Picking up the rental car–more exciting than you might expect

I was scheduled to pick up a rental car on Thursday.  My brother drove us to Enterprise (who had the cheapest long-term 4WD rates around) to get the car.  Seems like a simple thing….but not so much.

First, we were heading up Middle Line (or Middleline, depending on which sign you want to agree with on the subject of spelling), just getting ready to turn right onto Geyser Road to head to Saratoga.  My brother had stopped at the stop sign, and a fellow in a pick-up who had the right-of-way started through the intersection.  Some dude heading south on Middle Line blew through the stop sign and T-boned him, sending him spinning towards us.  He wound up doing a 450+, parts flying everywhere, but didn’t actually hit us.  So we pulled over (on top of one of the truck’s running boards, as it turns out), made sure everyone was alive & not bleeding and called 911.  I actually pulled my phone out to call and answered an incoming call from my hairdresser, who I promptly hung up on.


My brother's Ford with the front tire on the Toyota's running board.
A bit later, with fire police directing traffic. Stuff from the Toyota flew all the way into the snow to the right of the tan Ford!

The fellow in the pickup was fine, having luckily noticed the other guy at the last second, and floored it, so he got hit more on the bed than right on his door.  The other guy was limping, although he kept saying it was a soccer injury.  He was pretty shaken up, convinced his airbag hadn’t gone off (which it had), and generally freaked out.  We had a bit of trouble getting him to sit down and stay put until EMS arrived.


His car was pretty messed up.  The windshield was impacted pretty hard on the passenger side, which was odd given that he didn’t have a passenger or any head cuts and was holding his chest like he’d hit the airbag & wheel.  Apparently, the starring was from the unrestrained GPS in the front passenger seat. There’s a lesson in that for all you kids out there…


Unfortunate result of using an electronic device while driving...

After the sheriff had statements, we were back on our way to the Enterprise in Saratoga.  We arrived to find cars in the lot, but fortunately my brother didn’t leave, because there was also a small sign on the door saying they had relocated the previous day, a fact which the woman who took my reservation on Monday had neglected to mention!


We drove halfway back to Ballston, and located the new offices in a closed car dealership.  They were getting the wiring for the alarm system installed on the door, so that every time anyone went in or out the tech had to get down and move his ladder.  And one goes in and out a lot when renting from Enterprise…

So we got the Sorrento or equivalent I rented (AWD is a good thing in winter with my mom’s long twisty hilly drive) and set off.  Almost immediately a low tire pressure light came on, so we went back.  They didn’t have air yet, so we caravaned to a nearby Stewart’s Ice Cream, where they did have an air pump.  The Enterprise guy said it was just low because it had gotten colder (which it pretty much hadn’t for the several days before and anyway, we were talking 18F, not -30F) but said he’d give us another car if the pressure was more than a couple of pounds under.  It was six under on the first tire, and we did not need to mess with tires, so we said we’d take something else, please.  He said all they had available was a Suburban, obviously hoping we’d say it was too big to drive.  Since we’ve had, and really liked, 2 of them, that wasn’t a problem, and off we went, to his chagrin :-).  So far, so good, although it appears to be about due for an oil change.

All in all , it took about 4 hours!


Just another day at the office…

…except that I got back to Barrow to discover that all keys for a crucial filing cabinet have disappeared.  I managed to find a place that sells replacements, call them and get them to agree to Express Mail them rather than FedEx them (it’s faster and cheaper to Barrow).

I also had to touch base with folks about yet another ice road route for the work on the Barrow Gas Fields upgrades, so it looks like I will be going flying again.

Then I had to do a quick fact check on an abstract for a poster on the Nuvuk burials for the physical anthropology meetings that I am a co-author on.  Nice to see that others are as last-minute with their abstract submissions as I can be!

Besides that, there was the usual Monday time-sheet approving, with a call to the Payroll folks because they still haven’t gotten around to giving us proxy access to input time-sheets for people who are away and can’t do it themselves.  Well, my temp admin assistant has it because she was temping in Payroll, but she’s the one who’s out and can’t do it herself….

And all three of the sewage hauling trucks in Barrow are broken.  This matters to me because I live at NARL and we do not have piped water and sewage.  The water comes to the house in a truck, which pumps it into a tank.  Then we use water, and the sewage goes into a holding tank.  Another truck comes and takes it away to the sewage treatment plant.  That truck is broken.  We’re lucky in that our kitchen gray water doesn’t go into the holding tank.  We don’t actually know where it goes (under the house?  into the NARL gravel pad?  into the NARL sewage lagoon?) so we can still wash dishes & hands with no problems.  No showers, though, so we can try to postpone the honey bucket use until a truck  gets fixed.  Crossing my fingers.

Back Home Again–Finally

The conference wound up on Saturday with a really interesting circumpolar archaeozoology session, organized by Max Friesen of the University of Toronto.  I’ll do another post about the papers; this one is about coming home.  A bunch of us went out to dinner at a restaurant on a little square up Rue Lacépéde from Rue Monge.

The next day I started home.  My flight was late in the day, so I had a while to hang around Charles De Gaulle (the airport), which resulted in spending money at the duty-free shops on chocolates (for Glenn) and perfume (for me).  The Air France flight had really good food, and was even a bit early into JFK.  Passport control and US customs were the usual slow lines winding around like snakes, but eventually I made my way (by train) to the place where the hotel shuttles stop and got to the room.  A few glitches with the card keys (apparently their machine is on its last legs and only one of 3 worked) and I was able to sleep.

I had to get up quite early Monday, which wasn’t such a chore since I was still on Paris time, since my flight was at 7AM.  While checking in, I discovered that what had appeared as a JFK-ANC flight actually stopped in Salt Lake City.  And that’s where the trouble started.

We arrived in a perfectly good plane, a bit early, and were told that we were going to change planes.  They re-boarded us an hour or so later on the new plane, closed the doors, and discovered that an engine light was on.  They replaced a part, took the jet-way away, tested the engine, put the jet-way back, did something else, took the jet-way away, tested the engine, put the jet-way back, went looking for some other parts, found them, started replacing them, decided that they should deplane us because one of the parts was hard to get at and it would take a while  (they didn’t know that until they started doing the work?  what kind of mechanics are these?),  but we could leave larger luggage on board to speed re-boarding.  They handed us $6 meal vouchers and told us not to leave the boarding area (where there was only one place to get food for 100+ people).  Several hours later, it was clear that I would not be making my connection in ANC to go to Barrow.

When I went up to get re-booked, they were not able to find me a seat from ANC to Barrow until Wednesday.  I had them book it anyway, so I didn’t wind up having to wait even longer.  Eventually, they had us go on the plane five at a time to get the stuff we’d left there, and then sent us to another gate with another plane.  We finally made it to ANC about 4.5 hours late.  A few of us were stuck overnight, but at least the large contingent of senior citizens from the Midwest heading for a cruise ship didn’t miss their sailing.

It took them quite a while working on my ticket, and in the end they took my email and emailed me the itinerary later.  I did wind up standing around so long that when it was time for hotel vouchers, I’d checked the room availability, and was able to get them to put me in the Millennium, which has a decent restaurant and a gift shop that sells T-shirts (which I needed since I didn’t want to do laundry), instead of the Puffin Inn.  I think the problem was that they managed to book me on a Tuesday flight to Fairbanks, with a layover until the Barrow flight arrived, but hadn’t canceled the Wednesday reservation, so the prices weren’t coming out right, and the poor fellow didn’t have a calculator and was having to do all the math by hand.  They handed me more meal vouchers (which didn’t go that far in ANC in the summer) and off I went to catch the shuttle.

The flights on Tuesday went smoothly, Glenn was there to meet the plane, and my bag was one of the first out, so it was only about a 45 minute wait.  We then went over to the library where there was a BASC-sponsored talk going on, to hear the rest of the program, and pick up our daughter and an archaeologist friend, Rick Reanier, who is in Barrow getting ready to do some survey for Shell Oil down the coast.

Naturally, the first couple of days back have been a zoo.  One client has a procedure where they need to get letters estimating how much you are likely to charge them until the end of the fiscal year (September 30) so they can move money around.  The person who does that is going on vacation, so they needed this done ASAP.  So I made those letters, only to have them discover they didn’t have enough money in the projects to do that, and they didn’t have time before the woman left to move the money.  So I had to rewrite the letters to fit their budget!  I really don’t know why they don’t just do it themselves…  That took most of the last 2 days.

In between rewrites, I had a group of Secretary Salazar’s staffers (he’s in Barrow holding a public hearing) tour my lab while touring the building.  Fortunately, they were busy so the tour was brief.  Then I had a regular teleconference with clients, which I got called out of to go and photograph a very large tooth for a local man, Matu.   We think it may be a saber-tooth cat.  Photos have been forwarded to various paleontologists & mammologists, and we await the verdict.

Now we’re waiting for equipment…

Shawn made it in on Friday, but some of his digitizing equipment, which had been shipped in advance with a promise from UPS that it would be here last Tuesday or Wednesday, didn’t.  He had to start with analyses that didn’t need the equipment, and we’re hoping it gets here in time for him to use it before he travels back to Utah on Wednesday.

A quick trip to Nuvuk

Monday afternoon I got to take a quick trip to Nuvuk to check on the two tents BASC had put up for us to use doing the field season. The big one is for lunches and gear storage, and the little one is for the honey bucket (the tour van kept showing up at such awkward times…). It was a nice sunny day, not too windy.

On Point Barrow, heading toward Nuvuk
Looking northwest across Point Barrow. The horizon is white because of "ice blink" since the ice pack is still in.

We even got to see a polar bear.  It was sleepy, and just lay there snoozing.  There was a van full of tourists snapping away (just out of frame to the right).

Sleepy bear at Nuvuk.
Blown-up picture of the bear.

Living where you work has its down-side

Unlike most other Arctic archaeologists, I live where I work.  My house is less than 10 miles from the site I am currently working on, and there are other sites closer than that.  In general, that’s a good thing, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but like so much else in life, it’s not an unmixed blessing.


  • Community members can take part in all parts of the project, and can find you to ask questions whenever they want.
  • No long expensive trips to get to the field.
  • Logistics can be arranged before the field season, by talking to people you know or making local phone calls.
  • Gear doesn’t have to be shipped to and from the field, at great expense.
  • If you run out of Ziplocs during the season, you can get more at the grocery store (assuming they haven’t run out, of course.)
  • The artifacts get to the lab every night, after a short trip, and can be treated and stabilized quickly if necessary.
  • The artifacts stay in the community.
  • You get to sleep in your own comfortable bed.
  • You get to cook meals in a real kitchen and go to restaurants, instead of having to eat only things that everyone else will eat too. (Arctic archaeology is hard work, and camp cooking can’t get so far off the beaten track that some folks won’t eat it.)
  • You have access to laundry equipment.
  • You’ve got your professional library handy if something unexpected shows up.
  • You have a good computer and internet access.


  • No long expensive trips to get to the field, so people can’t understand why you can’t take a day off during the field season, or don’t want to run out at midnight to see some archaeology they just found.
  • You get to sleep in your own comfortable bed (so you stay warm and can’t eat unlimited amounts of fat and sugar and still lose weight during the field season, so you have to exercise & watch your diet the rest of the year 😦 ).
  • You get to cook meals in a real kitchen (which means you have to cook and clean up, even if you’re exhausted.)
  • You have access to laundry equipment (which means you are expected not to wear the same clothes for 6 weeks, or at least to wash them frequently if you do, so you don’t get out of doing laundry.)
  • You’ve got your professional library handy so you feel like you should be writing professional material in your spare time.
  • You have a good computer and internet access so people expect you to respond to all email just as fast as when you’re not in the field, as well as doing all the work-related tasks you do then (like approving time sheets, etc.).

As you can see, the cons are pretty much personal convenience things, and being here makes the archaeology better and makes it possible to involve local high school students in a way that would be impossible if I didn’t live here.  Aside from the time away from home and school issue (not a minor one with high-stakes testing), no funding agency would pay for a bunch of high school students (& chaperones) to spend weeks somewhere else so they could be part of the lab work.

Right now, I’m trying to get as much “housekeeping” type stuff out-of-the-way, both at work and at home, as I can before the fieldwork starts on July 5.   No way I’m going to get through the to-do before the field list.  Oh well.

I nearly forgot…

…that I had originally gotten a North Slope Borough development permit for the Nuvuk Archaeological Project that expired in September 2009.  At the time I applied, we only had funding for the 3 years, so that seemed reasonable.  We’ve been fortunate to get additional funding, which has let us do at least one extra season.

However, that means that technically we need a new permit (or at least the old one extended/renewed).  I know, it’s not development, but it is a ground-disturbing activity, and that what the NSB calls all permits.  At least they have a permit system that actually covers such things, unlike some places.

Anyway, once I noticed the oversight, I spent the rest of Friday getting all the paperwork and backup together for BASC to take over to the Planning and Permitting Department.  I think everything they need is there, and since it is a renewal, I hope  it won’t be a problem for them.  They do have an extension sort of category.

Care and feeding of the Total Station

You’ve probably seen pictures of archaeological digs with grids made of strings. Much of what we can learn from a site comes not just from what artifacts are found there, but from where particular artifacts are found in relation to each other.  The string grids are there to make it easier to record where each artifact is found (what archaeologists call “provenience”). I rarely use them.

Many years ago, my husband Glenn Sheehan (also an archaeologist) went to a talk at the Engineers’ Club in Philadelphia, where Harold Dibble & Shannon McPherron demonstrated a system to record provenience in 3 dimensions using an electronic total station (used by surveyors) connected to a palmtop computer (back then, an HP 95) to record not only the place each artifact was found, very precisely and with no transcription or data entry errors, but also some information about it. It automatically assigned an individual artifact number. There was even a little thermal printer that made tags to put in the baggie with the artifact! I left determined to get one.

We did, and took the system to places it had never been. Harold and Shannon had developed it for work on French Paleolithic sites, which tend to be very small. We wanted to use it on bigger sites. Fortunately, they kept improving the program, and it’s now really flexible. You can define what data is collected, set up menus, and use it on really huge sites.

Figuring out how to make everything work in the Arctic, where cold kills batteries and you can’t just plug into a wall socket was another adventure. A combination of generators, chargers, adaptors, and gel cell motorcycle batteries solved that problem. I got pretty good at repairing wires on adaptors, since the original stuff couldn’t take cold.  Over the years, the HP95s have been replaced with rugged laptops, and the thermal printers died. We haven’t found a good replacement for printing bag tags, but old-school marking the bags with a Sharpie works fine.

The GTS201D and all its equipment at Nuvuk.

Of course, the whole system depends on the total station. I’ve got 2, a Topcon GTS3B and a Topcon GTS201D, which is supposed to be waterproof. Total stations are surveyors’ instruments, so they are built to be moved around a lot without loosing accuracy, but they do need to be recalibrated on occasion. That time came for the 201D after last season.

Now, the only place in the state of Alaska that this can be done is in Anchorage. The 201D came in a case with really fragile fasteners, which have not held up well, and I haven’t been able to find a replacement, so we actually lash the case closed like a birthday present.   Needless to say, I wasn’t interested in shipping or mailing the total station down to get calibrated. But Laura and her husband Brian were going to Anchorage, and I was going down several weeks later. I called the shop, and they said the work could be done in the time between the trips, so they hand-carried it down and Brian dropped it off. They assured Brian the work would only take a week or so.

I went down for the Alaska Anthropological Association meetings & medical appointments a few weeks later and stopped by to get it, only to find it wasn’t done. What they had forgotten to tell Brian when he dropped it off was that one repair tech was on vacation and the other was out-of-state for two weeks of training, which had backed things up at bit. They couldn’t get it done in time for that trip. A few weeks later, I went to the Society for American Archaeology meetings in St. Louis.  Since you can’t get anywhere in the Lower 48 from Barrow without going through Anchorage, I was able to pick the total station up on the way home!  It’s now safe and sound in the lab, waiting for the fieldwork to start.

Ordering supplies from the Top of the World

The field season will soon be here. For the last couple of months, preparation has been underway.

Laura Thomas, who is the field and lab supervisor for the Nuvuk archaeological Project, has been double-checking the level of various field and lab supplies, and I’ve been ordering them. This is often a bit complicated, since some of the suppliers have never sent anything to Bush Alaska, at least since our last order, from which they don’t seem to have learned much. They either want to ship FedEx or UPS, which tend to be insanely expensive, and quite often are slower than Priority Mail, or they want to use Parcel Post, which can take several months. We try to get all the ordering done well in advance, so that even if my strong suggestions as to practical shipping methods are ignored, we will actually have what we need by the beginning of the field season.

I’m not sure what the deal is with FedEx & UPS. They make you pay way more than in the Lower 48 for Next-Day or Second Day service. It might be worth it if you actually got the service, but the packages are never closer than Anchorage by the “promised” delivery time, and may take a week more to get to Barrow and get delivered, depending on the schedule of the air freight company to which they hand them off. Of course, no refund, since Barrow (and all the rest of Bush Alaska–most of the state) is an exception area. Why they don’t make that clear to shippers beforehand one can only guess.

Anyway, pretty much everything I ordered has finally made it. We’ve got assorted archival-stable plastic zip bags for artifact storage, conservation chemicals of various kinds, Rite-in-the-rain copier paper for field forms by the ream.

Now all we have to do is get things stored and make up the field forms.