Monday, October 24, 2011

National Archaeological Day

I had no idea this was planned - but in any event, I was playing at the Hales Corners Chess Challenge XIV on Saturday 10/22.  I'm sorry to have missed this, though.  Damn!  I earned my Bachelor's degree at UW-Milwaukee.

From the UWM Post

UWM hosted event for first National Archaeology Day

Posted on 24 October 2011

Last Saturday, the Archaeological Institute of America – Milwaukee Chapter and UW-Milwaukee’s Archaeological Research Laboratory brought together UWM professors, students, archaeologists and anthropology enthusiasts to an event in celebration of the first-ever National Archaeology Day.

The event was titled “Life after Fieldwork: Behind the Scenes at UW-Milwaukee’s Archaeology Lab” and provided an inside look into current projects and the ways anthropologists and archaeologists study their findings after the fieldwork is done.

UWM professors Dr. Patricia Richards and Dr. Laura Villamil were among some of the speakers at the event. They discussed their projects and the importance of archaeology in today’s society.

Former national AIA President and current AIA – Milwaukee Chapter President Jane Waldbaum was the co-sponsor for the event.

Dr. Jane Waldbaum

“The Archaeological Institute of America is the oldest and largest nonprofit archaeological organization in North America, founded in 1879 by a professor of classics at Harvard,” Waldbaum said. “In those days, they wanted to sponsor digs and basically bring knowledge, primarily of classic archaeology, to the public.”

Waldbaum said over time, it grew into a national and international organization.  “It developed a network of local societies, which are like chapters. There are 180 altogether now,” Waldbaum said.
Milwaukee is one of those chapters.

“Part of the mission of the National AIA is to bring knowledge of archaeology to the general public in the United States,” Waldbaum said. “We are chartered by Congress … there are other archeological organizations in the country, but we’re the oldest … the largest and the only one that has this kind of systematic public programming on a national scale and division of chapters.”

Waldbaum said they also have annual meetings that serve their more “scholarly members” by giving presentations on their latest research.

She explained how National Archaeology Day came to be and how AIA became involved.  “The national [AIA] headquarters are in Boston, and someone came up with the bright idea this year, as late as August, to declare October 22 as National Archaeology Day,” Waldbaum said.

Though it was short notice, “a little bit of support and encouragement” was given to see if some local chapters could host some events in October she said.

“What they’re doing is showing some of the ways you deal with material after it has been brought back to the lab to be tested,” Waldbaum said.

The event was meant to show people the less glamorous side of archaeology, in stark contrast to the cherished fictional life of Dr. Jones of the Indiana Jones franchise.  “You think of archaeology [and people ask] ‘What’s the most important thing you ever found, the most exciting thing you ever found … Is it really glamorous to go to Egypt or Yucatan and find things?’” Waldbaum said. “Yes, all of those are very exciting, but if you don’t then take that material and study it and publish it, it’s wasted. You might as well be a looter.” [MIGHTY APPLAUSE FROM YOURS TRULY!!!!!]

She said archaeologists also have to run tests to discover who made the object, why it was used, how it was used, if it was traded and how it was made. In addition, many other questions must be answered before writing and publishing scholarly material on the excavated findings, and this event was a way to shed light on that.

Waldbaum believes the study of archaeology is important because it reveals to us the exciting possibilities of “mere humans.”  “We study the human past, and we’re interested in all facets of the human past – it’s not dinosaurs – it’s the human past,” Waldbaum said. “I think most of us feel that by knowing more about how our ancestors, even the most remote ones, lived and went about their lives, we can extrapolate that to our own lives and our societies … It’s really quite amazing.”

Dr. Patricia Richards

Dr. Patricia Richards is a UWM professor and archaeologist who focuses her studies on the periods of history with written record. She spoke at the event about her 1991 project, which included a collection of human bones from a historical cemetery.

“This [exhibition] represents an archaeological collection that we have that was excavated on the County Institution Grounds in 1991 and 1992, and we got the collection returned to us for permanent curation in 2007,” Richards said.

“The goal of this particular project is to permanently curate the collection, to stabilize it, appropriately boxing it … and then attempting to take the spatial information – causes of death, various kinds of pathologies – comparing it to a list of individual names, and we’re trying to eventually identify the individuals,” Richards said.

Richards was in charge of mapping, artifact analysis, spatial analysis, wood identification and all of the osteology.

Richards has worked on a variety of other historic cemeteries, even some prehistoric cemeteries, but most recently, she excavated a 19th century cemetery near 22nd Street between West Clybourn and West Michigan Streets in Milwaukee.  “For some reason, I just kind of ended up being the person who does historic cemeteries around here … I don’t know why,” she said.

She too believes in the importance of archaeological studies, but understands why people not related to the field have trouble seeing the relevance of the work. “In the 19th century, academics and archaeological academics were sort of part of the popular media … they were much more integrated in what was going on, and people, I think, saw some kind of relevancy,” Richards said.

Richards talked about this group becoming irrelevant to the public, partly because they had become so overly esoteric. Richards said anthropologists study humans in their entirety, as an integrated entity. “If we understand all of the parts as they work together … as a whole, if we can understand that, we’re going to understand a lot more about humans … and their environments,” Richards said. “It’s pretty clear right now that we are both messing up our environment, and our environment, in turn, is messing us up as a species.”

She believes anthropology can help us recognize these patterns. “We’re able to look at various groups that have messed up their environments, various groups that have messed up their relations with other people, and we know what’s happened in those instances and that’s one of the things archaeology really brings,” Richards said.

Richards said many people just tell her you can read about all of that in a history book. However, she believes the stories they are telling, as archaeologists, were never written about in books. “When people get written about in history, they’re male, they’re important, they’re the Steve Jobs of the world,” Richards said. “They are not this individual who died at 40 or 50 years of age, probably of some kind of accident and is pretty much anonymous … We’re the people bringing that story to life.”

Dr. Laura Villamil

Dr. Laura Villamil discussed how she got started in archaeology, the experiences she’s had, the basic process behind leading an international dig and the value archaeology provides to us as human beings.

“I got started in archaeology when I was working in the main Mayan Temple,” Villamil said.
She was hired by the Mexican government to participate in what she described as a “National Geographic-type” project where she found human remains that had spears through their heads and even tombs.

Villamil said the most exciting part of the job is and has been the “thrill of discovery … making sense of the whole.”

Villamil was at the event to speak about her current project in Yucatan.

She stood behind a table with various maps indicating the region she is working in and explained that the goal of the project is to just “get a feel for the region.” “I knew I wanted to work there because we knew nothing about it,” Villamil added.

Villamil said the archaeologists go to the region and “literally knock on doors” in these villages to ask the community members if they are aware of any ruins. “We have a very strong relationship with local families,” Villamil said.

Once someone notifies them about ruins, the team then picks a site where test excavations are done.
“All excavated material has to be stored in Mexico and most of the lab work goes on when we’re there,” Villamil said.

Because of national and international regulation, excavated material cannot be transported from Mexico to America. Everything must stay in the village.

Later on in the project, as Villamil continues to produce data, she will have to submit a very detailed report to the Mexican government and later publish scholarly materials on the findings. These projects, depending on the scope, can take one to two years Villamil said.

Despite the length and intensive focus that surround these projects, Villamil, Waldbaum and Richards all demonstrate a vigorous passion for bringing awareness to the importance of the discipline.

“We think that our way of life is right, but it’s really just a blip of how people live,” Villamil said. “Archaeology helps us in understanding that there are other ways to live.”

The National Archaeological Institute of America will also be hosting the third annual Milwaukee Archaeology Fair in partnership with the Milwaukee Public Museum in March.

Visit to learn about national and international archaeology projects through AIA and opportunities to get involved on a dig as a volunteer.

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