in all, I’m pretty proud of myself for all my hard work and getting noticed. It’s nice to have your work acknowledged now and then.  

It’s super strange, but surrounding myself with burials and human remains this summer actually helped me cope with my own sister’s death. Mindy passed away on May 30 after a five year battle with an inoperable brain tumor. That was right before my internship started.

This is the first time I’ve been able to write those words, honestly. Anyway, I found the internship really cathartic for some reason. It helped me stay busy, sure, but a lot of what I learned had to do with burial customs and practices. I reflected a lot on my own culture’s practices surrounding death, directly observed at my sister’s funeral. Even at her funeral I couldn’t turn off my archaeologist’s brain.

I miss her so much it’s like there’s a hole in my soul. I don’t have any other siblings. My sister’s cognition had seriously declined in the last few years, but her long term memory was still pretty sharp and she never forgot that I wanted to be an archaeologist. The few times I saw her after my digs and told her what I’d been up to, she always wanted to hear all about them and would ask questions about the sites and the artifacts we’d found. She told me once that she could tell I’d found my niche and she was really happy for me because she could see how happy archaeology made me.

I wish I could have taken her on a dig with me. I think she would have loved all the activity of a busy dig site. Mindy was curious about people, the same way I am. Part of the fun of archaeology is trying to puzzle out our ancestors and understand them through their artifacts and cultural remains. Mindy would often ask me why we thought a certain way about a culture. She enjoyed speculating along with me and I miss her terribly.

In other news, I am taking two classes this semester: Native American Cultures and North American Archaeology. We started off in both classes talking about Cahokia, which I was able to visit this summer on a whirlwind socially-distanced trip through Missouri. I didn’t get a chance to take too many photos, though, but that place is huge. Climbing to the top of Monk’s Mound in 95 degree heat suuuuucked, but it was so worth it. I got an idea just how big that city was. I felt pretty small. Nora was in a bad mood (read: hot and tired and thirsty) and didn’t want to talk to me, so I was all alone, much like a monk. How apropos.

The view from the top of Monk’s Mound after I caught my breath and downed half a gallon of water. That’s Nora, the junior avocational archaeologist, who was suffering from heat, dehydration, tweenage hormones, and a raging case of “Oh God Not Another Archaeology Site, Mom!”

I do have plans to keep up this blog more regularly. I’m a bad bad blogger for being neglectful (*cough*haventupdatedinayear*cough*). Honestly, for a long time nothing really cool was happening. I also didn’t have any ideas of what to write about besides the occasional digs I was going on. So much was cancelled this year that I’ve been focusing mostly on the practical academic side of archaeology. However, I finally got some cool ideas and I’m going to work those into the blog, so look forward to more updates.

I’ve also realized just how freaking weird and unique it is to be a middle-aged woman throwing the middle finger at a good career and deciding to pursue a career in archaeology. Most archaeologists I know, both professional or avocational, are either within 10 years of having graduated from college or are my mom and dad’s age (retired). I’m smack in the middle. At TCAS meetings I’m usually one of the youngest members in the room and that’s just odd to me. I’m used to being the oldest! I figured this blog might inspire others around my age to chase their dreams and that there’s no use being tied down to a career you feel is going nowhere or one you hate. In my case, archaeology combines everything that I’m already good at as a teacher and spins it into something I truly love.

I’m working towards living my dream and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

I Have Been Remiss…

My apologies. I want to say that not a lot has happened since April to justify not keeping up with the blog, but that would not be true! I’ve been to field school at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, I volunteered at TARL again, and have started classes at my new home of Western Illinois University! I also did some brief shovel testing at a new site with the Houston Archaeological Society in July.

So I said that I was doing survey at field school and that is true. I had no idea that the floor of the canyon was so…mountainous? Hilly? Anyway, lots of ups and downs. It was supposed to be light survey. Oh hell no. This was rugged, so that was annoying. It rained A LOT earlier this year, more than usual. Normally the vegetation in the canyon is pretty dry in June, but the rain made everything grow like bonkers. Yes, it was beautiful, but it made it very difficult to see artifacts and lithics on the ground (which is what we were looking for).

So we were up to our ears in the bushes (not kidding) in the middle of nowhere and I heard rattling every so often. Great. Have I mentioned that with the rain comes an increase in rattlesnakes? Frikkin’ snakes. In true Indian Jones fashion, I HATE SNAKES!!!!

I guess it’s not so hard to avoid them? Walk away from the rattling? Except that the damn mother fudgers are camouflaged to blend in with their surroundings, so yeah…good luck with that. I didn’t have snake gaiters because I’m a newbie at survey and didn’t think to hit up Academy and buy any. At one point I hear the telltale rattle and it’s CLOSE. REALLY CLOSE. I look down and there’s a damn Nope Rope about 2 feet from me, curled around a yucca, and buzzing away.

You have never seen overweight and out-of-shape Heather Leonard move so fast wearing 20-30 pounds of gear. I impressed myself with that physical feat. Amazing what we’ll do when confronted with serious danger. RUN, HEATHER. RUN! Like Forrest Gump, I WAS RUNNNNIIINNGGG!!!!

So my team got back to the Mack Dick Pavilion (command center for the field school) and I had my first panic attack in 20 years in my car. The thought of going back out in the boonies the next day actually made me physically ill. I’m all for facing your fears, but I wouldn’t have been any good out there in the field freaking out every 5 minutes. My team leader concurred, so no more survey for me. I shall try again at a less remote location and wear snake gaiters next time (yes, I have some now…they are in the garage).

I asked to be moved to excavation, which I like more anyway. That was actually a good move because my site supervisor, Brian, was fabulous, and I learned a lot from him! He knew exactly where to push and challenge me and I came out learning some new skills (paperwork, yay!) and refining the ones I’ve already started to develop. Here’s some photos…

So that was the first couple weeks of June, for the rest of the summer I volunteered once a week on Fridays at TARL (Texas Archaeological Research Lab). Mary Beth had me working in a separate building verifying the contents of different collections and entering them into the database. It was tedious but interesting work and I didn’t get nearly as far as I thought I would. This was my first day on the job…

Several of the boxes were from field schools that were 30+ years old and the plastic bags containing artifacts had degraded somewhat, especially the bags of debitage or snails. I had to rebag EVERYTHING, which is why it was tedious. Here are some random photos I took of artifacts that I found…

In July I did a day’s worth of shovel testing at a prehistoric site called the Lone Oak Site. Not saying where as it’s privately owned property, but it’s about 2 hours vaguely east of here (sorry for the vague, but looting is a huge problem…it’s why I don’t post trinomials or anything like that). There were cows around, which was interesting. They would just sort of wander over and stare at us, let out the occasional confused moo, and wander off. I’ll take cows over rattlesnakes any old day (I had my eye out for snakes as well).

I finished my short course over the summer in Viking studies and earned a diploma with a distinction. Go me! Actually, I learned a lot about Vikings and it opened a lot of research questions that I’m working on. I have a list of books and sources on my computer that I’m adding to for when I start looking for ideas for a Masters thesis or even possible PhD dissertation.

My classes at Western Illinois University started this past Monday. I’m taking Forensic Anthropology (YAY!) and Magic, Religion, and Shamanism. Both of the classes look amazing and I can already tell I’ll learn a lot!

That’s about it for now. There isn’t too much coming up except for the annual Archaeology Fair at TARL in October and I’m volunteering for that, like I did last year. I promise I’ll take more pictures this year! I don’t have any planned digs yet, but the fall is another short digging season for us when the weather cools off (it’s just too hot to dig right now) and sometimes things are announced last minute. So who knows!

Catching Up

This semester has rocketed past me! I blinked and it’s almost over. My Introduction to Cultural Anthropology and Introduction to Physical Anthropology classes were really fun and I learned a lot. I liked that both classes weren’t very structured. That’s the first time I’ve had a professor just sort of dump the curriculum on me and say, “Here it is. Get it all in by May, all right? See you at the end.” I had the same professor for both classes. I think if you’re not used to online learning then that would have been a bit disconcerting, but this isn’t my first rodeo with taking classes online. I had enough discipline to pace myself and I was actually done with all the reading and discussion posts by the first week of April! I just had a few tests and a project to finish. I’m done with Intro to Phys Anth at this point, just waiting for the professor to post the final exam for Intro to Cultural Anth and then I’m officially done.

I had a bit of a burp on the educational front. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was accepted into WIU and I will be starting this fall. I was not pleased that there were only 5 classes available in the fall, three of which I could take. I am worried that it will take me more than 18-24 months to finish a BA if there isn’t much available. In a fit of anxiety and madness, I applied for and was accepted in Colorado State University’s program, which offered a lot of classes.

Except…they weren’t as exciting as WIU. And…they won’t accept any transfer classes over 10 years (as I found out this morning). Also, a lot more expensive. I was in a right fit this morning, pacing back and forth trying to figure out what to do. I am NOT going to redo my undergrad classes! I have 2 BA’s already, for crying out loud! I decided CSU was just ridiculous and would probably take me a lot longer than waiting for classes to come available at WIU.

So, I decided to tell CSU to take a hike and I enrolled in 2 classes for the fall at WIU today: Magic and Shamanism and Forensic Anthropology. I’m really excited about both because they both are related to my field of interest (Vikings) and I could really use a course in Forensics for Bodie Boneseer, which I’m going to revamp and outline this summer since I’ll have time.

See, I was going to take summer classes, but there’s only one available at WIU. Also, Nora’s been begging me since January to take the summer off and spend it with her. While I’m eager to get this BA over with and move on to an MA, I also know that she’ll only be young once and I should spend as much time with her as I can. Besides, I’m also volunteering at TARL and going to field school this summer, so it’s not like I’m shirking my archaeology studies…just working on the practical side that I’m not able to do much of during the school year!

Speaking of the practical side, I’ve been able to go on 2 small digs recently. I’ve finally was able to dig at Joyful Horse in Bastrop. The unit is pretty deep at this point and the walls have been shored up with timber for health and safety. There wasn’t much room to dig, so I mostly did screening and left the digging to Nora. Yep, she went with me! In honor of her first dig outside of field school, I bought her a trowel. Doesn’t she look happy?

A girl and her first trowel. It’s a special moment, I’m telling you.

On the drive out to Bastrop, we saw some deer crossing the road and I may have grumbled some choice words at the Lord as I slowed down to let them pass. Not funny, God. Not funny. Nora wasn’t pleased, either! It was really cold when we went out to Bastrop, unusual for Texas at this time of year. I was digging in about three layers of clothing. Now I know how the Brits on Time Team felt on some of those digs! We all eventually wound up shedding layers as it got warmer.

I recently joined Houston Archaeological Society so that I can go on their digs that are closer to my side of the state! Hey, it was only $15 since I’m a student! They are digging out at San Felipe (YAY SAN FELIPE!) and I was able to join them last Saturday for shovel testing. San Felipe is absolutely beautiful and it was great to see the finished museum. It was still under construction when I was there last year. The streets and homesteads of the razed town are roughly mowed out behind the museum and we shovel tested in the middle of what was Commerce Street. They want to put in pathways, but have to first make sure there’s nothing important there. Digging up the town is really a privilege and it was my first time doing shovel tests. I didn’t do too much on the paperwork end. Actually, all I did was screen! But, we found a little bit of plain white ceramics, glass, and a lot of nails!

Looking down what was Commerce Street. There’s a tree in the middle of the road!

In March, we both visited the Archaeology Fair out at the Nightengale Center in Kingsland. I went last year and we had a blast. It’s a paleoindian site that was excavated in the 1980’s and they never backfilled the units. It’s neat because you can see what a real dig looks like. Here are some photos…

Looking forward to this summer, I will be visiting TARL the first week of June before I head to Palo Duro to discuss summer projects and will probably finish cataloging the Vinson Site assemblage before moving on to another collection. Also, I’m slowly working on a British short course in Viking Studies that I might be able to finish before August. I need to learn more about the Vikings if I’m going to do an eventual thesis or dissertation about them! It’s at my own pace with no completion date. It’s going to be a busy summer, but a fun one getting to do lots of cool activities with archaeology!

Field School and Vikings and Medieval Faires

I changed my mind. I AM going to field school. I don’t really WANT to go to field school, but I need to. Let’s face it: I am old and am pressed for time to get experience if I want to be a competitive candidate for graduate school. They require experience in excavation, lab, and survey. I have the first two. I don’t have the last.

This year’s TAS field school in Palo Duro Canyon State Park is heavy on the survey and that is a good thing for me, but holy heck…why does it have to be in the middle of the prairie?! It’s going to be so flipping hot, and that’s really why I don’t want to go. At least there are two survey types: light and rugged. Light survey will be looking at known or potential sites near the roadside in the state park and the rugged survey will be exploring the canyon looking for new sites. I’m signing up for light because I am old and fat and out of shape. I just need to learn the survey techniques, but that doesn’t have to mean hiking through the boonies. Save the rugged for the young whippersnappers who don’t have weak ankles and can bounce over rocks and avoid rattlesnakes.

I’m not taking Nora this year because I don’t want to spend 8 hours in a car alone with her and I don’t think the youth program is going to be all that exciting this year. She wants to go to camp, anyway. I did get a nice Air BnB in Amarillo about 30 minutes away.

Let’s just hope I don’t meet another suicidal deer this year. I don’t think I can take totaling another Subaru on a damn deer that’s hellbent on committing suppuku.

I need to buy some good hiking boots and some long pants. Hooray for an excuse to go clothes shopping! I should do a post about the challenges of putting together an excavation wardrobe when you’re a woman and plus sized to boot. That’s been a whole other adventure, but all I’m going to say is thank god for the Columbia clothing company for being size conscience and not just carrying misses’!

Shifting gears, I’m starting to think about what I’d like to do for a bachelor’s thesis. I’ve always been interested in Vikings and anthropology of childhood, which is why I’d like to go to Sheffield University because they have a great center just for the archaeology of childhood. It’s not that surprising that I’m interested in studying kids since I’m already a teacher. Anyway, I read a cool paper recently lamenting about the lack of archaeology of Viking children. This seems right up my alley. It jives with my current career and interests, where I want to go for postgraduate work, and with what’s going on where I currently live.

The local medieval fair, Sherwood Forest Fair, and Thorin’s Mead are teaming up to open the Texas Viking Festival this coming December. There’s a launch party next month on the 23rd that I am definitely going to. I’d love to do an ethnographic study on Viking reenactors. Yeah, I know that’s more cultural anthropology than archaeology, but my undergrad is going to be in anthropology because that’s the way US universities go (remember that archaeology is a subdivision of anthropology).

The thing about reenactors is that they are (or they should be) very particular about historical authenticity. That means keeping on top of current archaeological discoveries. One of the questions I’d like to ask when I’m doing my interviews is what kind of research they perform when they are putting together a new persona. Do they pay attention to archaeology? There have been lots of exciting discoveries in the past few years concerning Vikings, discoveries that could very well impact the authenticity of a reenactor’s portrayal.

I’m immersing myself in Viking sagas and mythology for now. I figure the best way to begin learning about an ancient society is through their stories. Hey, I’m an English teacher! Are you surprised? I also plan on listening to The Viking Age Podcast while I walk in the mornings before work (I need to get in shape for field school).

I found a neat ethnographic doctoral dissertation about ren faires that I want to thoroughly read sometime when I’m not so busy, but I glanced over the abstract and the table of contents and it looks intriguing.

I’m also no stranger to Renaissance/Medieval festivals and reenactors. I’ve been attending them since I was 15 or 16 and was on the casts of a few as an actor. The rennie community becomes very close knit because they spend so much time together in pre-season workshops (16ish hours every weekend) and then during the run of the season itself. They become like your family. I confess that I really miss that family. Going to a ren fair is like going home, doesn’t matter whether it’s Scarborough, TRF, or Sherwood. Oddly enough, it’s been over 20 years since I was on a cast and I STILL know people in the circuit. Isn’t that wacky?

This is a very rare photo of me as Lady Godiva at the now defunct Hawkwood Medieval Fantasy Fair in 1998 (last cast I performed in). This is during the Snype Hunt and Godiva adamantly refused to believe that the Snype was real, even if he was right in front of her face (he’s crouching on the table and grinning at the camera while I am expounding on the stupidity of hunting a nonexistent bird). She insisted he was not the mythical snype, but just an overgrown chicken.

I don’t see a Snype. He’s only a chicken!

It was actually what we called a “lane bit,” which is a rehearsed scene you can do at any time when you encounter other villagers. Festival actors mostly rely on strong improvisational skills since they live that character for 10 or more hours a day, but there are some rehearsed bits. Snype and I came up with this because we thought it would be hilarious to have one of the nobles who refused to believe in his existence, even if he was standing right in front of her. We also did this to protect him. He liked to hide behind me while people yelled, “GODIVA! STOP THAT SNYPE!” and I would huff and roll my eyes and bellow, “Be thou fools? How many times must I tell thee that the Snype be not real?! Thou seest the village chicken, who be most overgrown from feeding on the baker’s bread. God’s teeth, get thee away from this poor fowl and get thee a life!” It was one of my most favorite bits of playing Godiva (who was obsessed with men and getting married…you can’t see the giant butterfly net I had for chasing men in this photo). Good times!

So, I used to work at historical reenactment festivals. Is it any wonder that I got into archaeology? 🙂


Well, I know it’s been awhile and a lot has happened since I last posted. Buckle up, because this is going to be a long post.

You may have noticed the tagline changed on the header from “The Adventures of a Future Osteoarchaeologist” to “The Adventures of a Future Archaeologist.” I’ve decided to change my focus a little and concentrate on general archaeology instead of osteo. It took a few months, but I realized two important things. First, it’s going to take a lot of extra classes and time to become an osteologist and while I really enjoy bones and find it fascinating what we can learn from them, I also really enjoy regular archaeology. Field school helped me realize that. I don’t really want to spend more time and money on extra classes at this point. I can always go back later on and take them if I want to as continuing ed. Second, my experience at the forensics lab in August gave me a lot to think about. Although forensics isn’t an area that I’m remotely interested in pursuing, something about that day changed me. I won’t say it gave me a distaste for skeletons, because I am still fascinated with bones and osteons, but there was a shift in interest. I can’t even say what it was. Maybe someday I’ll be able to put it into words, but for now I realized that maybe lab work isn’t my shtick. I enjoy being in the field and in the classroom both as a student and a teacher. Ultimately, I would like to be a professor and researcher since it jives with my background as a teacher. The idea of primarily being in a lab all day with skeletons doesn’t really appeal to me. So, there you have it. I’m focusing more on general archaeological methods for now.

I kept the blog name, though, because I like it and it’s still relevant to what I’m doing.

I mentioned that I had been accepted at Oregon State University. I started classes at the end of September taking 6 hours (2 classes) and very quickly realized that I had gotten in over my head. Not with the material, mind you, but the pace of the classes was brutal. OSU is on the quarter system, which means their classes are faster paced than traditional semester. I thought I would be able to handle it, and I could, but it took a huge toll out of my family life. I was constantly stressed out because I had to study, there was a quiz I needed to do, a test coming up, a project to complete…it was too much. I was pulling A’s in both classes, but I was going to bed at 11 or midnight every night. That’s fine if you don’t have to work full time. I was tired and irritable at work all the time. When it started affecting my ability to do my job properly, snapping at my family, and wore me down to the point where I got physically sick and was mentally exhausted, I knew I had to stop. I was halfway through, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I had learned a very valuable lesson and wasn’t sad about it. I also learned that I had a knack for archaeology and my professor told me I had a real knack for figuring out the puzzles and putting all the pieces together and coming up with some great plausible theories about sites.

So, I dropped my classes, took a deep breath, and started looking for a different program that would work for me. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of anthropology programs online and the ones that are available are either super expensive, on the quarter system, or both! I was about to give up when I stumbled across a program I hadn’t heard of. Western Illinois University has a brand new anthropology program online and it had everything I needed: comparable to OSU’s tuition and on the semester system! The deadline for spring semester was approaching fast, so I quickly sent off an application and my transcripts. As expected, I was accepted a few weeks later.

Two weeks ago I went to register for classes and realized that the only classes available require Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a prerequisite, which I was taking at OSU. There’s was only one class I could take, so I could only get 3 hours. The problem is that I need to take 6 hours in order to qualify for federal loan deferral (that’s a whole other story in itself, but TLDR is that I am using deferral to pay down my current school loans but also to save up to pay off the BA when I’m done, save money for graduate school, and separately have started a fund to cover PhD expenses for moving to the UK down the road…yes, I’m that determined!). The government will not allow me to take 3 hours at one school and 3 hours at another and still qualify for a deferral.

I did some thinking and talked to my adviser. I can delay starting at WIU for up to a year, so in the spring I’m going to take 6 hours at South Texas College online and transfer those credits. That will qualify me for all the classes I need to take and also help me maintain deferral status. I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology and Intro to Physical Anthropology. I don’t really need the Intro to Anthro, but the MA at Humboldt is in Physical Anthropology (emphasis on archaeology track), so I figured I should at least take an intro class! I will start at WIU in the summer and continue from there. I have to do 30 hours total at WIU for the BA and that’s it! That’s not that much at all.

So, it’s been a rollercoaster of a few months. There was a time in November when I was thinking about scrapping it all because it seemed everything had come crashing down around me. I had a, “WHAT AM I DOING?!” moment again. I thought about how much I loved field school, how much I enjoyed my Intro to Arch class last summer, how much fun I had at TARL, and how much I enjoyed volunteering at the Archaeology Festival in October at TARL educating the public. I knew I couldn’t quit. I had to keeping moving forward…and then I found WIU.

It’s just a reminder that you can plan all you want, but sometimes you have to walk another path to reach your goal. I am not upset that this isn’t working out the original way I thought it would because I know that this way is better! I know that sometimes you have to walk down the wrong road first in order to find the right path. There are many ways to the top of the mountain. Some paths are easier than others, but all lead to the same place.

Or should that be…there are many ways to dig a test unit, but some are better than others? Should I follow the stratigraphy versus using dedicated metric units? 10 cm? 5 cm? Should I screen the spoil? Oh forget it. I’m done going metaphorical now.

How Far Afield…

My classes just started at Oregon State last week. The Intro to Cultural Anthropology class is pretty easy and the workload is light. That’s great because the Archaeological Inferences class is very intensive with a lot of reading and labs with group interaction, which is always interesting when you’re in a distance learning situation. Most online classes require an Introductory post where you introduce yourself and maybe answer a few standard questions. The Intro to Cultural Anthropology class was like that. Archaeological Inferences was a bit different. We had to list the content of our purse or backpack and then another classmate had to make inferences about our lives based on what we listed. I thought that was a pretty fun and unique twist on the traditional introductory post. The person who guessed about my purse was way, way off. She thought I was in my 20’s! The only part she got right was that I’m a mom, though she thought my kid must be between 3-7. Nora was a little offended!

I’m already thinking about next summer and what I want to do in terms of archaeology experience. I’m not going to TAS’ field school next year. It’s in Palo Duro Canyon and that’s just too damn hot for me. I’m holding out for 2020 when it’s rumored they’ll be in Kerrville. I started doing a search for field schools, though it’s still a little early as many of them won’t be listed yet. I would like to work on a cemetery dig. I actually found quite a few, which was exciting, but many of them are 2-3 months long. That just doesn’t jive with me for several reasons.

Obviously, I can’t leave Paul and Nora for that long. I just can’t. TAS is unique in that I can bring my kiddo and she can participate, but that’s not the case for most field schools. That’s the downside to being an old married anthropology student who already works full time. I don’t have the freedom to take off for months at a time, so I’ve limited myself to 3 weeks or less. Some of the field schools start before I’m out of work. Many of them start after, but my spring classes at Oregon State won’t end until mid-June and I don’t want to try to handle digging for 5-7 hours a day and studying for finals at the same time. I also don’t know about internet connection. Some schools are in parts of the world with limited access and that’s not negotiable for my situation. Some of them are really damn expensive, more than I’m willing to fork over to muck about in the dirt digging up bones. It’s a weird situation with a lot of variables involved.

I did find one in Menorca that fits all those parameters. I’m not sure how Paul feels about me dashing off to Spain to exhume a bunch of dead Romans. I think at this point in our marriage, he’s resigned to the fact that his wife is a huge weirdo and he goes with it. I’m going to wait a few more months and see what else is added. Ideally, I would go to a field school in the United States or Canada because that would be much cheaper, but it seems like the majority of the schools I found so far are overseas in Europe.

What’d I’d really like to do is excavate in the UK because that’s where my field of interests are and where I eventually want to study for a PhD. It would be good to start making some connections over there, but ultimately I’ll take what I can get. Experience is experience!

Or maybe I’ll just stay home, save my money, and volunteer at TARL again. That is, if Lauren and Marybeth don’t mind me asking a bunch of weird questions and grumbling that I can’t make the mail merge work to print the box labels! I honestly never figured that out. Excel hates me with a passion. As I’ve said before, I actually learned A LOT at TARL and I know that I’ve only just scratched the surface.  Volunteering at TARL was loads of fun and with Nora probably going to camp, I will be able to put in a little more time in the lab. So, staying put wouldn’t be a bad option, either!

As a side note, I’ve added the option to subscribe via email to blog updates. It’s on the top of the right sidebar, if you haven’t noticed it yet. I usually announce new posts via Facebook or on my Twitter account (@heatherdleonard).

October is Archaeology Month in Texas, so if you’re curious about archaeology events near you, check out the Texas Archaeology Month Calendar. There are a lot of neat events planned all throughout the month of October. I will be attending the Archaeology Fair at TARL on Oct. 20th, but more about that later…

The Road Behind and the Road Ahead

It’s no secret that I love to write. I’ve been writing stories since I was a little kid. In first grade I made a book complete with illustrations, which my teacher published at school. It was called “The Rainbow Family.” I remember holding that book in my hands and being so proud that I had made my own book, just like the books that sat on my shelf at home. I wanted to make more books.

I never stopped writing, though my stories stayed private and were only shared with friends and the occasional trusted teacher. I was told I was a good writer, something I didn’t really believe since I don’t have much self esteem and I doubt myself a lot. Still, the validation was nice.

Years ago, I got the idea to write a web series about archaeology in space. The original story was much, much different but it eventually turned into Gwyddion. To make a long story short, I wrote 10 episodes and there was some interest and an attempt to turn it into a show, but it never happened. I was ok with that because I felt that the story needed to be deeper and more complex, something that cannot be conveyed in web series format. I realized that I did have the basis for hell of a novel series, though. That’s where I am at today.

I also realized that I screwed up a bunch of stuff in terms of archaeology. The experiences I’ve had this year and from watching Time Team have shown me that I need to go back and rework that aspect of the story. This fall, I am taking a class in archaeological investigations that I think will really help me. I will have about 5 or 6 weeks off between terms and I am hoping to write the novel in that time frame, NaNoWriMo style of at least 1,000 words a day. I need to work on some relationships between main characters and revamp my villains. It’s mostly just character work, but it will make the plot deeper and richer in the end.

So why this sudden kick in the pants to finish the novel version of Gwyddion? After all, I’ve been happily procrastinating for 4 years. I don’t want to go into details, but there have been several deaths in my husband’s family in the last 15 months. Two were in the last 2 weeks. I write this blog post while still reeling from the shock and sorrow that surrounds me and my in-laws. I realized that life is too short to keep putting things off. This story is constantly in my thoughts. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about it in some form or another. I always shove it aside and tell myself I’ll do it later.

I’ve decided that now is later.

When my first short story was published in 2013, my husband’s Uncle David told me that he was proud of me and he expected to see more. He passed away last year and nothing more has come out of me except one more short story. It’s time to change that.

I do know that waiting this long was meant to be. There was so much missing from the story that couldn’t be told until I had my adventures and experiences this year. That much I had realized, but I still made excuses to delay writing. I learned today that I can’t afford to wait any longer.

I’m rereading the story in its third and final draft format to reacquaint myself. Here’s what it looked like:

I’ve said before that I don’t know where this road is leading me. Maybe it will lead me to a writing career. Maybe it will lead me to a career in bioarchaeology. I don’t really know. Again, I’m just along for the ride and I want to have fun. My life is half over at this point and I don’t have time to spend the second half doing things I don’t enjoy. This road started before I even realized it did, way back when I got the idea for Gwyddion. Now is the right time to finish this sucker and get it published.

Trip To Texas State Osteological Processing Lab

I’m sorry for the delay in this post. It’s taken me about a week to process what I saw last week at Texas State University’s osteological processing lab. I originally wrote a good chunk of this post the day I got back. I needed to get it out of my system and it helped me try to understand the overwhelming emotions I experienced from that day. It was definitely the hardest day I’ve ever had so far in this journey to become an archaeologist, but I am thankful for the experience and do not regret going at all.

Please note that I did not take any pictures because it was not allowed and it’s considered controversial, even disrespectful, to photograph human remains or funerary objects. This is why I did not photograph any at TARL. It is simply not allowed and not done.

It’s not the lab or the skeletons that bothered me. I guess I should start at the beginning. The lab is located at the Freeman Ranch outside of San Marcos, TX. It is one of five forensic research centers in the United States. People can donate their bodies to science and they use some of the acreage to study decomposition. Not only that, it is the home of Operation Identification (OpID), a cooperation of several different organizations whose mission is to identify the remains of undocumented migrants who perish along the border in South Texas. So, there are primarily two kinds of skeletons you’ll find there. They’re either donations used in research or they’re the remains of undocumented migrants.

The lab itself is a really nice facility, though much smaller than I actually anticipated. We entered through the back where the bodies usually arrive to be processed if they’re donations. There are several large freezers, a scale, and other equipment to take tissue samples. The first room we visited was for OpID. It was a long narrow lab with a computer and counter along the left side and two computers and a small workstation on the right. We had been warned that it can get smelly at times and there was definitely an odor in the air, sort of sweet but musty. It wasn’t that strong, but it was for sure the smell of decomposition. It wasn’t enough to make me feel sick or anything, though. I imagine the people who work there are used to it.

There was skeleton laid out on the counter in full anatomical position. There were three cardboard boxes that held remains of other individuals. The guide explained to us in detail what OpID does and how they try to use DNA and the missing persons databases to match the remains up to a family. Their success rate is about 12%. That’s it, though she says it used to be lower and they’re getting better at their work. They have field schools where they exhume skeletons from cemeteries and also do recovery on ranch sites along the border. They work closely with Border Patrol, sheriffs, and justices-of-the-peace. She said most individuals they have are males in their twenties or thirties, though occasionally they have older individuals and their youngest skeleton is twelve.

Next, we saw the room where they process skeletons once they come in from the field if they still have soft tissues attached and such. This looks like an autopsy room, like the ones you see on television. There are large kettles for boiling bones, a long sink for cleaning bones, and a table with a light for examination. There were two ladies in protective gear at the sink meticulously cleaning bones from a skeleton that was lying on the table. The bones were brown and discolored, probably from being outside and exposed to the elements. They used copious amounts of Dawn, which makes sense to me seeing as how it’s great at breaking up organic substances. Dawn Dish Soap…it washes your dishes, saves wildlife, and scours your bones clean!

Around the corner was where the bones go after they’ve dried. There were about 5 plastic trays on a counter that held all the bones from a skeleton. I noticed right away that the left femur and tibia had knee replacement hardware. That was pretty cool to see. I asked the guide and she confirmed that they often see knee and hip replacements among their donated bodies as they tend to be from elderly white males. It’s also common to come across screws and plates. She said sometimes dentition (teeth) are missing because the individual had dentures. My mom had her knee replaced about ten years ago and I thought it was cool to see what her implants might look like.

Next to that room is their storage facilities. They only store the individuals for OpID there. The processed donor skeletons are curated in a separate facility for further research. There are tubs that store personal effects from the OpID bodies. If an individual is identified, then they lose their unique number, the tag is replaced with their name, and their box is moved to a separate shelf to await repatriation to their families.

There were so many boxes. This is what has me feeling weird, sad, and a little angry. I know illegal immigration is a huge problem. All politics aside, we are talking about human beings who are so desperate from poor conditions in their own country that they are willing to travel hundreds or thousands of miles risking everything so they can survive. Staring at those shelves upon shelves of boxes, I found myself wondering how many of those individuals ever imagined that they wouldn’t survive the journey and wind up as nothing but an unidentified skeleton in a cardboard box in a lab. I’ll bet none of them did.

All of the people in those boxes had a name once. It makes me so sad and angry that this program even has to exist. It is very noble work that they do, but I wish it never had to be done in the first place. The guide told us that most of America has no idea just how bad of an international humanitarian crisis this has become. Their work is an international effort…Argentina, Mexico, even a lab in Poland dedicates their time and energy processing DNA samples to offer profiles for identification. I sincerely wish more Americans knew just how many thousands of migrants die in the desert just for the opportunity to survive.

Maybe more people would have empathy for undocumented migrants if they knew. Maybe they would try harder to improve conditions in other countries and battle the gangs, the disease, the warfare so people wouldn’t have to leave their home countries to begin with. Maybe our elected officials would understand what people risk (EVERYTHING!) to come here and not tear children away from their parents and lock them in cages. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you want. I don’t see that as insult at all, especially if that means that I believe in human dignity. There is nothing dignified about fleeing your home, dying in a desert, and winding up in a box on a shelf in a lab without a proper burial. OpID works to give those people back their dignity.

Maybe it wouldn’t have hit so close to home if some of my own students weren’t undocumented or the children of undocumented parents. Those skeletons could be their missing family members.

Forensic work is necessary and there is justice involved, whether if it’s solving a crime or giving someone back their name so they can have a proper burial. I understand why people are drawn to this aspect of anthropology. I come away from this experience with a deeper and profound respect for forensic anthropologists.

I also know it’s not for me. I already knew that going into this experience, but this confirms it for me. The skeletons, the lab, the smells…none of that bothered me. I liked seeing the lab itself and the bones were so cool! It was the people who don’t have a name. It was the sheer number of those people.

I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night and was irritable and unhappy the next morning. I snapped at Nora for no good reason and made a point to apologize to her later on. Thursday at work I had several coworkers and some of my students ask about my trip. I told them I was still trying to process it and all of them were very understanding. If any of my coworkers are reading this, thank you for being patient with me. I am doing much better now that I’ve had time to think about everything I saw and the emotions that I felt.

I still want to study osteology and work in funerary archaeology, but I definitely know I’m going to contain myself to archaeological burials only. Like I said, this was a good experience. It was difficult, but I am thankful that I had the opportunity.

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