Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

“Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. More than 3.5 million skin cancers in over two million people are diagnosed annually.”


“One person dies of melanoma every hour (every 57 minutes).”

The facts about skin cancer are scary.  But the scariest part for archaeologists is that SUN IS THE PRIMARY CAUSE OF SKIN CANCER.

“About 86 percent of melanomas can be attributed to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.”


“About 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.”

The average archaeologist spends about eight hours out in the sun on any given day of fieldwork.  That’s 40 hours a week, which totals to up to 720 hours a season, and potentially 28,800 hours in the sun over a 40 year career.

Pics071310 099a

Here’s the good news:  Skin cancer is relatively easy to cure if you find it, diagnose it, and begin treatments early.

“Proper performance of self skin-examinations may reduce the chances of dying of this potentially deadly disease by as much as 63 percent”.

So, make sure you perform monthly skin self-examinations.  The Skin Cancer Foundation provides a step-by-step guide to conducting a thorough self-examination.  Doctors recommend using a Body Map to keep track of any changes.

There’s no shame in asking someone to help you do your exam either.  Your loved ones will prefer a little awkwardness now compared to the consequences of skin cancer later.  If you still feel embarrassed, you can ask someone to just check your back and scalp, which are some of the harder places to examine by yourself.  Make sure your ears get checked too because we often forget to apply sunscreen there!

WebMD provides the ABCDE’s of what to look for in your moles:

  • ASYMMETRY:  One half of the mole does not match the other half
  • BORDER:  The border or edges of the mole are ragged, blurred, or irregular
  • COLOR:  The mole has different colors or it has shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red
  • DIAMETER:  The diameter of the mole is larger than the eraser of a pencil
  • EVOLVING:  The mole appears different from others and/or changing in size, color, shape


However, moles aren’t the only thing you need to be checking on your skin!

Actinic keratosis is the most common type of precancerous skin growth and typically appears scaly, rough like sandpaper, or crusty, much more like a wart than a mole.  Actinic keratosis typically appears on areas that are most frequently exposed to the sun.

Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most frequent type of skin cancer.  It usually looks like an open sore that refuses to heal, an irritated patch of skin, a shiny bump similar to a mole, or a scar.

The bottom line:  see your doctor right away if you have any concerns about your skin.  Better to be safe than sorry!

Dehydration—A Silent Killer

Humans lose an average of 4 to 6 pints (2 to 3 liters) of fluids every day; even in a cool resting position, you will lose about 2 pints (1 liter) of water.

Although anyone can become dehydrated from losing fluids, one group with a greater risk of dehydration according to the Mayo Clinic is:  “People working or exercising outside in hot, humid weather.  When it’s hot and humid, your risk of dehydration and heat illness increases.  That’s because when the air is humid, sweat can’t evaporate and cool you as quickly as it normally does, and this can lead to an increased body temperature and the need for more fluids.”

Most archaeologists probably suffer from some level of dehydration during fieldwork.  When I worked in Illinois, for instance, I didn’t have to urinate at the dig site (where we worked in the sun for 9 hours a day) for the entirety of the first four weeks of the season.  It wasn’t until one Sunday (my day off!) when I was so dizzy and weak that I couldn’t stand up after a particularly hot week in the field at Fort Michilimackinac that I realized how serious dehydration could get.

WebMD has the scoop on the symptoms you need to watch out for:

  • Increased thirst
  • Dry mouth and swollen tongue
  • Dizziness
  • Palpitations (feeling that the heart is jumping or pounding)
  • Sluggishness
  • Fainting

Seek medical care right away if the symptoms develop into the following:

  • Increased or constant vomiting for more than a day
  • Fever over 101°F
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased urine production
  • Weakness

Get to the Hospital Emergency Room immediately if the symptoms progress even further:

  • Fever higher than 103°F
  • Sluggishness (lethargy)
  • Headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest or abdominal pains
  • No urine in the last 12 hours

Not surprisingly, the best cure for dehydration is water.  It’s vitally important that the water be consumed frequently in small amounts rather than in a large amount all at once!  Beyond water, other home solutions for dehydration include:  (1) bland foods like soda crackers, bananas, and flavored gelatins; (2) watery fruits and vegetables like cantaloupe and strawberries; (3) salty foods like pretzels and salted nuts; (4) sports drinks; and (5) ice cubes and popsicles.

John Wiseman, who served in the British Special Air Service for 26 years, provides seven ways to minimize fluid loss in an emergency situation:

  1. “Avoid exertion.  Just rest.”
  2. “Don’t smoke.”
  3. “Keep cool.  Stay in shade.  If there is none erect a cover to provide it.”
  4. “Do not lie on hot ground or heated surfaces.”
  5. “Don’t eat, or eat as little as possible.  If there is no water available fluid will be taken from the vital organs to digest food, further increasing dehydration.  Fat is hardest to digest and takes a lot of fluid to break it down.”
  6. “Never drink alcohol.  This also takes fluid from vital organs to break it down.”
  7. “Don’t talk—and breathe through the nose, not the mouth.”

But remember, always consult your own health care professional for your individual health questions and concerns!

It Really Is Worth the Wait

Doing archaeological fieldwork, you never know exactly what you’re going to find, where you’re going to find it, or how long it’s going to take to excavate it.

All archaeologists dig in levels, although your particular site determines the depth of your level.  At Fort Michilimackinac, we dig in five foot by five foot squares, digging down in tenth-of-a-foot levels.

Every archaeologist also knows that if an artifact is peeking out at the bottom of a level, you shouldn’t pull it out before you can get your trowel all the way underneath it.  Hilary’s square this past summer was notorious for artifacts occupying multiple levels.


There’s two reasons we don’t yank artifacts out of the ground, much to the chagrin of most of our visitors.  First, we really have no way to know how large the artifact is.  Sometimes we can estimate size based on what we think the artifact is, but we don’t know how much of it is left and how far it continues into the ground.  By pulling it out prematurely, we have a very good chance of breaking the artifact.  Additionally, we would disturb all of the soil and other artifacts around it, thereby losing the artifact’s context.

Theoretically, this makes sense.  But what about when you’ve actually just happened upon something amazing that won’t emerge until at least the next level?

In early July 2012, I was excavating around some original eighteenth-century wall posts in the fur trader’s house we are excavating at Fort Michilimackinac when I discovered an inch-long strip of iron peeking about an eighth of an inch out of the soil; it looked like a nail, which we find a lot of at the fort.  It wasn’t a big deal.

Actually, it was.  At the bottom of the level, a quarter inch of the iron was peeking out, with bone on either side of it.  My eyes widened as I realized what it was.  I had no way to confirm my suspicions, but I just knew how amazing it was.

Alas, I had to excavate a level in my other square, and then I had to teach a group of students to excavate a level in another square.  It was three full weeks before I even returned to the square with my secret treasure.  Everyone wanted me to start in the area where the special artifact was located, but I decided to instead excavate the rest of the square first.  On the fateful day of excavation, my suspicions were confirmed and everyone “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” over my artifact.

It ultimately took an entire month until the completely intact pocketknife emerged from the earth – antler handle carefully carved in the New World, with iron blade imported all the way from Europe tucked neatly inside – as if it had simply fallen out of someone’s pocket in between the wall posts.  It had waited for me for over 250 years.

The best things in life are worth the wait.


Burgers and Beers for 30 Years!

Although Crunchy’s was a mere “Other Worthy Contender” in MLive’s Michigan’s Best Burger search, they’re right about one thing:  “The MSU contingency swears by this institution.”  I concur – Crunchy’s is definitely my favorite burger in East Lansing.

Like most great burgers, a meal at Crunchy’s is about the whole experience.


It takes most people a little while to figure out how to get into the building their first time.  You park out back and have to enter through the alley.  You can spot a regular by their confident stride into the dingy alley.


When you enter Crunchy’s, the lights are dim, but you’ll immediately notice graffiti everywhere.  Carved or scrawled onto the walls and booths, it provides a testament in a transient college town to those who have gone before us.



The Famous Crunchy Burger is known around town – half a pound of chargrilled meat covered in American cheese.  Weekdays from 11 am to 4:30 pm, the Burger Special will get you a Crunchy Burger, French fries, and a pop for a mere $5.49.  It’s easy on the tummy and the budget!


As tempting as the Burger Special is, my heart belongs to the Salmon Burger – a perfectly round patty of grilled salmon, covered with a slice of American cheese and paired with a Dijon horseradish sauce – although it’ll never measure up to Grandma’s Good Friday salmon patties.  I always dip my finger into the Dijon horseradish sauce to test it out before pouring too much over the cheesy side of my salmon.  A heaping serving of French’s yellow mustard graces the underside of the salmon.  The lettuce, tomato, and pickle garnishing the burger are removed and eaten separately, not to tarnish the delicate mix of flavors, and the onions are simply disposed of as quickly as possible.


I always get my Salmon Burger on a pretzel bun, and every once in a while, I’ll add one of Crunchy’s nine Signature Toppings.  My favorite options for the Salmon Burger are the Bacon & Cheese (bacon, cheddar cheese), the Olive (black or green olives, American cheese), and the Western (bacon, Crunchy’s Stout BBQ sauce, mozzarella cheese).  The burger comes with a bag of Better Made Original Potato Chips.  Usually I substitute tater tots for the chips, but with Thanksgiving dinner the next day, I didn’t want to spoil my appetite.  The Dijon horseradish sauce that comes with the Salmon Burger doubles as a zesty dipping sauce for the tater tots!


The only downside to Crunchy’s is the lack of parking onsite, which means you have to park at a meter and have enough quarters on you to pay for an hour of parking.  Or, you park on campus and walk four miles to Crunchy’s, which is typically my solution when the weather permits!


Every Archaeologist’s Pocket Needs This

I’m sure every archaeologist would have a different answer if asked what they could absolutely not go into the field without.

My fieldwork essential is very small and lightweight.  Just 2.5 inches long and weighing in at 1.8 ounces, it is made of heat-treated, high carbon 420 stainless steel.


My Leatherman micra was a gift from my Dad when I started doing archaeology.  With 10 tools in 1 tiny package, the Leatherman micra can’t be beat in the field.


(1) Knife – crafted from corrosion-resistant, high-carbon stainless steel, the knife is super sharp.  It is very useful, for example, in cutting rolls of plastic to reinforce your sandbag berm protecting your site.


(5) Nail cleaner AND (8) Nail file – Let’s get real:  every archaeologist needs these in the field!  Nails break on a semi-daily basis, and there is always, always, always dirt underneath our fingernails.  It’s just the nature of the job, and most of us conveniently forget our manicure kits at home.

(9) Medium screwdriver – Do you use a laser level at your site to take your depth measurements?  If you do, then this screwdriver comes in handy every time you have to change those pesky batteries – both on the laser unit and especially on the remote!

(4) Ruler (4.7 inches/12 centimeters) – This precise measuring guide is a perfect scale for photographing artifacts in the field.  You can use a fancy scale once you get back to the photo lab.


(2) Spring-action Scissors – The scissors are best for cutting light materials.  I typically use them for cutting the string when I am stringing out my squares, for cutting flagging tape to tie around marker posts, or for cutting electrical tape to mark intervals on a geophysical guide rope.

(6) Tweezers – They are perfect for removing slivers in the field, which seem to happen far more frequently than we’d prefer.  They’re also useful for picking up tiny artifacts from your window screen!


(10) Extra-small screwdriver – Designed for extra-small screws, such as eyeglass screws, this is one of the less-frequently used tools on my Leatherman.  However, it’s a lifesaver when the screw on my sunglasses comes loose, saving me from the ocular hazards of eight hours in the blazing sunlight!

(7) Bottle opener – We all know that archaeologists need our beer.  With your Leatherman micra, you’ll never be caught without a bottle opener for those caps that don’t twist off, saving yourself time and energy!

(3) Flat/Phillips Screwdriver

Not only does the key ring attachment make it easy to keep your Leatherman micra handy, but in a pinch, a string can be tied to the split ring loop to create a make-shift plumb bob!

Perhaps the most important function of the Leatherman micra in the field is at 3:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays when the scissors are responsible for the success of my crew’s “popsicle break.”

It’s All in the Wrists

Archaeologists depend on our wrists, among many of our other body parts, every day at our jobs.  Unfortunately, our wrists are one of our joints that is highly in danger of suffering a repetitive strain injury.  In general, repetitive strain injuries are some of the most common occupational injuries in the United States today.

Hand and wrist injuries may be affected by handedness—a four-month study of almost 2,500 wrist injuries in Northern Ireland indicated that right-handed people injured their right wrists 55% of the time, and left-handed people injured their left wrists 58% of the time.

The danger to our wrists depends on the type of work we are doing and the type of soil in which we are working.  My wrists are in a lot less danger when I’m excavating sand in tenth-of-a-foot levels at Fort Michilimackinac than they were when I was excavating hard-packed clay in central Illinois, where I experienced wrist pain.

David Procyshyn teaches an excellent “5-Minute Stretching Routine for the Wrists.”  I would recommend this stretching routine before and after every workday in the field; it takes only five minutes to care for a part of the body that is so vital to our occupation (passion!).  You could even do the routine together as a crew to build camaraderie!

Making a tight fist and then slowly and conscientiously rotating your wrists nine times clockwise and then nine times counterclockwise will help strengthen them as well.  Standing side stretches are also great for the wrists, as well as the sides.


If you practice yoga regularly on your own, there are poses that are great for strengthening your wrists.  Each should be held for five full breaths once you are into the final posture (which might take several preparatory poses to achieve!).  Of course, if at any time you feel pain, you should stop!

If you practice yoga at a Beginner Level, Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward-Facing Dog, is a great wrist-strengthening pose that everyone can start with.  This is a staple in any yoga practice, so you may have been strengthening your wrists already without even realizing it!


If you practice yoga at an Intermediate level, you can try Purvottanasana, or Upward Plank Pose.  I love the effect this pose has on my wrists, but I find it can be hard on my knees, so proceed with caution!


You might also want to try Vasisthasana, or Side Plank Pose.  Some days, I can do different variations of this pose with ease, but other days, my wrists aren’t yet strong enough to maintain the pose.


If you practice yoga at an Advanced level, you might want to try Eka Pada Koundinyanasana II, or Pose Dedicated to the Sage Koundinya II.  This pose is still beyond my skill level.


But remember, always consult your own health care professional for your individual health questions and concerns!

Four Drinks to Keep You Hydrated after a Hard Day in the Sun

Archaeologists like to drink.  Reflecting on our first date, Andy once told me, “Oh, I was really awed when I saw you chugging that handle of Captain [Morgan Original Spiced Rum].  I definitely wasn’t expecting it out of you.  It was impressive, most impressive.”


Scott R. Hutson questions the relationship between archaeologists and their alcohol and begins to examine the “alcoholic grit” that forms a key component of the archaeologist’s identity.

I, however, am not here to question our way of life.  After all, most archaeologists, at one point or another, have used their credit card receipts to retrace their whereabouts for an evening with colleagues!

My goal today is to suggest four multi-purpose drinks that will satisfy your craving for alcohol at the end of a hard fieldwork day but also help to keep you hydrated and healthy!

1.  Malibu Coconut Rum and Pineapple Juice.

This is hands-down my number one choice in and out of the field.  Delightfully simple and delicious, the Malibu Pineapple is an archaeological fieldwork wonder drug.  Highly-hydrating pineapple juice contains potassium, one of the electrolytes lost while sweating during fieldwork; Vitamin C, which helps to prevent scurvy from poor fieldwork diets; and bromelain, which reduces inflammation and helps bruises heal faster—two common fieldwork ailments.


2.  Gin and Tonic.

My PhD advisor swears by Gin and Tonics; we made them almost daily during fieldwork in Illinois.  You need gin, tonic water, and lime juice, plus a lime wedge if you are fancy and tonic water ice cubes if you are going all-out.  Tonic water contains quinine, which fights malaria but has side effects that can lead to internal and external bleeding, as well as permanent kidney damage, if consumed in significant quantities.

download (1)

3.  Vodka and Cranberry Juice.

I usually keep it simple and pour equal parts vodka and cranberry juice, but most recipes call for slightly more juice than alcohol.  A good Vodka Cranberry will be finished with a splash of lime juice and a splash of orange juice.  If you want to get a little wild, add a splash of grapefruit juice!  You have to use real cranberry juice to get the benefits:  prevention of urinary tract infections and kidney stones and reduction of dental plaque.


4.  Mint Julep.

The Mint Julep is the most complicated of these cocktails to prepare; it requires four basic ingredients:  Bourbon, mint leaves, water, and sugar.  The Food Network has an awesome recipe for “The Perfect Mint Julep”.  The mint julep traditionally uses spearmint leaves, which can help to relieve fatigue because they contain chemical compounds like menthol, carvone, and limonene.  Spearmint can also help replace the minerals lost while sweating during the workday, such as calcium, manganese, and magnesium.  It is a particularly good source of Vitamin A, potassium, copper, and iron.


Please drink responsibly.

You Only Get One Chance

“It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”  ~Grace Hopper


We live in a culture of mistakes.  We are expected to make them.  We demand to be forgiven for them.


We don’t think about consequences.  After all, we are invincible.


But every once in a while, you make a decision so significant that you realize the true power you hold both to preserve and to destroy.

I met my friend “Steve,” for instance, when I was 16 and he was 19.  We didn’t grow close until a year later, but by the time I was 18, we were involved in a clandestine relationship, full of handwritten love poems, secret rendezvous, and dreams for the future together, regardless of our current significant others.  It was magical—until I moved away to go to college, and he stayed home to work at a gas station.  We drifted further apart.  I got into archaeology; Steve got diagnosed with ALS.  Then I met the man I thought I would spend the rest of my life with; Steve got sicker.  We still talked occasionally, and Steve said that all he wanted was to be with me until he died.  I couldn’t bring myself to be there for him, and now it’s far too late to undo the damage that has been done.


Some mistakes can be fixed; others are permanent.  You only get once chance, so you might as well do it right the first time.

At Fort Michilimackinac, each archaeologist spends four days a week, for eleven weeks, with a mason’s trowel sometimes as tiny as an inch long, excavating and screening maybe only twelve to fifteen cubic feet of dirt for the entire summer under the watchful eye of visitors of all ages.  People love to comment, “Why do you work so slow?  That would kill me!”

As archaeologists, we’re trained to know the importance of context; what you find is only meaningful as long as you can understand the relationships between elements of a site.  It’s important to record as many details about those relationships as possible.

We make a map of every level, which might mean every two to three inches or every half an inch.  It might mean drawing the locations of different types of soil, or it might mean piece-plotting every single artifact in three dimensions.  And we take copious notes.


Our notes, our maps, and our photographs of the excavation process are all we have to recreate the site in the lab once we’ve finished our excavation.  The precision and accuracy of both our excavation and recording methods will determine what information is recovered and what is lost forever.  What we find and miss has the potential to change our understanding of history.

As we dig up the site, we’re destroying it.  We only get one chance to do it, so we want to get it right the first time around.

Local Dive is a Pleasant Surprise


I’ve only been to Jackson, Michigan, a few times, and never for a burger, but I thought I would see what all the hype was about in the burger rivalry between the West Point Lounge on Spring Arbor Road and Schlenker’s Sandwich Shop on Ganson Street.

At first sight, the West Point Lounge looks like your typical small-town, hole-in-the-wall – a local favorite that’s not trying to pretend to be anything more.  The absence of windows feels like a tribute to the bars of our parents’ twenties.  When you walk in, the scent of stale cigarettes hits you like you’re at a bar four years ago before Michigan banned smoking in public establishments.  The neatest feature inside is a fish tank above the bar itself, running the length of the bar.


The Monday special is two Coney dogs for $1.75, which is an awesome deal.  Although I was tempted, I couldn’t be swayed from my mission.  I was there for a burger.

I decided to be adventurous and try the Chili Swiss Cheese Burger – topped with chili, Swiss cheese, and onions (I ordered mine without the onions, of course!).  Labeled the “Craig Playford Special” after the high school football coach, the menu cautions that you’ll definitely need a knife and fork to tackle this burger.  I opted for the basket, which comes with fries and either coleslaw or cottage cheese, and since it was my first meal of the day, I upgraded my fries to cheese sticks to satisfy my rumbling tummy.


Andy opted for the less unusual Bacon Extra Burger, which is topped with a large serving of bacon and your choice of two cheeses.  Unfortunately, although Andy asked for Pepperjack and Cheddar, the Cheddar seemed to have gotten lost somewhere between his order and the plate’s arrival.


My burger was delightfully messy, chili spilling over the sides of the burger onto the plate.  The chili added a sweet little kick to the burger, which I opted to eat open-faced style.  It’s not the prettiest sight, but there’s more to a burger than its outward appearance, right?


I sliced my open-faced burger like a pizza pie, into eight wedges.  By this point, most of the chili was surrounding the bottom bun on the plate.  I had ordered the burger well-done because I don’t like to see any pink in my meat, and it was quite well-done.  Weighing in at a quarter of a pound, the Chili Swiss Cheese Burger was enough to make me 80% full, which was a nice change from typically massive servings.


Overall, I’m glad we stopped by the West Point Lounge for lunch, but I don’t think I’ll be making another special trip down there in the near future.  I look forward to seeing how Schlenker’s Sandwich Shop stacks up against the competition!

The Best Vehicle for Archaeological Fieldwork

Some have called it “futuristic” in design; others think it’s “ugly.”  Personally, I think if you tilt your head and look at it just right, it looks like an alligator’s head.

But beauty is only skin deep.


Underneath its controversial exterior, the Pontiac Aztek – “Quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet” – is amazingly suited for archaeological fieldwork, and I’m not the only person who loves this car.

The Anti-lock Braking System:  4-Wheel ABS is vital for traversing over sand – and making those quick stops when another vehicle happens to round a blind corner at the same moment you do.


The Moon Roof is perfect for snuggling up to look at the stars on a chilly field night.

The Ground Clearance is 7.20 inches, which doesn’t seem like a lot but is high enough to wade through a flooded campsite that completely demobilizes any vehicle that’s not a truck.

Pics071310 022

The Aztek has great passenger volume (105.10 cubic feet); five people will fit comfortably with seat belts!  And it has awesome cargo volume (45.40 cubic feet)!  The Aztek will fit an incredible amount of luggage, which is important if you are stuck hauling the field gear plus your own equipment to and from the field.  If you’re responsible for a trailer full of equipment, plus artifacts and your own gear, the Aztek has you covered with 2000 pounds of standard towing capacity!


Pics071310 235 a

The rear hatch lifts up and the gate pulls down to reveal two seats and two cupholders.  These pair nicely with the mini-cooler that serves as the center console up front – perfect for storing your emergency drinks and snacks!


It’s perfectly designed for watching a fireworks show at the end of the work week.  Or opting to just snuggle up inside the cargo area for a drive-in movie double feature!


To top it all off, the Aztek has an 18-gallon fuel tank, with a City fuel economy of 18 miles/gallon and a Highway fuel economy of 24 miles/gallon.

Plus, the Aztek came with the option of a camping package add-on with an attachable tent and an inflatable mattress, which turns your car into a camper!  I never added the camping package, but I imagine it would be awesome for fieldwork, especially long survey projects.  Your tent travels with you along the survey route!

Finally, the icing on the cake is that the car’s name is loosely inspired by the 15th-century and early 16th-century Aztec empire, centered in Tenochtitlan in Mesoamerica.


My faithful Aztek accompanied me on four exciting seasons of archaeological fieldwork, proving its worth over 44 weeks of harsh sun, wind, rain, and lots and lots of dirt.  Unfortunately, Pontiac stopped making them in 2005, so make sure you get one before Azteks go the way of the Aztec empire!