One of the biggest blessings in my life is being able to do what I love.  It means being able to do archaeology on  daily basis, and to be part of a wonderful and caring community of people whose joy is the same as mine.  Everywhere I go and every place I do research, I find another group of archaeologists that are amazingly talented, intelligent and kind.  I think that when you love what you do, all of the hours of hard work, the heat, the sore feet, the sun burn, it all falls by the wayside because for us, there is no greater reward than being able to find history.

That is how this past summer was.  We found a settlement of approximately 10,000 to 25,000 people, which was about 1000 years old.  The work was hard, but worthwhile.  One of the people I met while working was Jason Bush.  Jason is resilient, hard working, and always cool under pressure.  A genius with the GPS and GIS software, Jason is one of the reasons that we implemented such a new and complex methodology for recording sites in the field.  Jason while be writing his master’s thesis on the work we are doing in Mexico, but unfortunately he hit a roadblock on the way.

Jason has been recently diagnosed with stage III testicular cancer.  Being a graduate student, his health care doesn’t kick in until the fall semester, and unfortunately the cancer was discovered two days before that starting period and therefore, according to the health care provider, is considered a pre-existing condition.  That means the insurance will not cover doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy treatment, operations, or lab tests associated with the cancer.

Now, I could ramble on about how this is a perfect example of why people like Jason and the vast majority of Americans need health care reform to pass, but this isn’t about heath care.  This is about reaching out to the greater community of archaeologists and to ask for their help.  With the accumulation of medical bills, Jason is estimated to have 120,000 dollars in debt, and that is after the initial treatment package.  In helping Jason, we are helping a student.  We are helping him finish his thesis.  We are helping him get on his feet and work in Mexico again this upcoming summer.  We are helping to relive his financial troubles so he could afford to continue school, and go on to a PhD program.  We are investing in his future as an active member of the archaeological and academic community, a community that I know to be strong in the bonds it makes. That is because we all love what we do for a living, and none more than Jason.  So please, pass this blog along, and visit,  and continue to aid Jason through this tough time, and help him get back to doing what he loves.

For more please visit, or go to his facebook page, under Jason Bush Cancer Fund.  You will be helping immensely just by passing these tags along.

Her silver and grey streaked hair hangs down her back in a ponytail, and stands out against the dark blue shawl that adorns her shoulders.  She is dressed in a white skirt and a traditional white blouse, both worn by the decades of hand washing and continual wear.  She slowly makes her way down the cobbled steps to the main square, one old hand grasping the stone wall for balance, the other dearly hanging onto a large basket from which a sweet aromatic smell arises.  Her face concentrates on the ground, as her small shuffling steps require caution on this unstable walking surface.  Her forehead wrinkles, her eyes squint against the sun now rising over the eastern buildings..  Her dark brown face wears the wrinkles of the past years, and are telling of the many days suffered in the sun and heat of Mexico.  And yet, everyday she makes her way down early in the morning to situate herself in her favorite selling spot.  She sells fresh pan dulce, or sweetbread: one package for 12 pesos or two for 20.  She calls out to any passerby, to anyone who will listen.  Most walk by, some stop if they feel the need to indulge their sweet-tooth.  Her day’s earnings are small, but enough to do it all again the next day.  As the day ends she moves slowly back up the cobbled steps, her basket lighter by the day’s sales.  She halts at the road as a convoy of police cars come to a halt…

The young man, dressed as a black assassin, taps on the window to the driver from the back of the truck as he sees and old woman out of the corner of his eye round the street.  The driver slows, and lets the old lady pass in front of the armed convoy.  The young man is adorned in black helmet, black face mask, black bullet-proof vest, and black pants tucked neatly into his black military boots.  His terrifying ensemble is topped off by his mirror sunglasses, which convey no sense of emotion from the dark covered face.  He holds a shotgun across his arm, and surveys the crowded streets where tourists scurry into shops to avoid the ominous sight of him and his convoy.  They are supposed to reassure the crowds, to protect them.  But all the young man seems to do is remind them if the drug war that is currently ongoing in the region.  But if one were to look under the dark exterior of this man, they may see his warm brown eyes, his gentle smile.  They may look at him and understand that he is a father of two little girls, and husband to a scared wife who dreads watching the news and waits in apprehension everyday for her husband to return from work.  But they would never see these qualities, because he must hide them.  He must hide his face to protect himself, his family.  He must put on this black, steely visage.  Out of the corner of his eye he spots a young man, no younger then himself.  He is American, and carries shopping bags full of the day’s purchases.  Naturally, by turning to look at him, his body turns and with it the shotgun.  This startles the young man, who ducks into a nearby shop.  He didn’t mean to startle him, it’s just his job…

The young American, visibly shaken by the federal police, is a student studying the summer in Patzcuaro.  He stands out from the crowd, not just because of his skin color, but also because of his 6’1 frame.  He is tanned, but still not as dark as the native Mexicans.  He wanders from shop to shop, quietly perusing the items for sale.  He wears cargo shorts and a white tee shirt, and carries a satchel bag that contains his camera, wallet, and “How To Speak Spanish” books.  When he speaks, his accent is good enough, but his lack of vocabulary restricts his conversational ability.  Although he tries to hide it, the frustration comes across on his young face as he tries to explain what type of wood carved mask he would like to purchase.  He tries so hard not to look like a tourist, but as he takes his camera out to capture the parade of caballeros on horseback trotting their prize horses through the center of town, his tourist sensibilities take over as he moves in for a good shot.  The camera snaps away, but he knows that the picture will fail to produce the sound of the clopping of 50 horse shoes on the cobbled road, nor will it replicate the smell of the pan dulce drifting from the basket of the old woman sitting on the corner stoop, nor convey the intangible fear of an armed man dressed in black.  The pictures will be solely for him, and no matter how many people he shows his photographs to, no one will understand that moment like him.  The best he can do is to tell his stories, and write about his experiences.

Thanks for reading, and until next year…Salud!

People watching is a favorite past-time of mine.  I love noticing the subtle intricacies of human behavior, and as I watch for these details I can’t help but take in the surroundings that affects human actions.  In this case, the surrounding is a beach.  More precisely, is it Zihuatenejo, on Mexico’s Pacific coast.  We have taken a three day break to relax from our field work, and I now find myself hiding in the shade, soaking in the sights and sounds of this beautiful place.  The ocean waves provide a constant soundtrack to the scene, as well as provide some comic relief for the sun-soaked people watcher.

The majority of travelers to this beach are Mexicans, as this beach, Playa de la Ropa, is a much more subdued beach, with the resorts built into the sides of the cove that surround the green-blue waters.  There are also some Europeans, as I hear German, British and Dutch accents wander in and out between the crashes of waves.  A group of Mexican boys have now begun a game of soccer on the beach, with the ocean waves sporadically joining in as a player, stealing the ball in its surf and carrying it back to the sea.  Play is halted until the ball is retrieved, only to be lost again by another splashing, white wave.

People slowly walk up and down the beach, enjoying the view the ocean provides.  A tall German man, bald and wearing a Harley-Davidson tank top, walks a very minuscule dog up and down the beach.  With his sun-burnt head and the small dog’s fear of the ocean tide, the pair make a comical duo.  Down the beach a contingent of Canadians have stuck a Canadian flag on a pole firmly into the sand, marking their place in paradise.  No one takes notice, as the red maple leaf doesn’t exactly strike fear into any on-lookers.

I venture back into the ocean to try and catch some waves to body surf on.  There, from the ocean looking in on the beach, I notice other subtleties that are a stark reminder of the outside world.  First, more trash is in the ocean and on the beaches than I noticed in my last visit four years ago.  The beaches were also littered with people four years ago, whereas now they are devoid of the tourists they are so used to attracting.  Resorts are operating at half capacity, and the beaches are almost empty of the sea-vendors that usually frequent the beaches.  They are the wave-runner renters, the para-sail providers, the little old women who sell silver and shell jewelry, and the tanned and tattooed old men who roam the beach with pictures of large fish that people have caught on their deep-sea fishing tours.  Only a few remain, and business is not doing well.  The resorts will last, they will suffer but they will last.  But these people, the everyday entrepreneurs, they suffer the most.

Dinner-time rolls around, and I make my way to one of the beach restaurants, where one can purchase a steak and a margarita for 12 dollars and have enjoy it in the comfort of your swim suit.  The sun slowly sets behind one of the large outcrops of rock jutting from the sea, and the city of Zihuatanejo slowly starts to shimmer in its evening lights.  The brilliant red streaks of sun and the purple clouds paint the sky, and couples take this opportunity to stroll hand in hand under the vast watercolor scenery.  And there I sit, a speck no more easily visible from the heavens than the millions of grains of sand that surround me.  And I watch.

(I apologize to any proud Canadians who might wander across this post)

6:05 am…electronic beeping wakes me from my deep sleep.  I hate alarm clocks: they must be the worst invention ever.  I slowly clamber out of bed, dreading turning my lamp on and blinding myself.  I do, and I am blind for 20 seconds.  The early start is necessary due to the frequency of the rain in Mexico.  You could set your clocks to it during the rainy season, right around 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon, the rains start. And believe me, in the field with heavy equipment is that last place you want to be.

We drive to our wonderful sight, the drive being a delight as well.  We make our way through small rural towns, surrounded by corn fields and pasture land.  Half paved, half dirt road, we make our way slowly, trying not to run over the many stray dogs wandering around.  We also have to dodge cows, most of which are usually indifferent to our presence and content upon their middle-of-the-road paths they take to the next pasture field.  Then we head down the aptly named “turkey alley” where numerous turkey and chickens like to run right in front of our cars and stop the convoy.  I say hit the things and we will have a nice dinner.  Most of the crew don’t share my sentiments.

Once parked, the hike to the site is, well, let’s say invigorating.  We hike across open fields at first, and then up hill through hidden corn fields, and then over a few stone walls until we hit our area.  From there we are in pretty dense, jungle-like forest, and are dodging all the trees and shrubs that, with the morning mist, soak our clothes.  We hike uphill again, a nice morning wake up to the senses.  Huffing and puffing now, we try and regain our strength, and hike to where we left off yesterday.  The process is this, we move through the jungle and map and record every structure we find, making artifact collection along the way.

Every hill we venture over, every turn we make, something new awaits us.  A room block connected by huge walls, a small house mound, or a plaza surrounded by what used to be residences and possible public areas.  If you can imagine the area devoid of trees and shrubs, it is quite amazing how the structures are related and how beautiful the scenery is.  You can imagine the inhabitants of this settlement 100 years ago: waking early in the morning to collect wood, starting to make food for the day, or reworking their tools in order to hunt and make crafts.  Smoke rises from the houses that, in the present, are mere rubble piles.  Children are laughing, old women making food, and people bustle in and out of the open plaza that I am now standing in the middle of, alone.  Then I set about mapping these long ago fallen and abandoned structures, and collecting the refuse from the people that once called this specific area home.

The day ends, and we head back down our trail in the hot sun, trying to beat the oncoming grey clouds that move slowly towards us from the high hills to the south.  We can already spot the rain coming down.  On the radio, we call to the other crew that they have about 15 minutes to finish up and move out, or else they will be pulling out their rain jackets.  We are all beat, but we cannot help to share our stories from the day, reciting the jokes, describing the finds, or just singing along to the radio.  The Beatles are on.  Excellent.

The little things.  These are the places where one must find joy, in the little things.  I was reminded of that last night, as I walked back from one of the small store/homes that are cozily scattered amongst the streets of Patzcuaro.  They sell the basics, chips, candy, soda, beer.  But I visit for the 5 peso mangoes, which the kind woman carefully cuts and places in lime juice.  They are heavenly.  They make my day.  The little things.

As I walk back, slowly eating my mango, I watch the neighborhood kids play a game of soccer in the cobble-stone street, with the occasional grown-up joining in, unable to resist the joy of the game.  Dogs spectate from the rooftops, occasionally barking down jeers at the game in progress.  I walk by the panaderia (bakery), where the old ladies are already preparing the dough and pastries for the next morning.  The smell is intoxicating, and makes me anxious for my breakfast in the morning.  Then I pass the house where the garage band is playing…off beat drums, off-note singer, sounding wonderful.  The non-stop music of Mexico, from the cafes to the blaring car stereos, adds a constant soundtrack to my travels (even at 4 in the morning).  These tastes, smells, sounds and sights all add to the experience that is being an archaeologist, or just a traveler, in another land.  It’s the little things that make a trip special.  It’s the little things that will shape your memories of that place, a place traveled once upon a time.

The work also has it’s little intricacies, the small joys that make it possible to awake early the next day and do it all over again.  Finding an interesting artifact, distinct from the same old pottery we find everyday.  Something as trivial as a figurine, obsidian point, or even a new type of architecture gives you the energy to once again hike up the same, steep hill the following day, in hopes of a new, exciting find.  The area we are surveying is one that has not been done before, so everything we record is the first time an archaeologist has done so.  So everyday is something new and exciting, although to the layman’s eye, it all looks like a pile of rocks.  But one must notice the little things to understand the ancient site: the curves of the wall built 1000 years ago, the subtle room cut out of a natural rock outcrop, or merely picturing the site devoid of trees and shrubs, and imagining the beautiful view the ancient people once had from a open plaza on a cliff’s edge.

Little did I know that I would be working at such an amazing site two months ago.  The sheer density of structures puts the estimated population of the site in the tens of thousands, and although we don’t like using the term, one could put the title “city” on our site.  But in order to map, survey and collect artifacts from such a site, a feat in itself very daunting and intimidating, one must find joy in these little things to be able to continue each day the mentally and physically exhausting work that we do.  It is this love of the little things, in the minute details of the history, the everyday archaeological discoveries, the joy of a beer and homemade salsa after a day in the field, that allows for the everyday archaeologists like myself to persevere.

Unfortunately, I am in the business of priceless antiquities.  The difference between myself, a scientist, and a looter, is that instead of money signs, I see excel sheets full of invaluable information that can aid in our accurate research and retelling of prehistory.  When I look at a whole, intact vase or bowl made 1000 years ago, I look at its stylistic variables, its quality, and any associated archaeological features so that I can try to piece its life and the life of its creator in my head.  I have a tangible relationship with a person who lived 1000 years ago because of this one, beautiful and personal object they created and I rediscovered.  This is what makes the object priceless to me.  I cannot ascribe a monetary figure to it, and I make it my job to discourage and stop those who do.

Therefore, based on this information, I cannot give away too much information on this blog as to where or what we are mapping, collecting and documenting.  I can say it is the most impressive site I have ever worked on, and will alter our perception of archaeology and prehistory in the region where I work.  And yes, my team did find a pyramid.  We have found quite a bit that will aid on a successful reconstruction of life as it was 1000 years ago.  I only hope that my skills and abilities are sufficient so that my analysis will do justice to the people that once lived here, such as the everyday makers of the very pottery that I pick up off the ground.

If this sounds too romanticized for your taste, then so be it.  These are the thoughts that pass through my head every time I enter the field.  When I find myself standing in an ancient room, I picture a small family inside, making food, eating, children playing with figurines.  When I pick up an obsidian blade, I think of the care and skill it took someone to create it, and that it was used to process maize or maguey.  I attribute personal, human qualities to everything I do and see in archaeology, and because I see myself as an anthropologist first, an archaeologist second, and a historian third.

So, with this lengthy disclaimer out of the way, I can say with the utmost confidence that I have enough data to do three dissertations!  The site is amazing, and believe me, you will be seeing it in publications over the next ten years.  But for those that can’t wait quite so long, I may be able to let some details slip when I see you, after an oath of secrecy of course 🙂  The work is daunting, but even with the knowledge of the enormous task of data collection and processing that lies ahead, we remain as giddy and excited as ever.  I am so lucky to have this opportunity, and to do what I do.  When you are continually amazed by what you do, and when that tingling moment of excitement never seems to fade, never gets dull with each discovery, then you can count yourself among the truly lucky.

Other than that, I find myself falling deeper in love with the country, region, people and history of this region.  But I must say, my deepest love is for the food!  And yet, no matter how much I consume, I still seem to be losing weight, thanks to the rigorous hiking and climbing that is in store for us everyday.  But I will continue to find time to write and share my adventures, and thank you so much for reading them.  Until next time…

As I sat having breakfast this past Sunday with my co-worker and new friend Jason, I am amused at how American and perhaps surly we may appear to the town people.  It was a sunny morning, and we both had on our sunglasses, and looked fairly like CIA agents trying to blend in.  Our field beards had not been tidied up, and that plus our quiet discussion must have been the reason that the merchants didn’t come near us and bother us with their handi-crafts (except the chicle girls, who have no fear).  I am starting to feel somewhat like a regular in the town, as most people have slowly stopped staring at us and now just give a freindly smile and wave.  This is especially true for the ice cream woman, who knows exactly what I will be ordering at around 3:00 pm.

The field work continues, and the farmers are also getting used to our gringo parade throug the fields up to our study area.  The forest is just as thick as usual, and since the rains have started the critters and creatures have all come out.  I have made friends with the walking stick bug, have made enemies with the centipides and bees, and am indifferent to the dung beetles.  I have also made enemies with the agave plants, which are the cactus that they make tequila and mexcal from.  I find that when stabbed with one of their spines, I puff up like a blow fish in the area stung.  The archaeological sites are very dense, but we are making progress.  I am helping to head up a survey team, aptly named team deuce (#2) because we all have stomach issues due to the Mexican cuisine.  But we all love the food, and keep torturing ourselves.

The rains are something we also have to contend with, as the rainy season now is in full swing.  Like clockwork, at three o’clock everyday the streets of Patzcuaro flood with the large rivers of rain the flow down the hills towards the center of town.  Now, we have a tropical storm off the Pacific coast that may put us out of commision for a few days.  But that’s okay, because everyone will gladly welcome the time off.

The most exciting thing to have happened recently, besides one of the girls nearly stepping on a rattlesnake, was a trip to Tzintzuntzan with my adviser.  I haven’t been there in four years, and since finishing my Master’s thesis on this capital of the Tarascan empire, it was nice to put names and map dots to actual places.  The yacatas, or pyramids, look as impressive as ever, and once again I was reminded why I am an archaeologist and work were I do.  The mountains that cradle the site are large and impressive, and is the perfect setting, with the lake to the north, for the Western empire that could contend with the Aztecs.

Thanks for reading my tales, and I hope to update soon.  I also have to give a shout out to my cousin and Godson, Scott, and to tell him that we will be swimming in Lake Michgan soon enough!

Two weeks in and I have now become accustomed to workig here in Mexico.  The country keeps amazing me, with its smells, sights, sounds, and wonderful people.  The last weekend, a hike was had that took us up onto a mountain that views the entire Patzcuaro basin from the south (see photos).  The most recent weekend, we did a tour around the lake, and visited some frequented locales that included archaeological sites and a stop for excellent carnitas (grilled pork in tortillas).  I have finally adjusted my taste to the correct spiciness level, and put hot sauce on basically everything…except for the excellent ice cream here.  My Spanish is also improving, and I find myself being able to get around pretty well around well.

The archaeology is going well.  We have just recently begun to survey in a very important area, which is think in vegetation and cover.  It is a close to a jungle as you can get in the highlands of Mexico, full of odd trees, pretty but painful agave and very unusual creatures.  This is very uncharted territory, and we are the first to be documenting these sites, which are very dense.  Many think we are close to uncovering a pyramid (the first team to find one, subsiquently, gets a very good bottle of tequila).  It is exciting, but slow going.  Soon we will hit a good pace and have the whole of the site documented.

Hopefully, we will be on the hunt again this upcoming weekend, on a more casual, adventure driven experience.  A few of us, myself included, will be hiking one of the mountains that cradles the Tarascan capital.  It is said, from the historic documents and Spanish records, that on a certain side of the mountain was a shrine marking the end of a pilgrimage that started at midnight by the Tarascans from another nearby sight.  The shrine has supposedly been seen, but not recorded.  This may not sound exciting to some of you, but people, this is as goes as it gets in archaeology.  Indiana Jones type-stuff…

My travels started with a lot of, well, being lost.  I found that I lost my debit card, and am now totally penniless, and we were pretty sure that we would lose are luggage as well.  Luckily, even though we ran from one end of the Houston terminal to the other and just made our second flight, our bags still found us in Morelia.  Our first miracle!

We are staying in two separate houses, both are gorgeous and  have great kitchens and bedrooms.  I was thrust into fieldwork pretty quickly, and had a nice short day of survey…just enough to get me semi-oriented as to geography, artifacts and the technical equipment we are using.  The sights are beautiful, and I will have photos up very soon.

Coming back here after three years is very exciting and yet odd at the same time.  I recall certain aspects of my travel, but now am less embedded in the Mexican culture than before.  I will have to force myself to use Spanish, whereas before I took classes and that was my only goal.  Certain things come back to me as I ride down the narrow cobbled streets: stray dogs that obey the traffic and cross only when safe; the corner mercados that sell assortments of fruit flavored sodas; the smell of sage in the fields; and the extreme divide between those living in squalor and those in luxury.  It is amazing the ethnic distinctions they make to create their social classes, whereas to American eyes they all look, well, Mexican.  You can tell in the names though…Bernardo, Fernando, names such as that have such close ties to Spanish imperialism, whereas the majority of people are Juan, Pedro, etc.  Being of Spanish decent, if even mixed-ethnicity, means so much, whereas as the native populations, whose ancestors we are trying to learn about, remain the lowest class, peasant farmers.  It reminds me of what my professor said once.  One of her indigenous workmen, after excavating an elite burial, said, “These are my ancestors…I am descended from kings.  But then the Spanish came and civilized us.”  This dichotomy in thinking is why I want to do archaeology here, to try and help people realize their histories.  Unfortunately, many could care less.

Well, I need to try and find a source of money, because I could use a cerveza around now.  Thanks for reading, and until next time….

As a crafty attempt to enter into the 21st century, I have set up the new spot for keeping up with my travels as an archaeologist…The Vagabond.  This blog is intended to let interested parties know what I am up to and the new adventures I have stumbled into.  I have also set up a Flickr account tied to this blog, which will be full of photos from my new camera.

The blog will be an mixture of what interests me, and will no doubt reflect some of my intellectual heritage in such media as music, movies, philosophy, social theory, art and most especially literature.  I will approach this as I do most things, from a scientific, philosophic and historic viewpoint.  Sounds boring huh?  Well I am told I am a halfway decent writer, so I will try and make this lively…

This first section will follow my travels through Mexico as I undertake my research for my PhD dissertation.  I am a bit nervous, and not as nearly as excited as I should be, yet as soon as I begin packing I know the traveler’s itch will set in.  Unfortunately, the adventure bug has laid dormant in me for a few years, so it will be fun to shed my American sensibilities and see the world through new eyes again.

I will be staying in the little city of Patzcuaro, in the Mexican state of Michoacan (check it out on Google Earth, there is actually really nice coverage!)  We will be doing full-coverage survey over a very large and crucial area in the Patzcuaro Lake Basin.  In layman’s terms, this means a shit-ton of walking.  But I am looking forward to wandering through the country-side, and see this as a modern day, albeit Mexican version of the Canterbury Tales…a pilgrimage in the name of enlightenment, all in homage to the one thing all grad students strive for…the complete dissertation.

So, what follows are tales from an archaeologist, setting out on the path…

And blame not me if you do choose amiss.
The miller was a churl, you well know this;
So was the reeve, and many another more,
And ribaldry they told from plenteous store.
Be then advised, and hold me free from blame;
Men should not be too serious at a game.

-Chaucer, excerpt from The Miller’s Tale, Canterbury Tales

The Feedback

Terry Brock on The Jason Bush Cancer Fun…
Tim Syakovich on The Vacation…
Jim Stawski on The Vacation…
Sharon Stawski on The Vacation…
Dave Haskell on The Everyday Archaeologist…

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