How Bad Poetry Can Lead to a Career in Archaeology

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of grunge, it was the age of Robin Hood ballads; it was the epoch of flannel, it was the epoch of tight rolled jeans; it was the season of techno, it was the season of boy-band pop; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . .

Yep. It was the early ’90s. And I was in high school.

What this meant for me was a whole lot of awkwardness; some purposely bad hair (read: mullet) as a reaction to small-town high school snobbery; punk, grunge, and techno music; and some incredibly bad emotive poetry. Oh…and Latin. And Dungeons and Dragons. And cross-country running. And folk wrestling (i.e. collegiate). And Tae Kwon Do. And skateboarding. And street skating. And flannel. And Chuck Ts. And massively over-sized overalls. Really, just pure nerdery and hormones and more awkwardness.

And angst. Holy crow, the angst.

Oh, man. It was horrible.

The 1990s were actually a pretty incredible time, though. Music had diverged in two important ways that created somewhat overlapping, but dramatically different constituents. Grunge music was as a wake-up call to pop-radio consumers. Techno, trance, house, and drum and bass music flooded the warehouses, farm fields, and clubs in the Midwest along with what, at that time, was a very forward-thinking, optimistic social movement packaged within rave culture.

So, with my eyes opening to capitalism and social repression through grunge and punk and my heart opening to the promise of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones that the rave community was enthralled by, I took my first high school career placement test on a fancy, dirty white computer that generally just ran Oregon Trail and Scorched Earth.

This test was exciting. I pictured a pat on my back by our counselor as the computer screen was flashing that I was a perfect fit as either an archaeologist or a writer. Needless to say, it was a total shock to me when the first career fit was proctologist.

Okay, so it didn’t actually say “you should be a proctologist,” but that was the first option in the program’s list of what I would be good at. Now, I don’t want to upset any proctologists. Honestly, you all are awesome and deserve far more credit than you can possibly ever receive, but as a 16-year-old romantic . . . well, let’s just say there was a cognitive disconnect.

Clearly, this test is faulty. I should take it again, right? Right. This second time will surely clear things up. Wait…what…bus driver? What the he–? This is about where my counselor walked over and patted me on the back. I got up and slouched out of the office, trying not to trip over my untied Chucks or the huge hem of my baggy overalls. I wrapped my flannel around me like a blanket and set about trying to understand how things could have gone so horribly wrong. Who was I supposed to be?

I still have no idea how those tests work. I’m guessing they were along the lines of an early Buzzfeed quiz. But there I was, apparently destined to be the first operator of a mobile proctology clinic. My solution to this was simple. Flee.

I promptly asked my mom if I could go to a high school archaeology field school. Note that I didn’t choose a writing camp. I can only imagine that, somewhere deep down, a part of me already recognized that lines like, “A tin puppet prepares his twin sorrows / he’ll force nature’s sign” were best forgotten with the other garbage in Al Capone’s vault.

So, off to archaeology camp I went, where I immediately learned far more about historic blue glass, rusted pieces of historic metal, and old pieces of wood than a high schooler who yearned for images of Western skies at dusk could handle. I was done. And not in any good way. Archaeology was horrible. And boring. Definitely. Not. The Bomb.

So, I trudged through the last bit of high school. Graduated and ended up chasing down the writing dream. I put together two mostly horrible novels that I still tell myself I might salvage one-day, a slew of trite and tripe short stories, and more bad poetry than an entire decade of an Introduction to Poetry class could possibly create. I wasn’t a total failure. I did have a couple of poems published and, for a while, there were some bites on my first novel—but I spent more time at the bar than the typewriter, and I never really had my heart in the effort of it. Writing was hard. Drinking was not.

This sign I found blown under my car in a parking lot in Albuquerque is one of my prized possessions.

The years blew by. Weird experiences and amazing people (and vice versa) racked up like points in a particularly great pinball game. And before I knew it, I’d put the fiction writing on hold, packed up my heart, said good bye to those amazing people, and moved out to the great American desert. In Albuquerque, after a year of racking up some more points on that odd pinball machine, I landed at the University of New Mexico. There, I started taking anthropology classes and eventually took an Introduction to Archaeology class taught by Dr. Patricia Crown.

School was always pretty easy for me. Minimal effort, maximum return. Then I took Patty’s class. The first test in that 100-level class was a brick to the face. Somehow, I rallied, buckled down, and poured myself into my studies in a way I never really had before. I had to fight against a lifetime of education that had taught me that “smart” should mean “gets it right away” and not “worked at it till it was learned.” But, somehow, I did it, and came out of that class with the first A I’d ever really been proud of. There would be many more that I would fully earn, but that was the first. During that semester, I finally put my hand to the plow, and I’ve been tilling ever since.

My good friend and colleague, Dr. Julia Clark. We’re standing next to our excavation unit in front of Pueblo Bonito during the Chip Wills’ and Patty Crown’s Chaco Stratigraphy Project.

Now, there are some other things we could talk about, but I’m getting short on time and am way over the word limit (as always). So, for now, we’ll summarize and discuss.

Life handed me a bus-driving proctologist. I said no way to archaeology. I tried to shoot the moon for writing, but eventually found my way back to archaeology. There, I fell in love with humanity’s detritus. And even more importantly, I fell in love with the sense of humanity you can get from studying the things we love.

My daughters in 2014 with their favorite things: Taggie and Bear. Taggie is now packed away and has been replaced by a Raggedy Anne style Doll. Bear is still with us and has traveled quite a lot at this point.

Now I get tears in my eyes when I see my daughter’s favorite teddy bear slowly getting older from 6 years of intense love. I choke up when I hear my youngest tell me she’s worried about how damaged her favorite stuffed toy is and that she doesn’t want her friends to see it, but then she still finds her and snuggles with her at night. I do this because I know that as inanimate as these things are, they’re defining my daughters as much as my wife and I are. These things form the spaces within which my children grow, and learn, and become amazing. These things create the shape of who they are and will be as young women and will continue to create the spaces that shape them until they die. And I know that long after I’m gone, things of mine will remain that will preserve a portion of the shape of who I was. Our things are our stories and they are us. And this is exciting and comforting to me.

So…how I became an archaeologist is maybe not the most interesting tale, and it’s definitely not the culmination of a single-minded lifelong quest. Instead, I think it is more the chronicle of this long process of moving from making up stories to realizing that there was already a world littered with stories.

After writing this out, it now seems clear that how I became an archaeologist is also why I became an archaeologist: because I realized that archaeology is an honest way to uncover the story of the people I love. Archaeology holds the story of all of the people I’ve learned so much from. It holds the story of my wife and my children, my family and my friends. All of the incredible, and horrible, people I’ve met, along with millennia of incredible people I could not meet. Because archaeology, once we get past the dictionary definition, is not the study of things, it’s the study of the human narrative and of our humanity. It’s the study of our stories that form in and around our things.

Basically, dear reader, I became an archaeologist because I think you are pretty darn awesome. You and all of your things that make you, you. And I would really like to read that story.



A version of this essay originally appeared on Archaeology Southwest’s blog as one of many blogs about how archaeologists ended up working in our discipline:



This blog originally appeared on October 13th, 2016 on the ever excellent Archaeology Southwest blog. It was written within a series of blog posts about what the day to day work life of an archaeologist looks like.

In a recent Tea and Archaeology talk, I broke ranks with the typical “this is what I am going to talk about” intro and started with “this is how I got interested in the topics I am going to talk about.” I did this because I think how archaeologists and researchers first think of things is important—fundamentally important.

There are examples all over our field of people starting to research children in the archaeological record after they’ve had their own kids. Or, researchers become incredibly engaged with using the archaeological record to examine gender fluidity and queer histories. Frequently, although not necessarily, it is because their lives have been marked in some way by these topics. The main point: an archaeologist’s personal life intruding into their work is not bad.

Though some might consider this bias (and there are ways to minimize bias, including the rigorous peer review we always go through), these types of crosscutting interests actually make our work relevant in the present. They are also one of the things that keep us interested in our job. Most archaeologists love things, but as David Hurst Thomas famously said (now tattooed on my arm), “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.” Our interests help us move past the former and into the latter.

And so, in many ways, we drag the present into the past, just as often as we drag the past into the present. In its worst incarnation, the former can introduce bias into our research; in its best form, it helps create a research method (either scientific, historic, or humanistic) that is creative, exciting, and topical. Our concerns in the contemporary world are tested in some ways against the past, just as we use the past to critically examine the present. This is the regular dialogue of research that archaeologists have with themselves. Yet, other archaeologists, researchers, and the public only see half of it. The part that is published, the part that is scientifically or historically tested and examined. What is published is in some ways analogous to Plato’s cave. Our research can seem irrelevant to many people because it kind of seems as though we’re analyzing shadows on a wall.

Plato’s allegory of the cave. By Veldkamp, Gabriele and Maurer, Markus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons(, via Wikimedia Commons
But when we open up ourselves as archaeological artifacts to be analyzed, we see that we are bridges—what archaeologists would call liminal objects—between worlds. We are analyzing shadows on the wall, but in the process we are understanding, or attempting to understand, the actions of the people casting the shadows. We are in the middle of that process, along with, in the U.S. Southwest at least, Native elders and holders of oral histories, ethnohistorians, historians, and other historical social researchers.

So what are my bridges? My life outside of work involves a lot of long-distance running, and eventually I’ll start working on that archaeologically. My personal investment and interest in tattoos extends to the archaeological record as well. My dog Sancho—aging, deaf, going blind, and suddenly barking to no end at a blank spot on our fence—has led to an interest in canines in archaeology.

Sancho the wonder dog.

My wife Melissa has also fed my intellectual curiosity. She’s maintained a lifelong interest in animal welfare, held a career in that field, and spent many years engaged in animal behavioral analysis and positive reinforcement training. She spent time working for Dr. Patricia McConnell’s former company Dog’s Best Friend. She even beat me to the primary author research publication punch (see article here). She has since moved into a new focus on facilitating the reuse of material culture. This in many ways grew out of our mutual interest in the problems of consumption in contemporary life—upon which archaeology has heavily influenced my views.

We have two daughters who are incredibly inquisitive and raucous and rowdy and just smart. Watching them tackle the world around them and derive incredibly logical but factually ridiculous conclusions from their observations has instilled in me a fundamental interest in how we construct knowledge. I’m applying this in my other job with Leiden University. There I’m beginning a project that will deeply query how archaeological knowledge is constructed and what that means for our data—and by extension, for our understandings of how people purposely and accidentally express group membership, or cultural belonging.

Haury comments on Taylor: “…or, You’re all out of step but me, Boys!”

As noted, I’ve talked before about how I gained some of my research interests. This history led to a scenic desert trip with a number of dead ends and an eventual arrival at a dissertation titled, Lost Voices Found: An Archaeology of Contentious Politics in the Greater Southwest, A.D. 1100–1450. The linked talk is mostly about that, but at an hour long, I understand if you aren’t able to watch it.

My elevator-speech version is that there are many hinge points, or transitional periods, in the historical and archaeological record. In archaeology, we’ve often talked about them as either products of environmental change, or inevitable products of social scaling (i.e., increases in population), and sometimes as social reactions to what has been termed “breakdowns of society.” I reanalyzed two case studies in the Greater Southwest, asking not how this happened or why this happened, but why the end result looked the way it did when so many other options were available. That, I think, is an important question that has been missed. And it led me to argue that the history of the Greater Southwest is filled with constant slides into hierarchy as social mechanisms restricting increases in inequality broke down, followed by sudden reactions as groups tore apart those hierarchical institutions and built new limiting mechanisms.

A lot of these interests also came out of an early passion for skateboarding on the street. Although you might see this as an innocent or—depending on your view of the ownership/tragedy of the commons—a criminal pastime, one of the underlying acts of skateboarding is a constant and physical performance aimed at reclaiming public space for the public. In fact, since its inception back in the early 1950s, skateboarding has been a political act. Fun, yes. Amazing to watch, yes. But political all the same. And it is an intensely, material political act. It uses human material culture to impact an environment we’ve built in order to contest restrictive control of space.

The girls starting to shred the pavement.

So, the theme of subversive actions aimed at questioning who is allowed privileges and rights in society has been with me for a very long time. Looking back, it seems pretty natural that I’d be addressing many of those issues by examining what many people have called transitional periods in the precolonial U.S Southwest from a perspective of understanding who controls space and understanding how that control of space (in this case religious architecture) was contested.

And now I need to get back to teaching my daughters how to skateboard.

An Archaeology of Choice

Hi! I’m properly citing this borrowed idea (Brughmans 2016) of taking hang-out photos with something I wrote that was just published.


The book is called Foreign Objects: Rethinking Indigenous Consumption in American Archaeology. It’s edited by Craig Cipolla. It’s full of a lot of great work by archaeologists using and expanding consumption theory.


The chapter I wrote with Barbara Mills is about using consumption theory to analyze the archaeological record as a record of human choices. As we say in the chapter, pots are not people, but they are choices.

“An archaeology of choice revealed through consumption patterns recognizes that decisions are involved at every step along the consumption continuum. In an archaeology of choice, ceramics, for example, are liminal objects that transition the archaeological record from one of things to one of acts, decisions, and experiences. Ceramics are evidence of historical choices. Each pot moves beyond the corporeal field of the material and into the incorporeal field of human history” (Borck and Mills 2017:30).

Anyways, the book is available through the University of Arizona Press and you can read our chapter here.

Anarchy and Archaeology (The SAA Archaeological Record, Vol. 17 No.1)

I’m very excited to announce that the newest SAA Archaeological Record is available online. As always, it is an open-access pdf file. It will also be arriving in the mailboxes of SAA members shortly. Feel free to print, frame, and hang on your office wall. Matthew Sanger and I co-edited this volume, which grew out of an SAA session in 2015 and a following Wenner-Gren workshop in the spring of 2016. Authors include myself, Matthew Sanger, John Welch, David Pacifico, Carole Crumley, Charles Orser, Ed Henry, Bill Angelbeck, Uzma Rizvi, James Birmingham, Theresa Kintz, James Arias Fajardo, Sophie Marie Rotermund, Lindsay Montgomery, and a follow up article by Leo Faryluk will be in a later issue. There are a number of projects still in the works as well, so if you are using anarchist theory either in research or in practice, please let us know and we’ll let you know about possible publication routes. Anyways, enjoy! And you can check out a website that is still pretty sparse, but will start to fill up with projects shortly at