A Day in the Life of a TAS Archaeologist

By Tiffany Cochran, Field Technician

When I tell people I’m an archaeologist with the Tribal Archaeologist Section (TAS) of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, they usually respond with, “That’s so exciting!” or “Awesome! Like Indiana Jones!?”  Most of the time I respond by smiling and explaining that sadly, it’s not quite as…eventful…as Indiana Jones.  Instead of fighting bad guys and dodging booby traps, it is a lot of walking, digging, lifting, screening, and sweating.  So what is it really like to be an archaeologist?  Let me take you through a typical day in the life of an archaeologist for the TAS.

  1. First, we wake up ridiculously early in the morning to get ready for work.image 1

Working outdoors means you have to take advantage of as much daylight as possible, which means getting started as early in the morning as possible.  Not a morning person, I wake up with just enough time to get dressed in my field clothes, grab a banana and a granola bar to eat in the car, throw some random food in a bag for lunch, and race out the door.

2. Next is the scramble to prepare for the field.

After the most important step in the morning preparations,

image 2.jpg
Coffee, of course

there are several things we have to prepare before we leave for the field. By “the field,” I am referring to our term for going out to do a project.  Sometimes this is in an actual field or pasture, but it can be in any kind of environment, such as a home site, a hammock or tree island, a cypress dome, the side of a roadway, and sometimes even a patch of grass surrounded by a parking lot. One of our first steps is to prepare the Trimble, which is our mobile GPS device.
image 3

We load a map of our project area onto the Trimble each morning.  Included in this map are the GPS locations of all of the holes, which we call shovel tests, that we need to dig for a particular project.  In the field, the Trimble can lead us straight to the location of each shovel test.  The Trimble also keeps track of information such as depth, disturbances, and termination reason.

Next is preparing paperwork.  A project “desktop” is prepared ahead of time, which is a folder that includes all the information we need, such as maps of the project area, locations of utilities we need to avoid, locations of the shovel tests to be excavated, topography, elevation, and soil info, and info on who leases the land and who to contact to get access to the area.  The number and location of the shovel tests that we need to dig is determined before we start the project.  We take notes for every shovel test we complete.  We use Shovel Test Forms to record the necessary information.

image4
I never saw Indy doing paperwork…

Once the Trimble is ready and paperwork has been gathered, each person prepares his/her own personal field equipment.  We each carry a backpack that includes your standard archaeologist’s equipment: clipboard, pencils, sharpies, measuring tape (in centimeters and meters, not inches and feet), sunscreen, bug spray, artifact bags and labels, water bottles, sometimes a snack for energy, trowels, compass, gloves (for screening dirt), a machete, and a Munsell© soil color chart.  We then put on our snake boots, a required piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) for a Florida archaeologist, and our hats.

image 5
Indian Jones got some things right

Now ready to leave the office, we bring our field trucks to our storage shed and load it with the equipment needed for digging shovel tests: shovels, screens, and tarps on which to screen the soil to make it easier to backfill the holes.  Once these are in the back of the truck, we are ready to head to our project area.

3.Fieldwork

Most of the TAS’s fieldwork consists of Phase I archaeological survey.  What is this?  Basically, any time there is going to be ground disturbing activity on the reservations, such as construction activity, fence installations, creating ditches, etc., it is required that the TAS first survey the area to make sure that the ground disturbing activity will not affect any cultural material.  Our surveys include pedestrian survey, or walking through the project area to see if we find any artifacts on the surface, and shovel testing, which means digging holes at regular intervals and screening the dirt through a mesh screen to see if we find any cultural material.image 6

The truth is that most of the time we don’t find any artifacts.  We mostly find rocks, roots, modern debris, and worms.

image 7
And creepier things with far too many legs…

Once we have finished digging and screening the shovel test, we record the important information.  While the person who dug the shovel test fills out the paperwork, the person who screened the dirt puts the same information into the Trimble as a backup.  If we do find artifacts in the shovel test, we place them in bags to keep them safe and label the bags with info on the location, stratum (layer of soil), date, contents, and who collected the artifacts.

image 8
Animal bone and pottery are our most common finds
image 9
Sadly, I still have not found any pirate treasure… yet

4. Back in the office

Once we are done digging for the day, we head back to the office.  We first have to unload all of our equipment from the back of the truck to the equipment shed.  Afterward, we turn any artifacts in to the lab to be processed.  After stomping as much of the dirt off of our boots as we can, we take our personal equipment back to our desks.  We then try to clean ourselves up as best we can at the bathroom sinks.  I bring a fresh change of clothes each day so that I don’t have to sit in my dirty and sweaty clothes at my desk or in my car on the way home.  We plug the Trimbles into the computer and load all of the information we gathered on it that day into our ArcGIS© system.  We put our completed paperwork into the project folder.  The last hour or so of the day is dedicated to paperwork, such as the “desktops” previously mentioned or reports on the projects we have completed.  At 5:00 p.m. we clock out and leave to begin our long drive back home.

5. Dangers in the field

Remember how I mentioned that there are non-glamorous aspects of archaeology?  Sweat is definitely the most prolific.  This is Florida.  The heat and humidity here make you start pouring sweat the second you step out of your door.image 10

Now imagine digging holes for six hours in that mess.  Not only does it make things uncomfortable and rather smelly at times, but it can be dangerous.  Heat exhaustion and dehydration are real risks, especially in summer.  We make sure to bring plenty of water with us and we keep electrolyte tablets on hand just in case.  Besides the heat, nature can mess with us by sending rain, heavy winds, and thunderstorms.

image 11
As I said, this is Florida…so, hurricanes.

We have to pay attention to make sure we don’t get caught in something dangerous.  Being out in an open field during a thunderstorm holding metal shovels is not a good idea.

The distance between shovel tests depends on what we believe the probability of locating cultural material in the area may be.  Probability depends on multiple factors, such as looking at historic aerial maps, soil information, elevation, and environment.  Sometimes we are lucky and are able to drive close to the project area.  Sometimes, however, we are blocked from the area by fences, canals, or giant man-eating alligators.

image 12
Ok, that one hasn’t happened yet, but I still keep an eye out!

In that case, we walk to every hole carrying up to 40 lbs of equipment through environments such as:

image 13
Hammocks…
image 14
Canals…
image 15
Cypress domes (AKA mosquito breeding grounds)…

and any other environment necessary. Even Innocent looking open pastures are actually cow patty mine fields.

There are multiple dangers in Florida archaeology that we have to keep an eye out for.  I have already mentioned snakes.  There are multiple venomous species in Florida and we have all nearly stepped on one multiple times, or nearly had one drop on our heads!

image 16

Spiders are another risk.  Not just because there are venomous species as well, but because they are just plain creepy and I personally feel at risk of having a heart attack every time I accidentally walk into one of their webs.

image 17
How would you like to run face first into this guy?!

While I may not have run into a giant man-eating alligator yet, seeing alligators while in the field is usual and we try to be wary.  We also have to watch for panthers, wolves, and bears.  My favorite section of our safety manual is where it tells us to speak to the bear in a calm, assertive voice and if that doesn’t scare it away, people have successfully fought them off with large sticks, shovels, and even their bare hands.

image 18
Yeah, that’ll work.

It’s not a typical day in the field (at least for me) without getting some kind injury.  Usually it’s scratches or cuts from thorns such as Smilax, tree branches we have to barrel our way through, and going through barbed-wire fences to name a few.  Then there are the millions of mosquitoes trying to exsanguinate you, oak tree ants stinging you over and over until you manage to find them and squish them, ticks that can give you limes disease, wasps, and other insects I don’t know the name of, but I swear had to be created in a lab by a mad scientist bent on our destruction.

image 19
It’s the only explanation for their existence and purpose in this world.

Other non-bloodletting injuries common in our line of work include back, neck, shoulder, and knee injuries from the repetitive physical labor involved in digging and screening.  Tripping and falling due to roots, cypress knees, vines, or in my case my own uncoordinated feet, is not uncommon and all of our equipment comes crashing down with us.  Bruises are regular features on our extremities.  I sometimes get asked if someone is abusing me.  I say no, I do this to myself.  Accidents on field vehicles are a risk as well.  One former TAS employee flipped his ATV and shattered his wrist.  He has metal plates and pins in his wrist now.

6. The glamour

You may ask:  Why do we do what we do?  With all the injuries, risks, and dangers mentioned above?  Since we don’t get to keep the artifacts we find for ourselves?  Since we don’t make a lot of money doing it?  And especially since we don’t get to battle Nazis while trying to recover priceless magical artifacts protected by formidable booby traps?

image 20
If only…

Every archaeologist may say something different, but for me this career is one of the most interesting and exciting in the world!  The artifacts we usually find may not be exciting to most people, but no matter what it is, imagine the thrill of finding and touching something nobody has seen or touched for hundreds to thousands of years.  Or fifty.  Technically anything fifty years or older is a historic artifact.

image 21
My mom wasn’t too happy when I pointed out that technically she’s an artifact now.

Every site that we find is a mystery that we get to try to solve.  We use the evidence we record on our projects to try to figure out what happened in that area and how people in the past lived.  In that way, we’re more like Sherlock Holmes than Indiana Jones.

image 22
Too bad his hat isn’t useful for fieldwork.

Travel and Adventure!  As an archaeologist for the TAS, I don’t have to work in one place all the time.  I get to travel throughout southern Florida.  When I was working for Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firms, I got to travel to states all throughout the Midwest and as part of my archaeology field school I even got to dig in Ireland!  I get to travel all over, meet new people, and experience things I’ve never experienced before.  I have gotten to explore castles and caves, make friends in multiple states and countries, and take part in exciting discoveries!

image 23
And play in trees!

And not all animals encountered in the field are dangerous.

image 24
Though they did try to kill me with their cuteness!

 

Advertisements

Seminole Story Days

By Alyssa Boge, Education Coordinator

Hello!

My name is Alyssa and I am the Education Coordinator at the Museum. I am very excited to tell you about an upcoming program–you’re all invited!

I wish I could say that I planned everything out myself, but the truth is I couldn’t have planned everything so perfectly. The Museum has an internship program with Ahfachkee, the local Tribal school, that’s been going on for several years. Typically seniors who are able to participate visit the Museum to learn what different employees do. Depending on their personal and career interests, they decide what they would like to learn about and who they would like to work with.

This year Eden Jumper decided that he wanted to hone his skills with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator while learning about marketing principles. This is not Eden’s first time working with the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki- in the past he worked with the Exhibits Department to help create a series of interactive cases within the galleries. This year he decided to work with Virginia Yarce, our Development Assistant. Virginia let Eden drive the internship. Eden decided to market our current West Gallery exhibit “Struggle for Survival, 1817-1858” which discusses the Seminole War and features the important Buckskin Declaration, along with “Telling Our Stories” which highlights the Museum’s unique Oral History Program.

WP_20160415_09_57_44_Pro
Ahfachkee intern Eden Jumper working on his Photoshop skills

In order to showcase these exhibits, we decided the Museum should offer a variety of activities and presentations. Eden, assisted by Virginia, developed a marketing plan to promote the programming which he presented as a PowerPoint to me, Carrie Dilley, Visitor Services and Development Manager, and Kate Macuen, Assistant Director. He outlined what types of audiences we could market to, what types of marketing we would do, and what promo items we could feature. Eden did a fantastic job with his presentation and got the green light to proceed with planning the event.  Since that time he has worked to develop a program flyer and postcards to coordinate with the event. He brainstormed and wrote a VIP letter with Carrie Dilley and is currently working on the design for a promotional button. Wondering what other materials will he develop next? You’ll have to come to our event to find out!

Seminole Story Days

Postcards!

We decided on the name “Seminole Story Days” for the event, which will take place May 5-7. Each day we will have different activities that highlight topics from both our “Struggle for Survival, 1817-1858” exhibit and our Oral History Program. Tour guides will provide short tours of the exhibit throughout the day. Reinaldo Becerra, our Outreach Specialist, will provide period weapons demonstrations.  Our Oral History Coordinator, Eric Griffis, will talk about the Oral History Program and the exhibit he developed while Rebecca Fell, Curator of Exhibits, will talk about how oral histories are used in the development of exhibits. The Big Cypress Martial Arts group will demonstrate tactics Seminole warriors used against American soldiers. Finally, Eden Jumper will do a short talk about his project and his grandmother, Carol Cypress (wife of the late Museum founder Billy Cypress), will present alongside him.

We have a great line-up and we hope you’ll come out to support Eden and his internship project. Because really, this is Eden’s project and I am so excited that the museum was able to support him to make it happen.

Share about the Event! Here are some links to learn more about the event.  Also, watch for the program details on our website, Facebook and Twitter!

https://www.facebook.com/events/190902474632814/?active_tab=posts

http://ahtahthiki.com/Seminole-Story-Days.html

https://www.cultureowl.com/miami/events/view/struggle-for-survival-1817-1858-exhibit-1

 

 

THPO Comparative Collection

By Domonique deBeaubien, THPO Collections Manager

What is that?” It’s one of the most common questions we ask ourselves when working with archaeological artifacts.  Most of the artifacts that come into the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) Archaeological Lab are highly fragmented pieces of animal bone that were left behind by human activity at archaeological sites.  We call these tiny pieces of animal bone faunal remains.

Capture1
Collections Assistant Patricia Rodriguez pondering the identification of a tricky faunal bone. 

People often wonder why we spend so much time studying what is essentially, trash.  But you can learn a great deal about an archaeological site by understanding the remnants of what was left behind.  A trained analyst (or bioarchaeologist) can look at a pile of broken up pieces of animal bone and construct an elaborate picture about the people who created it.  For example: what were people eating?  How far did people travel to get their food?  What animals were the most valuable for nutrition and tool making?

Capture
Faunal material excavated from an archaeological site.  Can you identify any animal species?

In order to answer those questions we first need to understand what we’re looking at, and that’s why we have the THPO Comparative Collection!   This is essentially a reference collection made up of many different animal skeletons that help us identify the fragmented faunal remains that come into the lab.  Since the fauna of Florida is extraordinarily diverse, we have a wide collection of creatures ranging from alligators to armadillos and stingrays to snakes; we endeavor to have an example of most of the major animal species that live in our domain.

You may currently be wondering where these skeletons come from.  I’ll be the first person to admit that you don’t go into bioarchaeology if you’re squeamish.  There is a pretty high level of ick factor when acquiring comparative specimens, and it requires a serious level of dedication from our Collections staff.  Most of our specimens come from road kill, where they are collected and then buried in a discreet corner of the museum parking lot. Most people endearingly refer to this location of our campus as the Pet Cemetery.   Burying the animal allows the organic matter to decompose naturally, while leaving the skeletal remains behind. Other researchers use different methods like dermestid beetles to clean their specimens, but this process works the best for our environment.  It is also significantly friendlier to the eye (and nose) since everything is placed underground. After a number of months (sometimes years!), each specimen is carefully excavated and all of the bones are cleaned and organized anatomically.  We’re extra careful to gather all of the smaller bones, as these are often what survive the best archaeologically.

Capture3
THPO staff Josh Ooyman and Domonique deBeaubien excavating a faunal specimen

Whenever a new specimen is brought into the lab, our goal is to ensure it becomes a valuable asset to our collection, so every individual bone is identified by skeletal element, labeled, and stored accordingly.  That way, when students or interns come into the lab who aren’t familiar with comparative anatomy, they have a vast resource right at their fingertips.

Capture4
Out of the field and into the collection
Capture5
A small sample of archaeological faunal bone from a site on the Big Cypress Reservation

Let’s take a quick look at the comparative collection in action. This photo is a classic example of what comes into the lab: tiny little pieces of mystery faunal bone!  Our job is to take those tiny fragments, and identify what they are by comparing them with intact bones from our comparative collection.  Can you tell what kind of animal bone these might be?

Capture6

If you guessed alligator, that is correct!  The archaeological fragments pictured above belong to an alligator scute.  A scute is a piece of bony armored plating that runs down an alligator’s back.  Alligators have hundreds of them, and they fit together to form a protective layer of osseous body armor.  As you can see, they are approximately the same size, and share the same markings as the alligator scute from our Comparative Collection.  Even though we just had a few tiny pieces, our amazing lab staff was able to accurately identify what animal species the fragments came from!

For us, each fragment of bone tells a different story; whether it’s a family meal shared hundreds of years ago, or how far hunters journeyed for their catch.  Each story is unique, and thanks to our comparative collection, we can help bring that story to life.

 

The 2015 American Indian Arts Celebration

by Carrie Dilley, Visitor Services and Development Manager

The American Indian Arts Celebration, or AIAC for short, has taken place each year at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki since the Museum opened in 1997.  The event has always featured an exciting line-up of performers, demonstrations, and vendors, and this year was no exception.  This was my second year as the overall event planner, but I have either attended or participated in every AIAC since 2008.  I might sound a little biased here, but I feel confident in saying that the 2015 event was the best AIAC yet!  Why was it the best?  Let’s take a look…

Visitation: The most obvious detail that set this year’s event apart from the rest was our overall visitation.  We were up 40% from last year! If we take a look back over the past few years, we see that we were up 55% from 2013, 144% from 2012 (no, that is not a typo!), 59% from 2011, and 35% from 2010.  We had a ton of schools come out and take advantage of our “education day” on Friday.  For the $5 group rate, AIAC is the biggest bargain of the year!  Most of our visitors came from surrounding areas but we also saw people from Canada, Italy, New York, Colombia, France, Germany, Connecticut, and Belgium.  Not only did visitors enjoy the festival, most also took advantage of visiting the Museum galleries and boardwalk for the full Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki experience.

Museum Parking Lot full of buses

Vendors:  At AIAC, there is truly something for everyone.  This year we had 44 arts and crafts vendors, three traditional Seminole food vendors, and two food trucks (three on Friday).  While many of our arts and crafts vendors were Seminole, we also had vendors from other tribes represented– Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Lower Muscogee Creek, Inca Ajibwa, Navajo, Miccosukee, and Dineh (Navajo). For something unexpected, TV-Head Co. joined us with a booth of wooden watches, bow ties, wallets, and sunglasses.

IMG_5043

The Main Stage:  We had six different performers or demonstrations on Friday and seven on Saturday.  Tribal elder Bobby Henry provided the opening ceremony both days and engaged the audience with his traditional Seminole dances.  Billy Walker and Paul Simmons awed guest with their alligator wrestling shows.

Paul Simmons 1

The Warriors of AniKituhwa joined us from Cherokee, NC and provided a riveting dance performance.

WP_20151106_11_54_52_Pro

Rita Youngman, Jerry Mincey, and Cypress Billie sang songs that told tales of Florida life.  Saturday’s patchwork fashion show showed visitors a contemporary take on a traditional Seminole dress and the Martial Arts demonstration put a whole new spin on a traditional reenactment.

DSC09808

Other Offerings: On top of visiting vendor booths and watching exciting performers, visitors could stop by the information booth for a food tasting featuring Seminole fry bread and sofkee. New this year, Museum and THPO staff acted as gallery docents to provide additional information to visitors inside the museum.  Saturday morning kicked off with a bird watching nature walk, where over 20 different species of birds were seen or heard!

Bird walk 3 WP_20151107_08_07_10_Pro

An outdoor exhibit installation featuring Seminole Spirit photographs, an archery station, Elgin Jumper painting “en plein air,”  a demonstration tent with three booths featuring Seminole weaponry, the Florida cow-whip, and Cherokee traditions, and a craft tent with three different (free) craft options rounded out the experience.  Last but not least, we partnered with Billie Swamp Safari to offer free shuttle rides to take our visitors to their park, where visitors could receive 50% off any attraction just by showing their AIAC wristband.

AIAC_Marlene Archery

20151106_160431_resized

TEAMWORK:  How did we make it all happen???  Teamwork!  The Museum and THPO staff came together and unified as one group to provide an exciting event to our visitors.  Even though the event took an incredible amount of planning, coordination, and hard work, we left with a huge smile on our faces.  We all went home Saturday evening knowing that we created an event that made the Tribal community and all of our visitors proud to be in attendance.

WP_20151106_11_44_17_Pro

Juan Carrie Kate

The only negative of the event was knowing this was the last time we will have our MVP on staff, Mr. Gene Davis.  Gene, it it impossible to express how much we will all miss working with you!  Good luck in your future endeavors.