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Stories from The Register

We all have great stories to tell from the field that never make it into the reports or literature. Fieldwork can be heartwarming, humorous, or down right hard. Stories from the Register features short (500 words or less) creative non-fiction stories written by Registrants who want to share their experiences.

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  • 12 Aug 2021 3:12 PM | Cathy Jo Beecher

    Remember to Look Up

    by Rachel Bilchak

    As archaeologists, our eyes are usually trained to the ground as we survey and monitor, trying to catch a glimpse of an artifact. Such was the case as I wandered in the middle of the desert on a project last summer. It was near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, midday, and I was in the zone scanning the ground. We were monitoring the removal of trees in an abandoned date farm. They had warned us of snakes but left out some other important creatures...

    I hear a faint buzzing noise but keep pushing down my line, my feet sinking into the sandy surface with each step. Suddenly a sharp pain under my hardhat; I remove it to find the source. As I look up, I see it; a swarm of bees heading straight for me, and they are not happy. I turn and quickly start running in the opposite direction, but flying is much faster than running. They weave themselves into my braids and aim straight for my face. The stings hit me, one after another. I cry out, “Bees!” warning my fellow monitors, and they scatter away from me. The swarm follows me as I make a beeline (pun-intended) for my truck. I make it inside, and the swarm veers off. I pull the stingers from my face and head, finally safe. Seven stings leave swollen red battle scars. Luckily I’m not allergic or this story would have had a very different ending. I hope this serves as a reminder to all in the field, the interesting stuff may be on or in the ground but it’s important to look up every once in a while because the danger may come from the sky.

    Author Bio: 

    Ms. Bilchak is a professional archaeologist with 5 years of experience in the environmental resources field. Rachel earned a B.A. in Anthropology and a B.S. in Public Health from University of California, San Diego. She conducts all aspects of fieldwork and her laboratory strengths include artifact analysis and reconstruction of ceramics. Ms. Bilchak is the 2021 President for the San Diego County Archaeological Society.

  • 5 Aug 2021 10:00 AM | Cathy Jo Beecher

    The Lost Spanish Fort on Naval Base Point Loma

    by Ronald V. May, RPA and Seth Mallios, PhD - Department of Anthropology, San Diego State University

    Under threat of the Building Industry lobbying the California Legislature to remove archaeology from environmental laws, members of the Society for California Archaeology met in the San Jose Airport in 1980 with the Ternes & Houston Lobbyists. Together, they hatched a plan to return home to generate newsworthy archaeology projects that would splash in newspapers; Ternes & Houston could hand these out to key legislators on committees considering the threat. Ronald V. May, SOPA, convinced Naval Base San Diego to apply for and they received an Antiquities Permit to look for a lost 18th century Spanish Fort on Naval Base Point Loma.

    After posting strategic news releases that generated a series of stories of the search and placing the United States Navy in a positive light, May recruited university and private company archaeologists. He led a volunteer crew of 75 people on June 6, 1981. Within minutes of breaking ground, an excavator hit a water line that shot a geyser 75-feet in the air. The media rushed to shoot video of the crisis. When the water settled into a puddle two meters beneath the dirt parking lot, hundreds of 18th century Spanish tiles lay exposed in the trench. The exciting discovery immediately hit the airwaves and the story spread around the Nation.

    Hundreds of copies of the San Diego Union, Evening Tribute, Los Angeles Times and other publications were strategically placed on the desks of California legislators. Assembly Bill 952 suddenly changed to a pro-archaeology law that endorsed provision of a portion of land development costs to conserving archaeology discovered on construction projects.

    The 32-year public archaeology program explored the only known Spanish cannon battery on the California coast, a mid 19th century shore whaling station, a contemporary Chinese fishing camp, and an early 20th century United States Army post. The collections are now housed jointly at the San Diego Archaeological Center and San Diego State University, Anthropology Department. Results were published in various journals, including the San Diego State University, State Occasional Papers. The King of Spain, Juan Carlos III knighted Ronald V. May in 1989. The entire project closed in 2011.

  • 1 Aug 2021 1:12 PM | Cathy Jo Beecher

    The Chain of Command

    by Mark Newell

    Nick Nichols had just returned from Iraq. He was a hard bitten, no nonsense Chief Warrant Officer who knew his way around Army regulations. His office was the place where Generals could get liquor, cigars and Omaha steaks. So when he volunteered to help me do the initial testing on 38ED221, the Baynham pottery site in Trenton, S.C., I was nervous about giving him orders. After all, he carried an automatic on his belt and a knife in his boots.

    After we had set up our datum point we laid out a grid and the locations of our test pits. I explained that we needed to establish random test pits to determine the extent of the site. We set off into the Piedmont pine barrens and I gave thought to where the first random tests should be. Nichols stopped several hundred yards from the site and said, "Let's dig here." I stopped, realizing that I had to explain to Nichols that my being the 'Principal Investigator' -and a PhD - meant that I was the one that made the decisions. I said, "No, I'll decide," and moved on. Nichols didn't move. Again, "Let's dig here."

    "No! - I'm the one with the PhD, I'm the PI, I decide where to dig!" I turned to move on. Nichols remained standing on a small slope covered with dead leaves and pine straw.

    "No," he said, "We really need to dig here."

    Over the next thirty minutes I lectured Nichols on the importance of listening to his PI and, for that matter, any elevated person of excellence who had reached the pinnacle of perfection by receiving a PhD. I also lectured him extensively on the importance of conducting repeatable, organized science - as opposed to 'Let’s dig here.' All the time I made sure his hands were not reaching for his automatic.

    It was clear to me that we were standing on sterile soil with no indication of human activity. After this I asked Nichols if he now understood the importance of the chain of command - and the immutable truth that PhDs know everything and are always right. After this I asked: "So...what do we do now?"

    He replied, "Let's dig here."

    I tossed Nichols our cut down test pit shovel and then sat on a nearby log to watch this stubborn amateur volunteer CWO exhaust himself in the heat and humidity digging down through sterile soil. I pointedly looked at the sky, diddled the keyboard of my laptop and other activities designed to indicate my complete lack of interest in this futile exercise. At least it would teach him a lesson. He began talking..."I HEAR you Doc, I SEE you, Doc, and I guess you want me to apologize for giving you LIP!"

    I finally looked in his direction. He was holding up three sherds, an ear, an eye and a full crude mouth with deep green glazing, red clay lips and white kaolin teeth.

    That was when I realized that I had just discovered the very first African face jug production site in America.

    Author Bio:

    Mark Newell, PhD, RPA has published and lectured extensively on enslaved African activity at 38ED221 - giving Nick Nichols full credit for the discovery of the only face jug production so far excavated in Edgefield County, SC. He can be reached at

  • 9 Jul 2021 10:35 AM | Cathy Jo Beecher

    The Closet of Mysteries

    By Chris Epenshade

    I was directing an excavation in south-central Puerto Rico.  I was staying in the Hotel Melía, just off the square in Ponce.  It was a nice, older hotel, and it was a half-block from the best ice cream shop on the island and a block from one of the best bakeries.  The Melía had a gourmet restaurant and a nice, quiet bar.  I remember that on my 50th birthday, being away from home, I decided I needed a rum and coke.  I mentioned to the bartender that it was my 50th, and he said that couldn’t be right, I didn’t look that old.  Okay, almost certainly he was working for a tip, but it was one of the many reasons I liked the Melía.

    As part of our research, we were going to screen the recovered stone artifacts with Luminol to see if they had been exposed to blood.  This was basically the same process as seen on CSI.  There are various environmental factors that can create false positives, so you always need to test the site soils as well.  This presented a bit of a challenge because the US Department of Agriculture frowned on you taking dirt from Puerto Rico to the mainland US.  The solution was to test the soils on-island.

    You may be aware the Luminol reactions can be hard to see, so the screening is best done in the dark.  I was lucky to have had a large closet in my room at the Melía, so I laid down a trash bag, put out small piles of dirt from various site contexts, and put down a couple of pennies, which will glow if the Luminol is working.  I closed the blinds, turned out the lights, took the spray bottle into the closet, and closed the closet door.  Now, it is a little difficult to know exactly where you are spraying a mist in the dark, and I wanted to make sure I covered all of the dirt samples.  I must have been extra, extra careful because I ended up spraying the entire floor and much of the back wall of the closet.

    The dirt did not react.  The pennies did, but it was a bit difficult to see because of the significant glow coming off the floor and back wall of the closet.  I was not certain what exactly had happened in that closet, but a lot of biological material was dispersed (or it may have been a false positive on cleaning solutions), and it was probably better that I not know as I had to stay in that room for three more weeks.  I never worked up the nerve to ask the owner if there was something I should know about my room.  I simply avoided the closet for the remainder of my stay. 

    As archaeologists, we know the past is all around us.  More so in some rooms than in others.

    Author Bio: 

    Chris Espenshade is a Senior Technical Advisor with New South Associates and has more than 37 years of experience in CRM. In 2019, he began creative writing and landed a side gig as an outdoors columnist for a weekly paper. For a more epic tale, please see

  • 2 Jul 2021 4:11 PM | Dina Rivera (Administrator)

    American Grave Digger

    By Cathy Jo Beecher

    I’m standing in brown rubber Xtratufs, ankle-deep in a soggy rice paddy. A rickety Soviet military helicopter set me down among verdant limestone karsts somewhere north of Luang Prabang. I’m miles of Mekong beyond where most Westerners venture. Shovels and buckets in hand, the Lao call me Lady Sikhav - White Lady. Reverently or irreverently, I wouldn't know. Maybe it’s just pragmatic. Suke, my interpreter, sticks to swapping Lao for English not context for meaning.

    James is buried out here. He told me in a dream, wearing his green tattered flight suit and Vietnam War-era flat top. The Pathet Lao took him from the wreckage but it’s murky after that. My informant is an ancient man in threadbare shirtsleeves pinned for limbs lost to landmines. He knows where James is, but this soothsayer is coy. Local officials who arrange our meetings like Americans; like our capitalist dollars in their communist pockets. My informant is precariously directed to provide just enough information to keep us digging. Hoping Americans keep promises to their dead; hoping we keep coming back. We all know it’s macabre bartering, but we move the dirt anyway.

    The Lao squat just above the mud, wearing bamboo hats and nibbling scraps of fish and rice. Meanwhile, I sit in an $80 REI camp chair munching an $8 chalky protein bar. These Lao trek a few miles from a nearby village to work. They earn a few dollars a day; the most they’ll make all year. They march from corrugated metal shanties wearing cheap rubber flip flops — the kind that rub wrong and break.

    Margaret doesn’t want us here. She ardently believes James is 80-something, alive and well. We all tell ourselves better versions of history to keep the wounds of grief zipped up. Then again maybe she’s right. Governments lie and he’s living under a thatched roof speaking fluent Lao with his other wife of 50 years. You must love someone unconditionally to prefer that scenario.

    I’m 120 cubic meters into this monsoon-season excavation: one morphine vial gone thick and brown; a weathered wooden cow pelvis; countless buckets of rusted bomb fragments; and so much plastic. If James is here, he’s buried under a meter of garbage. Suke teaches me to listen for the rain. The cicadas’ hum silences as the humidity thickens. This rain is otherworldly. Big, fat, drops pound with a sense of urgency, like the saffron-robed monks on temple drums. Cymatic vibrations reverberating in my chest as the open pits we dig become brown turbid pools. I don’t know what’s so unsettling out here, but the insides of my waterproof boots are soaked.

    James’ grave remains surreptitiously out of reach on our last day. We bombed them for nine years, and the tiny Lao woman we call “Grandma” lifted buckets of heavy mud all summer, searching for the bomber. With leathery hands and wet eyelash shimmers, she hugs me goodbye. Maybe it’s the unfettered irony of it all, but how could I not weep too?

    Author Bio: 

    Cathy Jo is an anthropologist, writer, and RPA member (#17252) living in Montana. She received her Master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Montana in 2015, and  worked as an archaeologist for the University of Montana’s Center for Integrated Research on the Environment. She’s also served as a civilian anthropologist for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and occasionally teaches as an adjunct instructor. Connect with her at

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