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30 May, 2013


Maybe May be a rough month for my hands. Last year, I was perhaps the 21st Century's first digging stick laceration. Today, it was a machete. I was lopping off branches from some bamboo and feral shrub sticks to make poles for beans and hops to climb.

A neighbor was clearing out the side jungle, and I made off with the poles. Walking down the street with a 12-foot bundle of vegetation for the first time in a long time felt good. The neighbor offered a pair of loppers, but for some reason I am always afraid I will accidentally remove a digit with thise things, and there's something so satisfying as the sing and sing of a Brazilian blade slicing through twiggery. My regular machetes (the hand-carved hog-hilted one, and the one with the nice copper handle grip) were either in the truck out front or not immediately obvious, so I went with a miniature one, noticing that it had an unusual single-bevel edge, not very sharp.

With the blade sharpened only on one side as it was, I should have been cutting left handed, but due to terrain and laxness I did it the other way around, with the bevel making the knife glance away, and within a few swings, into my small finger (which in my way of typing, is completely unnecessary). Turns out, the dull blade is still enough to hit bone when all it hits is the weak skin on the backside of a pinky.

Annoyingly, holding my finger tautly straight was not enough to hold the wound shut, and I was forced to suspend operations within a minute or two. As per my own feral sense of medical treatment, I let it bleed a bit to flush out the wound (and, per my superstitious sense of spiritual treatment, to make a blood sacrifice to maybe flush out, as they say, some "recent unpleasantness") before heading in to hunt for a butterfly bandage. (Note to Self: Get some replacement butterfly bandages soon.)

One quick wash, pressure napkin application, and house-wide search later, I slathered on some triple antibiotic ointment, laid a tiny bandaid along the slice, butterfly over that along the finger, and finally one of those ever handy extra-long bandaids to seal the deal. Seriously, it is pointless to deal with any finger injury that's not on the very tip without the extra long bandaid. Go get some now. Having the right bandages and of course the miracle triple antibiotic has saved me thousands of dollars in emergency medical treatment over the years, as has my loose attitudes toward hygiene, which bestow upon me a diverse and infection-resistant microfauna.

So anyway, all is well. I mean, the hops poles are not done yet, but the finger is fine. Nice thing about a clean linear cut, they seal back shut without much trouble. However, next May I may avoid sharp objects.

20 May, 2013

Silence of the Lions

All archaeologists must endure the ignorance of a populace that thinks we dig up dinosaurs (that would be paleontologists) or look for gold (leave that to geologists, prospectors, pirates, treasure hunters,...pretty much everyone except archaeologists, who chose their profession in part due a pathological aversion to wealth). But those among us whose work is basically to maintain compliance with historic preservation laws must also face a public that cannot fathom that something a mere 50 years old is considered Historic. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard, "But that's just trash" or "Well hell, I'm historic then," (think again, pal, you need to be dead and abandoned for 50 years), then I'd be rich, and might therefore have to give up archaeology.

On the other hand, we occasionally get to see some interesting, if not ancient, things. Like the moldering and abandoned maritime heritage of WWII, for example. My agency disposes of these things, obstructing our waterways or fouling the water, boats and floats that are beyond repair, of interest to nearly nobody; my job is to wring whatever information I can from them before they become actual garbage.

The boat above was launched in 1944. I don't have the full history yet, but it became a Coast Guard boat after the war, and eventually was sold off. This is the second boat of about this size and age that I've documented recently; the WWII boats that are left are not doing well for the most part, and before long all but a few beloved ones will be gone. Many are steel, but WWII still saw production of a lot of wooden boats.

Mass production, to be precise. My grand-dad was a teacher who spent summers in tidewater Virginia building Liberty Ships. These may be the epitome of mass production, but the more WWII-vintage vessels I see (tugs, dry docks, patrol boats, and so on), and the more of them I investigate, the clearer it becomes that the majority never saw any action. Many were never really mobilized, launched in the last year or two of the war only to sit idly until they were  sold as surplus for pennies on the dollar. Eisenhower, administrative officer extraorindaire, probably recognized the waste, speaking out as he did years later (as president ordinaire) against the perils of a military-industrial complex; before said beast was a threat to our economy and freedom, it was guilty of (mere) overproduction. But in 1944, neither Ike nor FDR nor any of the (finally) employed shipyard workers was about to object to padding the reserves and making a few extras if it meant the Emporer and Fuhrer (oh, and the Depression) would be defeated. 

But the fact is, many of these machines of war never did roar, or even approach the action. They sat. They collected dust and rust until they could be sold off. 

Other materiel was just cut loose, apparently. This photo is of a float that held up anti-submarine nets deployed in Puget Sound. Again, I lack a detailed knowledge of the history, whether this system would have really worked if needed, or when the sub-nets were abandoned. But the floats have lived up to their name, and bobbed around Puget Sound for decades. The heavily galvanized bolts that hold together the deeply-creosoted timbers can sometimes still be loosened, and although many are starting to fall apart, others are more or less like they appeared for years. Well, less, I guess, since one of the problems with these is that they leach toxic creosote into the water. That and their tendency to obstruct navigation and damage shorelines is why they are being removed. 

Yes, there were lions that roared during the war. Great guns on boats that laid waste to Japanese fortifications on Pacific Islands and German ones in Normandy, landing craft disgorged hordes onto beaches. But many of those were sunk or so heavily damaged that they do not survive today, or were so important that they became shrines, no longer used. The overproduction, on the other hand, escaped notice like the floats, or was repurposed like the boats. They saw no action, and lived to see another day. And another and another, until time and the elements did to them what the Imperial Fleet and Admiral Doenitz could not. So I walk around them and crawl through them, mostly in silence, taking photos and writing notes that may be their last words.

18 May, 2013

It's the Fountain? An Olympia (and Tenino) Mystery Artifact

The front of a font, maybe.

Last Fall, I came across something that other people have probably seen for years, and others have forgotten about for even longer, but it was new and mysteriouis to me. Embedded in an old road berm on the Eastbay shore was a big piece of carved sandstone. Recently, I was around as a city crew pulled it free as they prepare for an environmental restoration project. In decades of archaeologizing, this stands out as one of the biggest and most interesting artifacts I've seen. It also holds a few mysteries.

Now that I've had the chance to look at it a few times, see the dirt it came out of, and talk it over with a few other archaeologists as we examined it, a few things are not so mysterious. Like, it was pretty obviously just dumped here along with concrete, asphalt, and brick rubble, part of the berm that blocked the mouth of a creek; a neighbor thinks the Salmon Club may have been involved, but it is also in a City park, at the bottom of an old road, and may have been deposited by them. I'll get to why I think that may be the case in a bit.

The stone is sandstone, and a partially obliterated inscription on one end is enough to convince me that it came from the Hercules Quarry in Tenino. The top features a square flanked by two octagonal basins, and a tunnel runs through it. There is rust surrounding one side of the opening, indicating that there was a metal attachment there, and along with pipes running from bottom to top, it suggests that this may have been a decorative fountain. The base, beginning immediately below the tunnel through the stone, at first appeared to be sandstones as well, but turns out to be stucco over concrete. The very bottom is unadorned concrete that contains glacial pebbles and bits of shell, more what you'd expect of a locally-mixed batch than what comes from commercial suppliers. More specifically, what you'd expect from a shoreline local batch than Tenino. (Ironically, the development of commercial concrete businesses is what did in the Hercules and other quarries in Tenino.)
The top.
And that's about it for what I know. A once fancy piece of stonework, stripped of metalwork and dumped on the Olympia shoreline. Maybe a fountain, and if my interpretation of the inscription (shown below, after considerable computer enhancement) is correct, it was a presentation piece. It just so happens that the abandoned road heading uphill from this spot leads to the former location of the "Swiss Chalet" that stood in Priest Point Park from not long after it's 1905 founding until the 1950s. Before that, the Chalet had been part of Olympia Brewing Company's pavilion at the Lewis and Clark Expo in Portland. A nicely carved fountain proclaiming a presentation and naming the quarry seems like just the sort of thing that may have appeared in that sort of setting, especially since Olympia Brewing even in those days was stating, "It's the Water."

Or, maybe the Hercules folks presented it to the park. Or, something else. Some sort of Park connection makes sense, though, given the proximity (seems like an awful big stretch to say that some Tenino resident hauled it all the way up here to dump it), and the fact that you need heavy machinery just to move the thing.

Odds are, this modestly monumental stonework, dumped and forgotten for years, is likely to be recycled by the City of Olympia. Maybe placed in the park, or maybe elsewhere, but people once again see it as something interesting, worth using for some better purpose than shoreline armoring. Maybe it could be fixed up and one of Olympia's artesian wells could bubble forth from it.

In the meantime, if anyone out there knows about this, or has photos of the chalet in Portland or in our park, leave a comment and let me know. If I find out anything, I'll write an update. 

06 May, 2013

"Carparchaeology" (I only wish I'd coined that one.)

My favorite historian (once Aunt Leila died), recently ran a series of posts about the recent spate of archaeological sites in British carparks: knights and ladies, no less than the bones of King Richard the Freaking Third, and what have you.

Historians are a bit less cynical than archaeologists. Probably a lot less, for we terrain-walkers and dirt-diggers know that the written record is biased, often composed and edited, and paid for by the winners; we demand physical evidence. Garbage, from the first dung-heap to yesterday's stratum at the municipal landfill, does not lie like the printed word. Individuals may destroy something or throw it away where they think nobody will know, but at a societal level, we can in fact know what they ate and made by looking at what they shat and broke. We can piece together what they did when the climate changed or disaster struck. We can see how much wealth inequality they could stand before it all collapsed into famine or rebellion.

Archaeologists may demand physical evidence as proof, especially for conclusions we can't cur (opposite of 'concur,' and another creative linguistic nugget invented not by me), but we also love to speculate. Although nobody is serving me a beer as I do so, let me speculate on why archaeology should keep turning up in the carparks of the British Isles:

  1. Regulatory - Speculatory, this reason, but I cannot help but think that Britain has a historic preservation review process that causes archaeologists to take a look before some new development. So you want to take that carpark and build something that requires a deep and perhaps ruinous foundation? Do some archaeology first before you destroy heritage. [Also, I like to do fake accents, and utter words like "Reh-gyoo-LATE-ree."]
  2. The Development Cycle - I may be making up this phrase, but it refers to something real. Carparks often turn out to be an interim phase between the old building that was razed and the new one yet to be built, a way for the landowner to make a few bucks while awaiting a better economic climate for construction. Or, they are part of an old farm or other "open space" being brought into the urban sphere, although again this tends to be a temporary phase, prior to a new commercial structure. In either case, enter Regulation before the new edifice arises.
  3. Stratigraphy/Taphonomy - Leveling the rubble of the old building or laying down  gravel and bitumen on a field are both additive processes, stratigraphically speaking. "Taphonomy" is just a bit of gibberish invented by archaeologists to mystify the public and protect our jobs, and it boils down to the things that happen to a site after the artifacts are originally deposited. Until very recently, in most urban settings, people cart away the valuables and the good building materials, and then either flatten out the ruins or deposit more stuff to make it level. Mostly, this causes the ground level to rise, which is how tells are formed. So it only stands to reason that a nice level carpark might have goodies (archaeologically speaking) beneath. Even in Leicester.
  4. Archaeologists are not all Adventurers - Generally, the majority of archaeologists would rather dig in their neighborhood than brave malarial swamps (or any swamp, honestly) or apply for a visa. [Disclosure: I am lucky enough to have found a swamp in biking distance from home, and have been digging there lately.] Consulting archaeologists recognize that digging a hole in a carpark is feasible, compared with tearing down the neighboring building and digging under its foundation. Professors tend to look for projects that can be accomplished near libraries and pubs, preferably with handy parking.
  5. Density - Writing from the Pacific Northwest (or as Asia would see it, the Pacific Northeast), where the oldest "historic" site is some moldering lumber from the 1850's, it is easy to forget that the British Isles, including some of their best carparks, have been overrun by building-building peoples for a relatively long time. Many cities there have past residents including East and West Indians, Victorians, Normans, Angles and Saxons, Vikings, Romans, and so on. So you dig a hole in London or York or any town that did not just spring up at a freeway interchange (or whatever those are called in Brittania), and you're going to intrude on the past residents. Again, things pile up.
So, there you have it. My not-quite-drunken list of reasons why carparchaeology is a promising field for any young archaeologist in regions urbanized for more than a semi-millennium. 

05 May, 2013

From Hmm... to Huh? to Hah!

This gem is from coverage of the South Carolina Republican Party Convention, gathering place for some of the same brain trust that decided to risk a solid seat by running their persistently corrupt and disgraceful ex-governor against a smart woman who also happens to be Stephen Colbert's sister.

Peggy G. is onto something when she notes that a freshman Senator may not be ready for the Presidency. I'll admit that I shared her reluctance about Obama, and feel vindicated after 4 years of watching him be manipulated to protect the primacy of corporations and the war machine. 

But this hesitancy about an unproved leader causes her to suggest...freshman Senator Rand Paul?! Yes, he is a son of a politician (although why, o Libertarians, do you not see the oxymoronic folly of a Libertarian dynasty?), but until recently the guy was an opthalmologist, while Ted Cruz has at least been in government for a few years (although why, o Birthers, would you consider a guy born in the Peoples' Republic of Canada as a candidate?). For what it's worth, Rand's potential for wide appeal by letting the Right cling to their guns and the Left pass around their joints is what scares me, although his ridiculous hair will probably keep him out of the presidency.

And finally, Ms. Geraghty gets down to what passes for Realpolitik among the tea-steeped party faithful--that what they may need is "sparkle." Yes, she is speaking from beauty pageant country, but holy crap! "Sparkle?" I guess Rubio has some sparkle--and maybe even enough brillo to capture some of the Latino vote--but again, the guy has a hair problem. If he can keep from going bald or having an embarrassing combover before his chance, he may be President, but the smart money is against it. 

The Democrats are perennially disappointing, but tend to be the lesser or evils, at least domestically. So it is with Schadenfreude that I watch the GOP's base insist on idiocy: thinking that a stiff millionaire would have appeal, repeatedly insulting women and minorities and doubling down on white supremacy, going on record at every opportunity to protection billionaires and corporations while demanding sacrifice from our poorest citizens,...the list goes on and on and on. 

So thank you, Republican in South Carolina and all across the nation, for your baffling political strategies. It may just be enough to keep you out of the presidency when Obama heads into retirement.