Archaeology is a Bunch of Rubbish

Archaeology is the study of what people, mostly inadvertently, leave behind. I basically study trash.

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View of San Salvador from a Pedestrian Bridges

I count it, categorize it, analyze it, and compare it with other people’s trash. It can be an incredible source of information about an individual, group of people, or nation. Think of it like a time capsule that people didn’t know they were leaving behind. In order to make any sort of interpretive statement, there is an intensive process of first excavating the materials. I have the benefit of studying materials that have already been collected from the field by the archaeologists at the National Anthropology Museum. The next step is to meticulously count, sort, measure, weight, and photograph each artifact. This can be quite labor intensive and at times make you feel like a lunatic obsessing over the smallest variation in color or composition.

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Piles of Glass

After the initial inventory, a raw data set is ready for further analysis. It is inevitable that the questions you begin with are not at all the same ones with which you leave. Even the way I understand and inventory the material undergoes dramatic metamorphosis, resulting in the need to periodically audit my own methods and revise as needed. It may seem repetitive and a bit pathological to others, but to me it is just good science. Archaeology is destructive by nature, and so I find it necessary to make my data as transparent and thorough as possible. Archaeologists mostly work under the assumption that technology will advance and the next generation will revisit our work with better eyes to see and better tools to understand. I will be leaving a complete copy of all my work as well as filing a report with the museum, with plans to collaboratively create an online database with photographs of all the artifacts. This will ensure that those researchers within and outside of the country will be able to use the raw data gathered to supplement and support their own research.

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Archaeologizing

El Salvador was and is deeply connected to the hemispheric history of the Americas, a point reified in the historical and archaeological materials. I have been given an amazing opportunity to conduct this research in El Salvador. Why is it important to conduct research in the country in which you study, you ask? In El Salvador the practice of historical archaeology is still fairly new, only picking up steam in the last fifteen years or so, since the commencement of the first degree granting program in archaeology at the Technical University of El Salvador in 2002. Most of the archaeologists (professional and avocational) practicing in the country today went through this program, resulting in a tightly knit network difficult to navigate as an outsider from the states. A further compounding element is the fact that many of the publications and reports are filed with the museum or published in regional journals, difficult for me to electronically access or request if not given a specific journal title or author name and topic. It kind of feels like my own personal wild west of archaeology, because much of the work here is the first of its kind with few exceptions (like the intensively studied colonial site of Ciudad Vieja). During the first two weeks in country, I have met an array of deeply inspirational archaeologists, oral historians, and anthropologists who share my enthusiasm for the development of Salvadoran archaeology. I have developed a profound respect for the determined nature of my fellow researchers here who have persisted despite a civil war (1979-1992), volatile political administrations (all of the museums and culture houses are government institutions), as well as varying conditions, like the rolling blackouts, which I have periodically experienced (shout out to the developers at Microsoft for autosave!).

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Maker’s Mark on a Stoneware Bottle

This research trip has proved invaluable to my dissertation research and the continued development of my understandings of the history and materials of El Salvador. I have a long road ahead of continuing to process, revise, and collaborate to perhaps contribute in a small way to the development of historical archaeology in El Salvador.

What comes next is to educate people as to how the study of their country’s rubbish can illuminate the past in a valuable and relevant way.

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