Garbology: Remember, YOU are Compostable

This past week, our class recorded our trash, compost, and recycling discards in order to compare and study how they might represent our lifestyles. This is something that archaeologists do frequently in order to understand lifeways of the past —  consider, for example, the study of middens, essentially ancient dump sites. Through this project, we were asked to categorize the discards and see what we could conclude definitively and infer as well.

The exercise was interesting, but the behavioral patterns that were most striking were those of omission. In the trash I analyzed, there was almost exclusively food and kitchen waste, leaving me wondering where non-dietary items were being discarded. After all, it seems questionable that in seven days, all that would be thrown away would be related to food — we constantly accumulate items in our day to day life…where do they go?

The tendency to over-report items viewed typically as “good” and to under-report items viewed as “bad” is explored in Murphy and Rathje (2001) and Little (2007). Though there is no way to conclusively know what was left out short of actually rooting through the bins, the fact that we can tell for sure that some thing were omitted begs the question of what else did not make it into the report. Though this is not of tremendous importance to the class exercise, it is easy to see how this might present problems for historians and archaeologists. For me, one of the big takeaways is that if modern humans cannot accurately recall or report their household trash for seven days, how can we be trusted to be on the mark in recalling or reporting other things, such as our own history? I think that the exercise was designed to bring this conundrum to light, and to suggest the power of archaeology — actually examining what material is present — to speculate about what is left out, and why it was omitted.

Mike – About Me

My first exposure to archaeology and anthropology was through frequent visits to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where I grew up. This lead to a lifelong interest in the human and ecological past. I’m pursuing a BA in Anthropology with a concentration in Archaeological Sciences. I am particularly interested in deep time and the Pleistocene interactions of humans, animals, and their environments. Outside of my academic pursuits, I play the guitar, wrangle cats, and enjoy cooking and exploring the mountains and coasts of the Pacific Northwest. I am not humble about my excellent chili and pulled pork recipes.

m wohl bio photo

Mapping and Making Sense of Space

As a part of our field work with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, each student was asked to step up and take the helm on a personal leadership project. Students chose subjects related to their specific fields of interest: Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey, magnetometry, the Chinuk Wawa language, cultural practices of Pacific people, and many more. I chose to take a lead role in the process of mapping and spatial cataloging of points at the Molalla Encampment. I worked closely with PhD candidate Ian Kretzler, who helped me understand the equipment and larger project goals.

Aerial view of the Molalla Camp site. Photo: Ian Kretzler

Aerial view of the Molalla Encampment. Photo: Ian Kretzler

For indigenous communities and the archaeologists who work alongside them, place and people are necessarily connected; they are inseparable, and deeply intertwined. A visitor might not be aware of or have context to understand the immense cultural significance and depth of history that a landscape has, inextricable from its people. This is very much the case with the Grand Ronde community. During our project, we lived in the middle of a complex landscape consisting of many culturally significant sites. Often we were able to get a piece of the history and cultural narrative from community members and Grand Ronde’s Senior Archaeologist Briece Edwards. For guests such as ourselves, the importance of this sort of communication cannot be overstated.

Prof. Sara Gonzalez and grad student Ian Kretzler "troubleshoot" the drone. Photo: Celena McPeak

Professor Sara Gonzalez and grad student Ian Kretzler troubleshoot the drone. Photo: Celena McPeak

With this emphasis on landscape, mapping and representation in the digital realm became a subject I found rich and fascinating. Not only that, but I saw how mapping could be valuable to both CTGR and our archaeological field school. In learning techniques and making maps to guide our work and research, we would produce a lasting interactive document that the tribe could use for whatever future purposes they might have. In that spirit, I hoped to be an integral part of mapping the Molalla Encampment, where we were doing a variety of low-impact surveys including GPR, magnetometry, aerial photography via drone, and catch-and-release surface collection.

FMIA students setting up the Total station. Photo: Tiauna Cabillan

FMIA students setting up the Total station. Photo: Tiauna Cabillan

To begin, we divided the site into a series of 20x20m grids. This grid system allowed us to be systematic with our GPR and gradiometer surveys. In order for these tools to image the subsurface environments properly, they must be walked along narrow North-South transect lines that subdivide the 20×20 units further. This is a painstaking process, but it is important to capture the entire area of the grids in order to image the whole area and combine our GPR and gradiometer data with the GPS and other map data back in the lab. This allows us to create a vertical map with multiple layers of data that can be selected on or off, depending on the needs of the map user.

The Molalla Encampment was mapped with both GPS satellite points and a Total Station — even if you don’t know the name, you’ve almost certainly seeing survey crews on roads and construction sites using a Total Station and reflective prism to calculate precise distances, elevations, and angles. To make a map, one must establish a permanent point in space to which all others are relative, known as a datum. Along with a second fixed point — the backsight– this allows all individual points in the map to be triangulated and measured easily in relation to each other.

Surface collection units that have been completed and taped off. Photo: Tiauna Cabillan

Surface collection units that have been completed and taped off. Photo: Tiauna Cabillan

For the Molalla Encampment, we chose to map out a variety of types of points. These included the corners of our 1×1 meter surface collection units, grid points for our magnetic resonance and GPR survey, and other permanent and semi-permanent features. Capturing these more stable points allows future field teams to orient themselves precisely to where we did our work. We also chose to record a large number of points of topographical variation. Though they may be hard to distinguish when standing in the field, averaging out these small changes in elevation over the larger site in our digital mapping suite allows us to get a picture for what sort of anomalies might exist beneath the surface. Even a small variation on the Z-axis (up/down) might indicate subsurface features if they are consistent over a larger area.

After gathering all this raw data in the field, it was then Ian’s task to stitch together the various layers of points. He produced a map that overlays the data points we recorded over aerial photographs taken above the Molalla Camp site in May 2016, creating a real-world map integrated with our recorded points.

In organizing and presenting our research and data, the maps we produce will be invaluable tools, providing documentation, guidance, and visual context for audiences to understand our work. Maps are an important creative part of what we do, as they are uniquely generated, rather than recorded — one must produce a map. Making these maps was an exercise in learning new skills and building capacity for us as field school students, and it is our hope that they will be useful and valuable to the Grand Ronde community for the same reasons as well as their goals of management of resources and historic preservation.

“Just what is it that you all are doing out there?”

This is a question that our team members have been asked many times about the work we are doing with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. As we left our respective homes, friends, and families for six weeks to live and work here in Oregon, the notion of “archaeology” no doubt brought forth some vague assumptions and images. Popular culture has informed public perception of archaeology and (for better or worse) brought a lot of interest to the field; tired images of pith helmets, enormous rolling boulders, and colonial museum collections all amalgamate to create a picture of a discipline that often misunderstood. We are often asked by our peers, relations, and the general public about what it is we are doing — the more important question in archaeology today is “how is it being done?”

American archaeologist William Duncan Strong (1899-1962)

American archaeologist William Duncan Strong (1899-1962)

The history of archaeology is complex, often at odds with its own best intentions, and at its worst, oppressive, highly unethical and deeply regrettable by the standards of today. The development of the discipline in the 19th century was in tandem with many of the worst, most damaging and demeaning tendencies of colonialism to deprive indigenous people of agency, dignity, cultural practice and property. Sometimes this was a consequence of cultural ignorance on the part of anthropologists; at others, it was sadly very deliberate.

Today, thankfully, the practice of archaeology, especially with indigenous and descendent communities, is becoming more conscious of the mistakes of the past, and more sensitive to the needs of the present. If archaeological investigation is to continue at all, and to be of any use, it must be necessarily cooperative, collaborative, empowering, and respectful. In our work with CTGR, this is of the highest emphasis.


FMIA Methods & Low-Impact Workflow. Poster presented the 2016 Northwest Anthropological Conference in Tacoma, WA by Sara Gonzalez, Ian Kretzler, Scott Adams, Karl Bloomberg, Daisy Jaime, and Kandice Joyner.

We work closely with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) and tribal members to gain a sense of what is important to the community, and also what methods are appropriate. As the history of archaeology has so often been disrespectful to beliefs and practices, our goal is to use methods that are as minimally invasive as possible. We seek to build knowledge with community, rather than about. Guided by this idea, we use a “low-impact” workflow. The particular series of methods we are using was designed by our project director, Dr. Sara Gonzalez, alongside former collaborators from the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians and the Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail Project (Gonzalez 2016). Our field school is formally known as FMIA — Field Methods in Indigenous Archaeology, and this is the second season of our work with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The very nature of anthropological work is human, and we seek to engage the communities with which we work on a respectful level that is enriching for everyone. Much archaeological work of the past has separated material culture from the individuals who produced it. In museums and academic writing, it is often sterilized, removed from cultural context and practice; it is put in a box, seemingly fixed in time. FMIA recognizes how this idea is misguided, and that these things cannot be separated from their communities of origin. Our project, therefore, seeks more to build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with the community — not just to dig for stuff. Our methods and practices owe a great debt to the ideas of Community Based Participatory Research, or CBPR (Atalay: 2012). In her writings, Atalay pioneers CBPR methods and approaches in archaeology that seek to redefine the interactions archaeologists typically have with communities, with an emphasis on respect and relationship building.

When our work season is done, and we’ve packed up and left, we hope to have built on and added to the Tribe’s extant body of cultural knowledge, and also to have built capacity in archaeological survey methods and historic preservation for all involved — students, tribal community, and faculty alike. With our low-impact workflow guided by the ideas of CBPR, we hope to be a model for how archaeology can be respectful and appropriate, collaborative, and empowering. Doing this has required change in the discipline’s approach, which involves some soul-searching, as well as reinvention and creation of new methodologies. If archaeology and anthropology in the larger sense are to have a relevant future, it is in being aware and mindful of the past, with an emphasis on the present, and an eye toward what growth is possible in the future.


Works Cited

Atalay, Sonya (2012) Community-Based Archaeology: Research With, By, and For Indigenous and Local Communities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gonzalez, Sara (2016) Indigenous Values and Methods in Archaeological Practice: Low-Impact Archaeology Through the Kashaya Pomo Interpretive Trail Project. American Antiquity 81(3):533-549.

About Me – Michael Wohl

My first exposure to to archaeology and anthropology was as a young child, when my mom would take me to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago on a near-weekly basis. In the time between then and now, I’ve spent most of the past ten years since I moved to Seattle playing music, traveling, and being employed in a strange variety of unrelated fields of employment.

After odd jobs and a period of vocational training in woodworking, I had an opportunity to return to school in 2014, and spent two years at Seattle Central College, where I rediscovered my interest in the humanities while earning an Associate’s Degree. I am a recent transfer to University of Washington, where I am studying Archaeological Sciences. I am particularly interested in geophysical survey, GIS, GPS, and other spatial imaging techniques. In addition to studying Archaeology at UW, I am also planning to pursue a second BA in Ethnomusicology. I live in Seattle with my wife, where we spend our days as cat ranchers.