Student Blog Post #8: Alejandra Alvarez Jimenez

Alejandra, who hails from Colombia, is heading into her second year in the Master’s of Industrial Archaeology program at Michigan Tech.

Hello readers, I am Alejandra Alvarez Jimenez, I am from Colombia and I am really excited to tell you about my experience in the Upper Peninsula. I am an anthropologist in the Industrial Archaeology Master’s Program at Michigan Tech. This is my second year and I can tell you that this year I have had many surprises, especially during the Field School. When I left Colombia my idea about this place was totally different. I never imagined that this place was such an interesting town in which people from different places constructed their lives and influenced the landscape and the customs of the region. During this summer I am enrolled in the Field School and when I knew that I would work at the Cliff Mine many questions came to mind. I never worked at a mine before, because that is not common in my country, and hence, I did not know what kind of questions or methodologies the archaeologists might use in this place. However, I was happy because I thought: “Working in Colombia is really hard because of the weather and the complexity of each archaeological place, probably digging here will be easy.” As the days have passed by I have recognized that it is more complicated than I thought.

One question that I asked myself before starting the field school was which is the best place to excavate and how will we choose the perfect area? To answer those questions our professors consulted with us and we discussed the pros and cons of various strategies for recovering data. In choosing locations to dig we consulted various documents, maps, or oral history accounts in order to select the most promising sites.  In Clifton we used a stratified random sampling methodology which consists of selecting an area for testing in the town site, laying a grid across the area (usually at 5 meter intervals), and then randomly choosing a subset of the possible testing locations where lines on the grid cross to conduct small excavations we call shovel tests (STPs) – small 30cm diameter holes excavated down to a culturally sterile level. This strategy insures that our sample will be statistically representative of the larger gridded area. This rigorous methodology is important in archaeological fieldwork as a way of collecting an initial sample of the types of artifacts and soil levels at a site, especially in areas that are being tested archaeologically for the first time.

Once the fieldwork begins, we usually do not have much time to rest because there are many interesting things to learn and discover, and we really need to focus on our job. In the short time we time we have spent in the field we have learned many lessons as archaeologists and I want to share some of them with you. The first one is to be determined and resourceful. At some sites archaeologists have to work under complex environmental conditions. In Cliff Mine we work every day under challenging climatic conditions (some days it rains when it should not rain or there is more sunshine than expected) or deal with bugs (attacking in droves) and ticks all over your body (even in unexpected places!). We dig close to areas where there are streams and in some instances our excavations were flooded.  For that reason we need to be resourceful using whatever materials are at hand, such as a soda bottle or a Greek yoghurt container to bail water.

One of the many many Shovel Test Pit forms Alejandra had to fill out this field season. At least I think it is. I wasn’t aware we were using colored pencils this year.

When we come back home every afternoon we have to organize our tools, whether we are tired or not (usually we are tired). For that reason my second lesson is… be patient and persistent. I think that’s one of the greatest virtues that an archaeologist can have (my fellow field school student Travis is an example of patience, because despite the fact that working hours seem to be eternal he always maintains his positive attitude, hoping to find interesting artifacts). After hours of digging and digging…. finally we may find a number of surprising artifacts that bring cheer, not because of their size (probably the opposite) but because they are so meaningful. Tiny pieces of pottery or multiple pieces of glass are often reason enough to go home feeling very happy. Lee Sweitz and Timothy Scarlett always remind us to be gentle and careful with the material found, and despite the fragmentary nature of the artifact, to remember that all artifacts are considered important and worthy of attention and care.

Finally, the third lesson that I learnt in the field school is …that to be an archaeologist is not only a profession, it is a passion. Despite the difficulties or adverse situations, we have enjoyed each day in Cliff Mine.  Not only because it was an important early mine and a leader in the technological development of the mining sector on the peninsula, but also because as a historical site it is of great importance for the contemporary people of the region; especially for the many families who visit us every summer asking about their ancestors or wanting to have an image or a memory of how the miner’s families lived. At the end of each day we are satisfied that if we do not have answers for all the questions, we will continue to strive to find them and that is our challenge every day. In our daily work we learn to be accountable to the team with which we work and build new friendships (we equally enjoyed Roger’s jokes, the silence of David, Emma and Tracy with their extensive journals, Travis, Trevor and Brit with their energy, Carol and her smile, Jeff and his straw hat, and the eternal patience of our teachers, Tim, Sam, Sean and Lee)

We are learning many different things this summer and I invite you to come to visit us and discover more about our jobs as archaeologists. Now I can say that Cliff Mine is not only a copper mine, but also a mine of surprises that you can enjoy with us. Please come to see how we learn, and come and ask questions. I cannot promise that we will have all the answers, but we are working on unearthing them.

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About Sean Gohman

Currently a PhD Degree seeking student in the Michigan Tech University's Industrial Heritage and Archaeology program.

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