August 2021 Life Update: My Archaeology Internship

Many of you know I was an archaeology intern this summer. For those of you who are interested, I’m sharing my adventures.

My internship was through an archaeological organization that I’ve worked with several times in the past. They have a strong focus on education and therefore have programs for learners of all ages. I first discovered them when my dad took my sister and me there for a day tour. That’s when I found out about their summer camps. I participated in their one-week high school camp and their three-week high school field school. The field school is what convinced me to switch from an English major with an anthropology minor to a double major. (I eventually dropped English to a minor, keeping anthropology as my only major.) Once I was far enough along in my studies, I applied for the college internship. Unfortunately, it was cancelled due to the pandemic. I tried again this year, and I obviously got in.

Getting this internship is a huge honor as it is incredibly competitive. My understanding is that there were over 70 applicants the first year I applied and over 120 the second time with only 4 available spots. Working for this organization is incredibly helpful in getting jobs in the American Southwest. The American Southwest is one of the hotspots in archaeology, so it can be incredibly difficult to get your foot in the door. I also feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with such knowledgeable and kind-hearted archaeologists. Every time I’ve worked with this organization has been a true pleasure. They’ve even volunteered their time to help me with my independent research projects and to help my grandpa better understand the archaeological site he owns.

The organization’s campus is in southwest Colorado. Every day I saw the Mesa Verde escarpment, the Sleeping Ute Mountain, and the La Plata Mountains. I was often near pinyon-juniper forests and fields of sagebrush. There are marmots that live on campus, too, so it was fun getting to see them. This is my favorite place in the world, and I was happy to spend my summer there.

While there is intern housing on campus, I chose to live in an RV on my family’s property; so I could have more privacy, spend time with family, and have my guinea pigs with me. Unfortunately, it was often too hot for the guinea pigs to safely stay with me, so they spent half of the internship with me and half with my parents (who live somewhat nearby). It was hard for me to be away from Salem because her health was so poor, and Leia hates it when I leave her, but it was the safest thing for me to do. The last thing I wanted was for them to die of heatstroke while I was at work.

The internship was eight hours a day, five days a week. Food was provided for the first seven weeks, and we received a stipend for the last three weeks. The cooks are great people, and they were very nice about accommodating my dietary restrictions. And who could possibly complain about having someone else cook all their meals for them? We did end up making our own lunches because there was a lot of confusion regarding our schedules, but still. Having hot breakfast and a nice, home-cooked dinner were amazing. Another bonus from this internship was the pay. Paid internships are hard to find, and I got lucky with this one. Paychecks make a huge difference.

There’s the context. Now for the more exciting stuff. In the past, the internship has been divided into lab and field where interns do one or the other. This year they combined the two. I love lab work and field work, so I was grateful to be able to do both, though I definitely have a preference for lab work. We also did a little bit of work with the education and American Indian Initiatives departments.

In the field, we helped excavate a nearby Ancestral Pueblo site. It’s the same site I helped excavate when I did the high school field school. This site is important because it has two great houses on it, which are a direct tie to the sites in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Archaeologists also don’t know much about the area’s occupation during the AD 900s, and this site appears to have been occupied during that time period.

Crash course for those of you who don’t know who the Ancestral Pueblo are: They occupied the Four Corners region of the United States from about 500 BC to AD 1350. Originally, they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but by around 500 BC, their culture was significantly different due to the introduction of maize (corn) agriculture. At first they lived in semi-subterranean structures called pithouses, but they later moved into above-ground roomblocks made of sandstone. Some of these are the famous cliff dwellings like the ones at Mesa Verde National Park. Another important aspect of their architecture is kivas. These are round structures that are typically below ground. They were used as a communal gathering place. Great houses and great kivas are exceptionally large roomblocks and kivas that are typically built in a Chacoan style. They are associated with Chaco Canyon, which was the political center, mainly during the AD 1000s and 1100s. Eventually, the Ancestral Pueblo people left the area and their descendants are the modern Pueblo people who live in New Mexico and Arizona, particularly along the Rio Grande River.

In addition to helping the college field school students excavate their units, each intern was assigned a unit to excavate. My unit was in a four-foot-deep trench going through what appears to be a kiva. My job was to find the floor of the structure. Along the way I found some interesting things including an elk tooth, a metate (big stone slab used for grinding things like corn), part of a ladle and its handle, a disc bead, a tiny projectile point that was turned into a drill, bone tools, a piece of burned wood with bark (we can get dates from this using dendrochronology), and a ceramic bowl with a modified flake in it. I also had to evict a few critters including a snake, a salamander, and a very friendly vole. Toward the end of the internship, we hit monsoon season, and it rained a lot. My unit flooded a few times, and it was too muddy to safely excavate in it.

Did I find the floor? Yes and no. My supervisor and I dug a test window to see where the floor was, but it turns out there were two floors. The higher floor wasn’t well-preserved all the way across the unit, so we mistook it for a natural sediment deposit and excavated through most of it. It wasn’t until I found the hearth that we realized something was off. Luckily, I wrote about the silt deposit in the field notes (just in case it was something important). It was an unfortunate mistake, but sometimes they happen. Excavation came to a standstill when I got to the hearth because we had to wait for a specialist to come in and do some work with the hearth before we could excavate through it. That work didn’t happen until after I left.

In the lab, I did some cataloguing, which is where we record the artifacts that have been brought in from the field and enter them in the database. I also helped do various types of analysis including pottery, chipped stone, ground stone, ornaments, and heavy fraction. Heavy fraction is when archaeologists take a soil sample from a site to be processed in the lab. The soil is washed and soaked in water until the dirt is gone and all the light stuff floats to the top (light fraction) and all the heavy stuff sinks to the bottom (heavy fraction). We then go through the heavy fraction with tweezers to see if there are any artifacts or biological things like bones or seeds. I was the lucky intern who found a disc bead in the heavy fraction. We also did some experimental archaeology where we collected natural clay from the neighbor’s property (with permission, of course). We then processed it and used it to make our own pottery vessels, which we painted and fired. Due to the burn ban, we had to use an electric kiln, but we were initially going to fire them the way the Ancestral Pueblos did.

I’m going to talk more about chipped stone analysis because that’s my area of interest. I’m trying to specialize in lithic analysis, which is the study of stone tools and their production. (As a note, ground stone tools are used for grinding things. Chipped stone tools include things like blades, projectile points, and drills.) The organization needed help analyzing their bulk chipped stone, which includes all the debitage that comes from making stone tools. People start with a rock called a core, and they use a hammerstone to break pieces off of the core. These pieces are debitage. The core (or larger pieces of debitage) are then chipped away at using a hammerstone and antlers to shape the stone tool.

When analyzing bulk chipped stone, I have to divide all the debitage by material type. These include different types of chert, silicified sandstone, chalcedony, obsidian, jasper, petrified wood, etc. I also have to determine whether or not cortex (the outer portion of a rock) is present. I then have to make tags for each group, sort the group into size categories, and weigh each size category. All of this information gets recorded on a master sheet that then gets entered into the database. This is usually the extent of the analysis on debitage, and no one ever touches those artifacts again. I think I analyzed about 5,000 pieces of debitage. My goal was to get a better grasp on the material types, and my accuracy went way up. I started out at about 70%, and I am now about as good as I can get. Getting to work on this project was a really helpful and rewarding experience, and it alone made this internship completely worth doing. I also got to work closely with an amazing analyst who knows lithics really well.

I only had two education days. Both times we went to Mesa Verde National Park. The museum there is currently closed for refurbishment, so we set up a table with replicas of artifacts and answered visitors’ questions. I really like sharing archaeology with the public, so both of these days were fun and rewarding for me. The first day, we all got schooled by a five-year-old who knows more about rocks, flintknapping, and bison kills than we do!

We had a couple of American Indian Initiatives days where we visited Ute Mountain Ute with a member of the tribe. She took us to some sites on the reservation and at the Ute Tribal Park, which are typically inaccessible to people who aren’t tribal members. It was a great honor to be able to see these sites and the rock art panels, some of which are historic Ute.

We had a few field trips too. There’s an amazing site across the street from the one we were excavating, and we were invited to tour it. I actually got to go over there twice. Our next trip was to the Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum in Blanding, Utah. This is my favorite museum, and it was nice to get to see it again. We had a weekend trip to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. This was my fourth time visiting, so I got to see some familiar sites again, but I also got to see some new ones. We met up with one of the prominent archaeologists of the region and helped her do some survey work on Navajo sites in the park’s backcountry, which was an incredible experience. Our next field trip was at Mesa Verde. We went on a guided backcountry tour of Fewkes Canyon. This included Mummy House, Oak Tree House, Fire Temple, and New Fire House. It’s really difficult to get tours of these sites, so this was another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The next day we went to Aztec Ruin in New Mexico and got to see Aztec North, which is where one of the archaeologists did her dissertation work. Aztec West is the part of the site that’s opened to the general public, so we got to go behind the scenes once again!

An interesting thing I noticed during this internship is just how small of a world it is. I found out some of the archaeologists at the organization are friends with some of my family members. When we were at Edge of the Cedars, we met the intern who happened to be one of my classmates from Western Colorado University. I ran into three people I know at Mesa Verde, two of which are fellow Western graduates. I ran into another Western peer who happened to be visiting my workplace. Turns out she knows who I am because she put together the marketing materials for my honors thesis presentation. And finally, one of my coworkers happens to be in my grad school cohort. So we obviously met and got to know each other, and we’re now friends.

A couple other things happened over the summer that have to do with archaeology but aren’t part of the internship. My grad school advisor was doing some work in southeast Utah, so he was able to come to Colorado and spend a few hours at my grandpa’s site. I’m researching this site for my master’s thesis, so it was good for him to see it. He’s also my friend’s advisor, so we went to the site my friend will be researching as well. I had some paid time off accumulated, so I took a day off from the internship, so I could go volunteer with my advisor. I got to help out at a really cool site in Utah that day.

That was my summer. I got to live my dream of doing archaeology in southwest Colorado for ten weeks, and I can’t wait to go back and do more research in the future. I learned some valuable skills in the field and lab, worked with some amazing people, and got to explore some incredible archaeological sites.

If you want to see pictures, check out my Instagram account under the handle @jlweinmeister. I have all my archaeology posts saved under one of my highlights. I can’t share all of my pictures for legal and ethical reasons, but I posted most of the ones I can share.

Let me know in the comments if anything in this post interested you. I’ve been thinking about writing more posts about my archaeological adventures (maybe as creative non-fiction) and would love to hear your thoughts!

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